Reportage / 7 April 2019

Don’t move, I wanna see your hands!

Postcard from policed Ohio, volume 5

On a regular day, I walk about six kilometers. I cross Wooster Street in the morning and walk across campus to my office. When I’m done for the day, I walk to the Recreation Center and from there back to my apartment. Sometimes I walk to Downtown Bowling Green in the evening.

No one – or hardly anyone – walks here. When I once said I didn’t have a car, I was asked if I was poor. Save for a shuttle bus for students, there’s no public transport. For grocery shopping, Geoff Howes takes me with him in his car. He’s been driving it for years now. Not very American, he says.

Four years ago, friends invited me to a small party on Good Friday. They had given me their address. Since my cell phone’s battery was almost empty, I plugged it in to recharge and left my apartment free as a bird.

Half an hour later I turned onto the street where my friends lived. I’d never been to their house before. I’d memorized its number. But then I realized that the house numbers were not in any logical succession. Was it 69? Or 96? I walked the street’s left sidewalk and tried to glance into windows, hoping to see my friends or a party. I tried to make out their voices, but didn’t want to get too close. At the end of the street I turned around and tried my luck on the sidewalk on the other side. After half an hour I had to give up. I swore at myself. Back to the start, back to my apartment, make a call.

When I reached the intersection, I heard sirens at my back. A police car braked abruptly. Blue lights were flashing. Step to the side! Don’t move! I wanna see your hands! A bald white giant with enormous shoulders jumped out of the car. His belt held a gun, a club and handcuffs. In Austria, I’ll argue with any policeman or policewoman. In that moment I remained quiet. I didn’t move. I presented my hands.

He’d heard about suspicious behavior, the White Giant said. Was I going to break into a house? No. Was I going to break into a car? No. I’d been looking for a friend’s house and couldn’t find it. The White Giant wanted to see an ID. I didn’t have one on me. A second police car pulled up at the scene. When the White Giant told his colleagues he had everything under control, I took a first deep breath. I explained to him that I was the Writer of Residence at the University’s German Department. Alright, the White Giant said, all of a sudden utterly nice, since I probably didn’t meet a police officer every day – did I have any questions? Yes, I said, could he give me a lift home? I had to call my friend, so that he could pick me up and take me to the house I hadn’t found. I’m terribly sorry, the White Giant said, I’m literally off duty now, and that would be unpaid overtime. Have a good one! On my way back I thought how lucky I was to be white.

A few days later, on the Recreation Center’s treadmill, I saw a police officer and a student on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show. The student was poor. He worked night shifts at McDonald’s to pay for his studies and to support his sick mother. On his way back from work, one cold night, he got stopped by the officer. He knew he looked suspicious, he told the audience, with a hoodie, on the cold street, late at night. He explained his situation to the officer, who drove him home. The next day the officer posted the heartbreaking story of his encounter on Facebook. Within a day, his friends had collected money for the poor student – enough to buy him a car.