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Perhaps it was more typical than not–that night, I mean. The guy worked a high-crime district, West Palm Beach, where being a cop meant hot nights, especially in December or January, when, by day, the streets were full of people looking to warm their lives in balmy Florida. People think of retirees as “snowbirds,” he told me, but the citrus and the palms attracted thousands and thousands of others too, low-life men and women who thought nothing of shrugging off the law.
He was the law. He was an elder in the CRC, a fifteen-year veteran of the West Palm Beach police force, an immigrant himself, who, as a kid, spent three WWII years in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia, where he once stood at attention and watched a commander kill a man with his bare hands. By the time he came to Florida, he was no stranger to the darkness, and I was in his squad car that night to experience whatever it might be he would experience, riding along, doing a story on him and his life for the Banner, the denominational magazine.
That night, I was struck by how little I knew of his world. He drove the Dodge with “Supervisor” printed on the hood, an assignment he was given because the captain knew there was a civilian–me–along to witness, a journalist. I was doing a story on a CRC cop in crime-ridden South Florida. The “Supervisor” had discretion; he could pick and choose the action. That night, he told me, I made his job easier.
At the outset of the story I wrote, I quoted from the Canons of Dort because I loved the sound of the word I knew so little of–obdurate. The Canons define us by running through the blessings of creation before the fall. Then, by way of our Edenic forbearers, we departed from godliness and “became involved in blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment; became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his afflictions.”
I’ll give you a minute to catch your breath.
By the time the morning came, I had witnessed very little of the obdurate, only the bloody after-effects of a brawl between people who did business with each other, all of them drunk. They got into it after one of them broke into the other’s late-night bar and stole a couple bottles of hooch. There was blood. The perp cut his hand when he busted out a window.
But that was it. When the light of morning dawned, I felt relieved, although a bit cheated. The super’s world offered no picnics–that much I knew; but that night was pretty easy.
What I remember best is not some third-degree burglary, but the fashion by which the night had begun, the way Hill Street Blues used to begin every episode, the captain up front outlining the concerns in an entertaining monologue that ends with a finger pointing in the air–“Hey, and be careful out there.”
My supervisor had taken me along to hear the agenda that night, a room where maybe 30 white guys listened in but were rowdy in the way boys can be while the boss is running through the business at hand.
What I’ve never forgotten was the running score of racial commentary. I don’t remember anyone using the n-word, but you can avoid the usage and still make the point; and the point was made, time and time again, in jokes that made no attempt to dodge racism.
That was forty years ago. I have no doubt that were I to attend the evening’s agenda with the West Palm Beach Police tonight, the room would include men and women of color. The atmosphere now cannot possibly be what it was 40 years ago.
Still, what stays with me most formidably is the first shocking twenty minutes, when a room full of white guys did their best to make jokes about the obdurate they were sure to find that night roaming the streets of the city.
People intend some different meanings when they talk about “systemic racism,” but my understanding has much to do with what I saw and heard in that meeting at the station. That level of racism takes years, decades to mitigate.
You can read the story for yourself, if you’d like–I’ll send you a copy. But nowhere in what is there in black and white on the page–in the book or in the Banner— will you find a word about what I witnessed before that night’s supervisor and his civilian ride-along . I didn’t write any of that.
That’s why I can’t help believing this morning, the morning after Derrick Chauvin heard a jury’s three guilty verdicts, that my not writing anything about what I saw and heard that night in the meeting is also what people mean when they talk about “systemic racism.”
And who might be the obdurate.