by Liz Seymour
The view from the back of a police car isn’t like any other ride. It just isn’t. For one thing there’s the legroom: practically non-existent. For another, the little frills that say, “We’re glad you’re here,” the cup holders and the cushy upholstery, are gone.
The front seat on the other side of the thick Plexiglas divider is lit by the open screen of a laptop computer that sits on raised armature, and the dashboard is filled with unfamiliar dials and buttons, a microphone dangling from a curly wire. Particularly for someone who is used to being in the driver’s seat — both literally and metaphorically — the sense of diminished options is disconcerting. There’s no question about who has the power, and it’s not you.
The first time I rode in the back of a police car I had just been arrested. In the company I keep now, my arrest is considered an embarrassingly penny-ante affair, as I discovered when I tried to brag about it. Armed robbery, say, or drug-trafficking and attempted murder pretty much trump blocking traffic, which was my charge. But this, my first arrest, was a big deal to me, so big that I had spent a lot of time choosing exactly what to wear before I went down to stand in the middle of the intersection of Market and Elm streets.
An hour or so later, after the sirens and the tasers and the honking traffic had died away, there were eight of us sitting side by side on the sidewalk in front of the Lincoln Financial Building, our hands bound with zip ties, waiting for our ride down to the magistrate’s office.
That was in January 2007, our protest prompted by the troop surge, the decision by then-President George W. Bush to increase the US military presence in Iraq by 20,000 more men and women. I was opposed to the US war on Iraq then and, for the record, I still am. Maybe even more so.
The second time I rode in the back of a police car was just two weeks ago, this time minus the handcuffs. It was on that snowy Thursday when pretty much all of central North Carolina stayed frozen in place. I was being picked up by a police officer in the blue shadowy hush of early morning so I could get to the Interactive Resource Center, Greensboro’s day center for people who are homeless or close to it. I knew that even though the Windsor Recreation Center had served as an emergency shelter the night before, there were plenty of people who had spent the night outside, and I wanted to make sure we were open and had a pot of coffee on if they made it through the snow. Thanks to my police ride, I got down to East Washington Street a little after 7 a.m. but I was amazed to see that a man who had spent the night in a tent nearby had beaten me there. As I pulled into a parking lot he and another volunteer stopped for a moment to wave, then went back to shoveling snow.
A lot has happened in the seven years between my two rides. The troop surge went forward as planned despite our objections; five years, tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars later the war finally came to its sad and pointless end. Closer to home, I helped to found and then became the executive director of the IRC, which to date has helped — and been shaped by — the more than 8,000 people who have come through its doors. I bought a house. I became a grandmother. I turned 60 and am pretty close to rounding the bend at 65.
But in some ways nothing has changed. The troop-surge moment at the corner of Elm and Market was a protest. For me, the IRC is a protest as well. I have not stopped believing that power with is a greater force than power over — and that the IRC is an everyday demonstration of that principle. I believe that swords can be beaten into plowshares, that police cars are more effective when they are taking people to work than when they are taking people to jail, that as long as there are people who in the middle of their own homelessness are still willing to wake up on a freezing cold morning and shovel snow so someone else can get warm, we’re all going to be all right.
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