Thursday, May 28, 2015

A College Prank

I've been meaning to write this post for a long time -- since the police incidents in Ferguson and Cleveland and South Carolina and elsewhere.

When those events occurred, those fatal police clashes with young black men, I got to thinking about my own history, and how it relates to the pervasive injustice in the differences in police treatment of blacks and whites. Aside from traffic infractions, I've only had one brush with the law myself, back in the mid-1980s.

This is how it unfolded:

I was with a group of friends, and we were drinking. (How familiar is that for an opening line to a story about a night gone wrong?) We were in college at the time, and somehow we got it into our heads to pull a prank on one of the college administrators. We chose as our victim the housing director, who was responsible for maintaining the dorms and food service and that sort of thing -- which of course, being students, we found lacking.

One of our group knew where the housing director lived, not far from his own home in a small suburban town just outside Tampa. So we bought a bunch of toilet paper, went to the administrator's home, and TP'd the large tree in his front yard. We also put dish soap on his car.

Then, like the complete and utter idiots we were, we jumped in our car and drove away, then drove back again to view our handiwork. Laughing hysterically, we went to a neighborhood park not far away and sat on the swingset.

Of course, the police showed up. We'd not only been seen TPing the tree but also driving back and forth in front of the house. The cops asked us some questions -- I think we had to give them our identification, but I'm not sure -- and they instructed us to come back to the house, apologize to the administrator and clean up the mess. (This despite the fact that we must have been visibly intoxicated and surely shouldn't have been driving anywhere.)

We got to the house and the police marched us to the front door. We knocked, but thank goodness, no one was home. So we scurried around the front yard in what must have been a fruitless effort to collect the toilet paper, and then the cops let us go. They never saw the soaped car. To my knowledge, they never made a police report. They never administered a breathalyzer or any other tests for intoxication. We were merely instructed to go back to my friend's house -- which we did, driving drunk all the way. (They may have escorted us -- I can't remember.)

We got the velvet glove treatment from these suburban cops for a couple of reasons. Obviously, our crime was relatively minor. There was no real damage. My friends lived in this small town, so the police saw us as locals. And we were clearly middle-class and white, out for a lark.

I'm not arguing that we should have been treated more harshly. I think the cops did the right thing in cutting us a break. And granted, this was 27 years ago -- the authorities may be less forgiving today, in the age of "broken windows" policing.

But what would have happened if we'd been middle-class black college students? Would the police have let us off so easily? It's speculative, but I suspect this is where the injustice would have occurred. What if we'd been poor and black? Surely the consequences would have been much more dire. We'd probably have been arrested, and quite possibly roughed up in the process. In fact, if we'd been poor and black, I suspect just sitting in the park at night -- without the TPing, without the drunkenness -- would have been enough to get us questioned.

Whenever someone mentions variables in the way police treat suspects, I think of this incident -- my one brush with law enforcement. In all likelihood, a black kid would have walked away from that incident with a criminal record -- not to mention the attendant fines and costs of legal representation and loss of driving priveleges.

I walked away and went back to my regular life -- albeit with a hangover -- the next morning.

(Photo: A photogenic pub in Bloomsbury.)


  1. Yes, Steve. It's always best to be one of 'us' and not one of 'them' isn't it? A situation that applies to many people in many countries and sadly, one that definitely applies to the country I live in.

    While I was feeding your fish tonight I noticed your are reading 'The Shallows" - I found it a very interesting read; our brains can quickly adapt to different ways of perceiving and receiving information.

    Ms Soup

  2. Now I recall a semi-skinnydipping incident in 1969 at Fort Myers pool outside of Washington D.C. and our run-in with the local MPs. If we had been black, would they have listened to my friend's explanation of being an Army dependent?

  3. Thanks for this, Steve. I seriously doubt Black college kids would have come up with that prank, even while drinking. By college, they would have known the possible outcomes if they went through with it. At least, I hope so, for their sakes.

  4. When people claim that there is no such thing as white entitlement I can't help but think those people are crazy as hell. Or in complete denial.

  5. I think you are probably correct in your thinking. In fact the circumstances might have been different if just one of your group was black.

  6. I'm sure your assessment of what would have happened had you been black was quite correct. my 15 yr old son's encounter with the police 21 years ago involved him and two friends playing war in a public park with BB guns. multiple cop cars and a helicopter, cops approached with guns drawn. the boys got escorted to my house, didn't lose their BB guns, didn't get arrested, just got a ticket for being in the park after hours. even being white, I don't know if they would have survived the same experience today.

  7. I live in the U.S. Just returned from Rome and saw on two separate occasions the police in heated verbal arguments with people. it was truly shocking to us. I'm white, but I would still be afraid to argue with the police!