Witnessing As a Civic Duty

On Tuesday I was walking toward my car, which, because of its shade trees, I like to park in that big lot that serves the Post Office and Hemmens Cultural Center patrons.  When halfway to the parking lot on N. Grove, I noticed two city police SUVs with their lights flashing, and a young black man talking with the Officers. I slowed down and looked closer and saw that on my side of the street there was a young-adult Black woman, also watching closely. I stepped up the edge of the sidewalk next to her and asked softly, “Are you witnessing?” She said yes, and I said, “Me too.” And we did just that for 20 minutes. 

Another young Black man was out in the street burning with indignation. It turned out he was the older brother of the driver. I felt a sudden fear for him, knowing how outrage and frustration can cause us to do intemperate things. He had been addressed by the Officers by his first name, and he was almost yelling, “how they could know that!?” The young woman and I both worked to defuse his angry distress. I said, “maybe your brother told them.” That seemed to help. 

But he started to get worked up again, when the Officers started searching the car. He told us he knew there were a couple of stubbed-out joints in the car. I said, “but grass is legal in Illinois now,” and he said, “not while driving.”  And I said “oh.”  Then I said “out on the west coast, back when grass was illegal, the older guys told us that you should find a way to eat such evidence without being seen. And we called those things ‘roaches.’” I guess that word is still in use because both he and witness lady nodded.

I had been thinking about what I might say if one of the Officers objected to us witnesses witnessing. They glanced over at us a few times but made no expression. Neutral. Later I said to myself, “my Whiteness probably doesn’t matter this time, but in other situations, it could be a protection for Black folks.” What a wonderful way to use my White privilege. And then I thought, in a just world that wouldn’t be necessary. But until then, now I know I can do that, and now I want to.

We waited until the SUVs departed, and older and younger brothers got back in their car and drove off too, which was what both I and the young lady had been waiting for. As we turned to go our separate ways, she said, “thank you.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just smiled back. Later, I thought I could have said, “it was for all of us.”

Rev. Leland Bond-Upson

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    • Rev. Leland Bond-Upson

      Thanks for writing. Intentional voluntary witnessing of arrests is becoming more common. Last week several cars pulled over to witness the encounter between an officer and a Black woman driver.

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