Young, Black and a Target of Police Harassment

Debra Behrens, a career counselor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is on leave while she writes her doctoral dissertation in education. She grew up in the Crenshaw district and now lives in View Park

My earliest and most vivid memory of police-community relations was as a youngster in the late ‘60s.

One balmy summer evening, my family was closing up our self-service laundry. As we walked toward our car we saw several officers emerge from a squad car, approaching a car with six teen-agers inside. They were ordered out. The police cursed and yelled at them, and the officers climbed inside the car with batons flailing.

First roller skates, then soda bottles crashed to the pavement. Tufts of seat stuffing fell to the ground like feathers, car windows were smashed with batons. They were tearing the car to pieces.

The teen-agers huddled together, the girls crying. “We had just gone roller-skating at the rink on Adams, and then we stopped for Cokes,” a girl sobbed. “They said they were looking for drugs.”


We were horrified. It was difficult to believe what we were seeing. These were just good, normal kids. They could have been me or my siblings in a few years.

Their car was torn to bits and nothing more incriminating than leather skates and soda bottles had been found. I wondered why the white officers were so cruel, and why they couldn’t or wouldn’t see us as human beings.

Twenty years later, during Christmas vacation, my family sat around the fireplace in my parents’ living room. My brother, Walter, and his best friend, Evan, began to regale us with stories of their youthful adventures:

The waitress at the Wichstand who took a liking to them and served up pancakes, burgers, omelets and shakes on the house.


And the summer job my brother had as a security guard and the “orientation”: “Hi there, nice to meet you. The first thing we usually do around here is find a comfortable place to sleep . . . .”

And Evan’s cantankerous Chevy Caprice, a magnet for the police--but our laughter turned to thoughtful silence as they described the many times they were pulled over in the Crenshaw area.

I suddenly remembered that police questioning is a commonplace event for a young African-American man.

“Man, we were always getting stopped by the police,” Walter said. He recalled being stopped in Orange County as an undergraduate at UC Irvine. “Now, that was the only time a cop pulled a gun on me,” he remarked casually.


My blood froze.

It is one thing to know intellectually that you and those you love are statistically at risk for being targets of harassment, hostility and sometimes violence because of your race. It is another to realize that your own brother could have been shot, even killed, by a cop who might guess that he was armed, or on drugs. Or to realize that he may not have had the chance to become the person he is today: a loving father and husband, an attentive son, a caring physician and a good and loyal friend.

My husband later told me that he was stunned by how different his own youth spent in Santa Barbara was. “We were never stopped by the police. Never.” To some, it might seem that the experiences of a white middle-class teen-ager in Santa Barbara and those of a black middle-class teen-ager in Los Angeles wouldn’t be terribly different. They are worlds apart.

My husband never knew the feeling of seeing white women clutch their purses as he walked past, or being steered from desirable neighborhoods by real estate agents, or of being asked, “Are you a football player?” on a campus that had no football team--all of which my brother experienced.


That race and ethnicity affects the assumptions so many people make and the actions they take are the lamentable results of living in a society which suffers from racism.

What gives me hope is the Los Angeles I have seen recently. Gestures toward healing. The Korean grocer who makes regular donations to an African-American church. The astonished and grateful Korean-American shop owner who discovered that black residents had cleared and hauled away debris from his lot. A new police chief reaching out to all communities. People have come together to sweep rubble, collect donations, pray and heal the wounds of the city. To discuss differences, and finally, to find common ground.