I know what it’s like to stare at a gun while it’s pointed at you. When there’s a cop behind it. When that cop is screaming at you to get out of the car, while another officer is behind the car, hitting the trunk with yet another gun.
But I only know what it’s like to be white and stare at a gun while it’s pointed at you. It’s different, because I knew (I guess, trusted) that these cops weren’t going to shoot me. I felt they were just trying to scare me, and yes, I was scared. Scared out of my mind, terrified, frozen. But I was only scared of being in some sort of serious trouble, not of dying. That probably isn’t how my friends felt. They were probably more scared of being shot. And rightfully so.
It happened in high school, during my senior year. The year before, I had left my private Catholic school across town for the public high school down the road from my house. With the move came the obvious things: about a thousand more students, and with them more violence, less attention from authority figures, more diversity, and more freedom. But it wasn’t your typical “Private Schools are Good, Public Schools are Bad” trope.
The public school I transferred to had AP and college-level classes, which my private school didn’t (these helped me get nearly a year and a half of college done during high school for the low, low price of free/taxes my parents were already paying). And I was sick of the homogenous, religious, conservative pool of students and parents at my old school. Sure, being from a largely Mormon town in the very white state of Oregon meant there were plenty of these at the public school, too, but there was plenty of everyone, so it was naturally more diverse in every way. And I liked that.
I made a new group of friends that I only now realize was unusually diverse for how Caucasian and Christian my hometown is. We collectively were white, Micronesian, Mormon, Native American, Catholic, sort of Jewish, Korean, black, gay, and adopted. It wasn’t something we talked about or discussed, obviously, because we were 17 and there were far more important things going on like choir concerts, Dance Dance Revolution, asking Michael Bublé to prom (did I mention I’m from a Mormon town?), and hanging out at Shari’s.
Shari’s, if you haven’t had the pleasure, is a Denny’s-like chain restaurant, a family-type place that’s open 24-hours with a rotating, five-tier display of well-lit pies that greets you upon entrance. It was, naturally, where the local kids hung out when the security guards started circling the school parking lot and when our parents’ homes had become inhabited by our families. We would order desserts and drink bad black coffee and talk and pretend we were older and wiser than we were. It was our Pop’s Chok’lit Shoppe, our Al’s Diner, our The Max.
One night I was there with four other friends (three of us white, two of us not). The driver realized it was almost midnight and she was about to break curfew. I remember the bill, sitting on our table, was $17. Those waitresses had to hate us, cramming into booths and ordering coffees and a plate of fries to split; we were that table that asks for “waters all-around, please!” Someone pulled out a 20 dollar bill, left it on top of the check, and we hurried out to the car.
We buckled, pulled out of the parking space, and heard a crash on the hood so loud it sounded like a boulder had slammed into it. The brakes were hit, and we all whipped around to look out the back. Before our eyes could make it there, we saw the guns pointed at our own passenger windows.
It gets really blurry after that. We were all made to get out of the car, yelled at, and asked why we didn’t pay our bill; guns were eventually put away. A waitress eventually ran out and showed the police we had indeed paid (and tipped, I might add). There was some hemming and hawing from the cops, who explained they pulled guns on us because we “could have been on meth or something.” The police returned inside, where they had been eating and witnessed our non-dine-and-dash. We silently piled back into the car and drove home.
I was shaken, but fine. I told my parents about it, because I knew something that shouldn’t have happened had, and it was my mom who first said it. “So interesting that happens when you’re with J and M,” she said, immediately angry and ready to report the officers involved.
We did report them, and there was some wishy-washy “community meeting” between us, our parents, and the cops (the driver ended up not wanting to be a part of it because she never told her parents about the incident; she thought she would end up getting in trouble with them). The meeting was entirely placating and no one felt very good about what happened afterward.
Since Tuesday, I’ve seen a lot of comments that bother me about Michael Brown’s murder. The one that sticks with me, though, is when people say something about how he robbed a convenience store—or how he didn’t initially follow Darren Wilson’s orders. So what if he had, or what if he didn’t? Do those things justify murdering someone?
It’s what I always wondered after the night: What if we had skipped out on the $20 bill? I wasn’t scared of actually being shot, but my friends probably were. Their parents’ reactions afterward seemed convinced that they would have been; parents are always more scared about these things because they know when they’re more possible. Would they have shot us—or them? Would that have been OK?
No, but I’m sure everyone would argue about it on Facebook and Twitter, saying things like, “Well, you have to pay for your pie and coffee.” I was scared, but not as scared as my friends, or their parents, or Michael Brown. No one is brave staring down a barrel, but some sadly have to be more scared than others. And apparently, even after they’ve been killed, the value of their lives is still up for debate.