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In response to Leon Wolf’s excellent post, “Don’t Rule Out a Riot,” I wanted to share an incident I observed while a young man.
At the time, I served with an inner-city mission that worked with displaced Appalachians – people who had moved from the rural areas of the state to the city to find work. One night, as the evening service ended, two policemen pulled up at the mission. They parked behind a young man who was there to pick up his mother and younger sisters. He was a good kid but he was also poor and part of a group that was usually the target of “regular and random police harassment” – not unlike the punk/rock skater that was once Leon Wolf. Unfortunately, the he had a taillight that had burned out and the two policemen decided to make him an example and put him and the neighborhood in its place. Instead of writing the young man a ticket and moving on, the police called him over to the patrol car and began to question him.
As the congregation exited the mission, a crowd naturally began to gather. Once the policemen had the audience they wanted, one of them stepped out and loudly proclaimed: “I am going to tell you people a little something about xxxxxxxx.” He then began to berate the young man in front of his family and friends. He insulted the young man, his parents (who were obviously bad parents), his neighborhood, and “you people” in general. While he was talking, the other policeman began to “front” the young man and to physically crowd him using his body – but never his hands. Their intent was clear. They hoped to provoke the young to swing or otherwise fight back and then use the provocation to teach him and us a lesson in who was in control.
Although completely caught off guard, the associate pastor saw what was going on and immediately recognized their intent. In a bold move, he stepped between the young man and the officer who was crowding him and then began to lecture the two policemen on their duty and the rights of civilians. He also mentioned a few things about them being on church property, “holy ground,” and trespassing. In retrospect, it might not have all made sense but he was in fine form. By the time one of the elders reached the scene, the associate pastor had forced the police officer backwards to the point that he was bending backward over the hood of his own patrol car. The policeman initially doing the talking was dumbfounded as they both stood there being berated by the man of God. It was one thing to harass a harmless youth and an downtrodden people. It was another thing to encounter an educated white guy, wearing a shirt and tie, waving a Bible, and threatening to call down the judgement of God on them. I will never forget that scene. Nor will those who saw their pastor stand in the gap and protect them from agents of a society that looked down upon them.
While the pastor dealt with the policemen, the women of the church were able to grab the young man and take him home in a different car, thus removing him from harm’s way. At no time was the boy ever charged or even ticketed by the police. For the next month, the police continued to drive by the mission and eyeball anyone in its vicinity. They also began to follow the associate pastor in his car whenever he entered or exited the neighborhood. The harassment eventually ended and two policemen in question moved on to carry “law and order” elsewhere.
The incident had a profound impact upon me. I am normally a law abiding citizen and I was raised to respect those in civil authority. However, as a young man that incident at the mission impressed upon me that there are civil servants out there who will abuse their power and oppress the people. It is up to the citizens to hold their public servants in check. Like Leon Wolf, I oppose “any form of violence that involves the looting, theft, or destruction of innocent third parties.” However, the police and the civil authorities need to remember that there is a line that they will not be allowed to cross without consequences. We should never “rule out a riot.”