A firsthand look at the twisted world of police prejudice

As manager of a sports complex in the town where I lived, my duties were to open up every night at 6:00 pm to allow the public to use the indoor track, basketball, and volleyball courts in a facility attached to the high school. It wasn’t strictly a membership club or anything like that, but there were discount passes available. The entire purpose was to return some value to the community for the tax dollars used to create that building for the school district.

So it was a popular facility for many reasons. On weekends, there were indoor soccer games from 9 am to 5 pm. That was the real moneymaker for the building.

But on weekdays, there were between 100-150 runners and walkers coming through the doors at night. I learned most of their names and still see some of them out in the community decades later. Along with serious runners counting laps, and logging miles on cold winter nights, heart patients were recuperating from surgeries, mothers losing weight after babies and people talking through life’s problems as they circled the oval for 30-60 minutes.

Then there were the basketball players. As a longtime hoopster, I occasionally joined the games on nights when my staff had things in order. It was an excellent way to get to know the players and frankly, earn a bit of credibility among them. We had ballplayers from all over the Fox Valley show up for competitive basketball games. There were politics involved with who wound up on what team. My floor supervisor had a system of first-come, first-serve, but the guys had all figured out how to scam that and wind up on powerful teams that dominated the floor. So instead of winner-take-all every night, we instituted a two-game winner, then you sit system so that more players could see action.

It was a diverse population. We had guys from either end of the Fox Valley, cities such as Elgin and Aurora, two of the larger urban centers in northern Illinois. One night I joined a game that involved nine black players and me. I wound up guarding a small guy named Doc. On the first time down the floor Doc faked right to take me to the baseline and then literally jumped over my shoulder to dunk the ball. The entire place erupted in laughter. I’d been had. Doc didn’t look like much with his wire-rimmed glasses and closely shaved head. But the guy could sky.

From then on, I played him far more closely, and we had a good game all around. Our team lost, however, and I was walking back to the office after shaking hands when my assistant game to meet me at the door and said, “We have a problem. We got robbed.”

I looked at the office, but that wasn’t where the robbery occurred. Instead, there was a team of guys who scouted out the locker room and posted a guard at the door while one of them went locker-to-locker snapping locks with a bolt cutter. They cleaned out wallets and valuables that they could find and were out of there in five minutes.

Of course, we immediately called the police. The officer who showed up was a couple of years ahead of me in high school. His younger brother was a high jumper on the track team with me. The officer was strong and tall, about 6’3″ and probably 190 at least.

The thing that struck me on his arrival was the nightstick he carried in his right hand. He’d already unleashed it from his belt. Recognizing me instantly, he came straight over and made it clear that he was ready to bust heads if necessary. Then he looked around, and I was instantly nervous about his intentions. He muttered something that could only be construed as a racist comment about the robbers, mentioning as well that he thought the “black” problem at the facility was what caused it all to happen.

The guys playing basketball clearly were not involved directly in the robbery. I told him so. “I know these guys,” I told him, using his name for emphasis. “This was someone else entirely. We don’t even know for sure what race they were.”

Our employees had seen people coming in well after the usual rush to sign up for games. They had paid for admission, which was $5.00 per night without a pass. So there was an inferred possibility that the guys who showed up later were involved in the robbery.

That did not satisfy my policeman friend. He took some notes after putting his nightstick back on his person and then left.

A week or so later, I received a note from the athletic director that policies might be changing for the facility. “It may be restricted to residents only,” I was told. Immediately I protested. “This was an isolated incident,” I insisted. “We can keep a better eye on the locker rooms and won’t have a problem.”

My staff and I were concerned about the people who used that facility, and appreciated it. I had even worked out a deal for a father with an energetic batch of children that he brought to the facility each week to let them run on the track. I’d charge him two admissions, and six of his family members would come in. Several years later, those children grew into young adults and won many state championships in track and field. In my estimation, the facility did not lose money on that proposition. It gained value for society, and for that family.

Was it special treatment? That father and his children were black. Would I have done something similar for a white father and his children? I’m not sure. We all have to make judgment calls on those decisions in life. Just like the father I helped out, it would take a little conversation to figure out the right and wrong of the situation. Some of these calls we make are not black and white.

There’s a whole lotta world out there trying to make the right call on issues like these, and more. We have to call on our conscience to make the best decisions in the moment. I suppose I erred on the liberal side of the equation in granting a favor to that black father and his children. But what made the decision easy in my mind was the many other discussions and experiences I’d had over the years with black teammates and work associates. It didn’t take a genius to see the effects of prejudice on their lives. So I tried to compensate a little.

Perhaps a diehard conservative would decry such civil reparations as examples of liberal and unnecessary favoritism. But compared to a cop wielding a nightstick on a winter evening looking to bust heads, and that firsthand look at potential police prejudice and violence, or a policeman kneeling on the neck of a possibly innocent black man until he died, I’ll take the liberal recourse any day. And every day.

Because that’s the least we can all do.

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