On a normal Friday morning, my partner had already left for work and the children and I assumed our usual routine of playing outside around our house in a campus neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. I was hanging laundry on the line outside when suddenly a succession of gunshots popped at a very close range followed by the sound of breaking glass. Then there was another, larger bang and lots of shouting and screaming. The explosions were coming from the house to the east, but throughout the neighborhood I heard screams from our unsuspecting, peaceful community who threw their children to the ground, ducked out of windows, and entertained the possibility of numerous violent scenarios.
I ran inside to where my own children were playing and fortunately distracted by loud music playing. Then, I hesitantly searched out the front door for the cause. There, parked in front of our house, were two ambulances, three cop cars, two large black-tinted anonymous vans and about 20 SWAT team members circling my front lawn.
Two houses down some marijuana plants had been found growing—the number rumored to be ten. Ten plants who never pulled a gun out in front of my five-year-old and one-year-old children: ten plants who never shook our house with the boom of explosives, ten plants who never made my neighbor friend slam her two young daughters to the floor in fear of what she thought at the time might be a drive-by shooting. The SWAT team, with their role primarily finished, strutted proudly on the sidewalk in their flak jackets, helmets, and guns.
The neighbors gathered cautiously on the porches in an attempt to piece together the last few minutes, some still trying to usher the many young children who are home during the day away from the drama. I quickly learned that the “criminal” who lived two houses down was a veterinary student, whom I had never met as he lived such a quiet life. His roommate worked as a waiter but spent most of his time at his fiancée’s house with her and her children. I immediately asked if anyone knew their names—it was important that I could identify them first as individuals before criminals: Brandon and Lucas.
Before long, the police escorted the “perp” outside. Though they had been inside for several minutes now, he was brought outside barefoot in his underwear. He was handcuffed and had a large neon orange tag stuck to his bare back. This image reminded me of cattle. Brandon’s car was parked halfway down the block so the police shuffled him, half naked, past the crowded neighbors to the next search. He had his head down and I could see from his thin ribs that he was breathing heavily, nervously.
I always assume I am probably the most political of our neighbors, but a man next door started yelling out, “Get him some clothes!” with more neighbors joining in, “Get him some clothes!” With a basket of clean laundry right in the front door, I grabbed a pair of my husband’s jeans and a T-shirt then made way to where the cops were searching through Brandon’s car. I waited patiently to speak for a few moments but no one acknowledged my presence.
Then, taking a deep breath, I asked, “Here are some clothes, could he put them on, please?”
Finally a police officer turned to address me. “Do you know this man?”
I spoke truthfully, “No.”
“Well, miss,” said the officer, “We have clothes for him, and when we are ready we will dress him.”
I returned to my porch with the clothes in my hand and my own heart beating hard. Throughout the next few hours the police stripped the “drug” house with cranked classic rock music (presumably on Brandon’s stereo?) while they carried box after box out of “evidence.” This included the odorous plants but also lights, heating boxes, tables, fertilizer, watering cans and numerous other items I probably have in my own house. The team sang along as they walked over the crushed window glass they had broken, making audible jokes. That two people’s lives had just been shattered did not seem to be relevant.
As the shock wore off with time and knowledge, I grew increasingly sad. I sat thinking about Brandon and Lucas’s future; cultivating marijuana usually means a felony under Ohio’s laws. The coldness of the penal system will be so different from the animals he must have dreamed of helping, different even from working in the dirt and seeing green things grow. More and more people dared to come out of their houses, wanting to hear the story from those of us who lived directly next to the bust. As the scenario was retold again and again I did not encounter one neighbor, in our socially, generationally, and economically diverse neighborhood, who supported the monstrosity of what felt like a display of police power. In a neighborhood with chalk drawings on the sidewalk, bikes jangling down the red cobblestone brick, and children parading enroute to the park at the end of the block, we all felt violated. The police helicopters that had been loudly circling our houses for the past week now made sense.
As the ambulances pulled away and the police retreated to their cars to start the paperwork, most of the neighbors went back indoors to shower and breakfast for their work day. I remained outside to work on the front garden while my children played in a hammock. I looked up to see a female police officer walking toward me. As in any encounter with the police force, a plethora of questions and self-examination quickly ran through my head.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” the woman addressed me.
I stood, brushed the dirt from my hands, and cautiously said, “Yes?”
“Wow, I am really embarrassed to ask you this. I have never asked anyone this in 15 years of being on the force,” she said. She was slightly older than me though seemed so much bigger in her padded vest under her starchy uniform. “Can I use your bathroom?”
“Of course,” I answered in a kneejerk response and escorted her upstairs to the bathroom, waited for her to be finished and led her, as any hostess would, back to the front door.
“Thank you so much,” she said, “I’ve walked all around the neighborhood looking for a public bathroom and I was so uncomfortable.”
For the rest of the day the neighbors hashed out the mornings events. But soon, my bathroom break was an integral part of the story. “Did you really let a pig inside your house?” “You know, they can arrest you for anything suspicious they find if you allow them on your property.” “She can pee in her pants for all I care, I can’t believe you did that.”
I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating that day—both the gross misuse of power exhibited in our neighborhood that morning and the role with the cop. Would I have been more justified to deny her? To stand righteously with the neighborhood in demanding a more compassionate, humane arrest? By interacting with her kindly did I dismiss the violent action I had witnessed?
How easy it is to build up sides of Us and Them. Within a matter of minutes after the raid the neighborhood had congregated in a group against the police. It felt good—it feels good—to identify and call out evil while holding hands with our dearest friends. But as a Friend I have committed myself to offering compassion to every human being before me. To see “that of God” in, gulp, a cop: to alleviate even the smallest discomfort of a full bladder if it is in my capacity to do so. Regrets? Only that I should have insisted on learning the police officer’s name too.