It was a warm, spring night in late May when my father offered to teach me how to play golf. Mom cleared off the table while Dad put his clubs in the car. Genesse Valley Park was only a mile from our house and we were there in minutes. Dad put on his shoes, paid the starter and we approached the first tee. As my father began to show me how to hold the club and swing, a man came up and asked if he could play through. Heartily my father agreed, but then when three more men showed up as a part of that party, Dad changed his mind. I hit the ball. I was eleven years old. It was 1969.
By the time we were walking down the fairway, the starter came out to meet us. We were playing out of one bag, which violated a course rule, and the starter asked us to leave. My father agreed, but asked for a refund. We each had only hit a ball once. The starter refused. So then my father refused to leave and off we went down the fairway, to the green and onto two more holes before a policeman showed up. We were on the third green.
My father explained the situation: he had been and still was willing to leave, but not without a refund. The policeman asked him for identification. The owner of a restaurant, Dad carried lots of cash. And so, too, as the child of immigrant parents, did he carry bad memories of Irish policemen picking on the Italian kids. He pulled his wallet out of a back pocket and opened it up to show the officer a driver’s license. The policeman grabbed at the wallet. The next thing I knew my father pulled his wallet back with one arm and clocked the officer in the jaw with the other one. Five feet two inches tall, people often under-estimated my father’s strength. Completely decked, the officer pulled his gun from a prone position and ordered my father to stand still.
Standing, the officer put the gun away, swung my father around and roughly cuffed him. He called for reinforcement. Holding my father’s cuffed arms behind his back, he dragged him backwards across the golf course, sometimes from a crouched position to which he fell. A “paddy wagon” appeared and the officer shoved my cuffed father in it. Evidently so caught up in the commotion, the police officer completely forgot about me. I grabbed the clubs off the green, put them in the bag and made my way to the clubhouse. By then the policeman and his reinforcements and my father were gone. Choking back tears, I approached a man and asked him if I could have a dime to call my mother.
You know why this memory has come back to me. It is the story of Sandra Bland in Hempstead, Texas. Along with millions of others, I watched the video of her arrest and I have mourned the loss of her life as a tragic experience not only for her family but for all that she represents about the mistreatment of so many other people, minorities in particular, at the hands of law enforcement throughout this country. If any profession should be trained to the highest degree of excellence on how not to escalate an emotionally tense situation, it should be the officer on the street.
That this country, with all of its resources in law enforcement to build para-military units and more “leadership” programs than Carter has little liver pills does not train law enforcement within an inch of professional lives to de-escalation tense situations is a reflection of the violent and bully-like nature of the American psyche. It is shameful. We have the resources to do much, much better, but not the will. With myriad, barbaric examples of police brutality – not to mention the senseless and repeated shootings of innocent people – it would appear that as a society we are not even aware of the heedlessly fierce nature of the allegedly civilized culture in which we live.
I was fortunate. My mother came to get me within minutes. She bailed my father out of jail that night. Because the police abandoned me at the golf course, the City of Rochester faced an embarrassing lawsuit. My father’s lawyer traded that threat for the felony charge of striking an officer. Paying a fine for a misdemeanor, Dad retained his liquor license. Life went back to normal. But the memory remains traumatic. If out of that memory I can call attention to the need for awareness of the violence that U.S. society begets, that is why I have chosen to share it with you tonight.