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Bearded and Busted

On Monday I got stopped by the police for walking while bearded. This is not the first time I have been stopped by the police, but it is the first time they have harassed me without me doing something bad. Somebody had reported that a guy with a beard and a red backpack had been causing trouble in the bathroom of Marble's Restaurant, so when they spotted me walking down King Street with my beard and ORANGE backpack, they motioned me over.

They took my ID and looked me up. (What would have happened if I had forgotten my wallet? What would have happened if I had showed them a Watcard instead of my health card?) They asked me whether I had ever "gotten in trouble" before (I said no, but that I have been stopped before. In some sense that was a half-truth, although I truthfully stated that I have never been arrested.) They accused me of causing trouble at the restaurant, and when I claimed that I had not been to that resturant, they started pressuring me. "Let me tell you how it works," the Good Cop said. "Usually, you admit that you have been at the restaurant, and we tell you not to do it again and to stay away from Marbles." I wasn't prepared to lie, so I told them I had not been at the restaurant. "Saying that you weren't there doesn't cut it," they said.

Oh. That's good. It was pretty apparent that there was little I could say that would have convinced them. I did tell them where I had been -- the bank and the library -- but they didn't believe me. Eventually they told me to stay away from Marbles (which will be easy, as I have never set foot in the restaurant yet), gave me back my ID (phew!) and let me go. I was thinking of inviting them to take me to Marbles and show me off to the staff, so they could verify that I wasn't their bathroom troublemaker. I'm sort of glad I didn't, though -- how might they have reacted?

I am still a little ticked off and worried. For one thing, I am annoyed that they have added to their record of me. For another, I walk around at odd hours of the night, and I don't want the cops to start harassing me on that account. I also have a sneaking suspicion that they tagged me because I look homeless; if I looked more respectable, they probably would have left me alone even if I had a beard and red backpack. It is also true that I have done some not-nice things, and I don't want those incidents colouring the way the police treat me in the future.

Mostly, though, I felt helpless when the cops were accusing me. That frightens me, because all it would take is one person with a grudge to make some false accusations against me, and I could get mired deeply in legal trouble.

On a more positive note, maybe this incidence squashed some of my smugness. Now I know a little better what it feels like to be black, or poor, or mentally ill, or a street activist, or in any of the other populations commonly targeted by the police. As a person of privilege I don't get exposed to that much, and feeling firsthand just how much it sucks might be a good thing.

Comments

I haven't been stopped by cops since moving to Quebec. It used to happen on a semi-regular basis for stupid reasons (walking alone too late at night, running red lights on my bike when no-one's around, matching the description of a suspect by being 'scruffy looking', stopping to look both ways before crossing the street and inadvertently giving a police officer a 'surprised look', and -- my personal favourite -- reading in public late one evening) but police here seem to have more reasonable priorities (to judge from my very limited experience).

It sounds like it would have been reasonable to have replied that you weren't there, and to have offered to go to the restaurant with them if they didn't believe you, but I know I usually just acted politely and said whatever would make the police go away the fastest, since that was the least inconvenient course of action. I had the impression that if you act sufficiently subservient, and give the appearance that you respect their rank, they'll usually be appeased. It's like you just have to let them feel they've reasserted their position of authority.