Suburban Activism

Updated: Oct 9

In 1997 on a stretch of road on the outskirts of Indianapolis, I was pulled over by a police officer while I was driving a U-Haul. He came up to the driver’s door and asked me for my driver’s license, truck registration, rental agreement, and then he told me he had pulled me over for not using my turn signal at a stop sign. Instantly, I knew where this was going.

I put my hands high on the steering wheel where he could see them and he stepped away a few feet. He spoke on the radio, clearly running my name and information. I came back clean because I do not have an arrest record. Not satisfied, he asked me to step out of the truck. My girlfriend stayed in the truck.

He asked me where I was going. For a very brief moment I thought about telling him that I didn’t have to answer his question. I was a U.S. military officer with a decade in uniform and while I might have been guilty of failing to use a turn signal, I did not have to answer his question concerning my destination.

Then I quickly started to think about where this was going to end up. I had my future wife in the truck with me. As a blue-eyed, white woman, she was unfamiliar with racism and racial profiling. I certainly didn’t want to introduce her into my world via a fire hose.

I told the officer we were going to Denver. He then asked why? Again, I felt my rights were being trampled on and I felt like pulling out my military identification and telling this guy that I wasn’t some drug trafficker, as I’m sure he suspected. I had worked as a linguist and as an intelligence analyst with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigations as part of my military service. I was familiar with the training cops received to detect drug traffickers and it was obvious this guy thought I was guilty of something more than a turn signal violation.

To avoid the escalation, I explained that the woman in the truck was my girlfriend and that I was bringing her back to Denver with me to live. He then asked me to wait by his car and he went and questioned my girlfriend. The stories matched, but he was still not satisfied. He returned and asked me to open the back of my truck. Despite the fact that he had no probable cause, I reluctantly agreed and he scanned the inside of our U-Haul.

He then told me I could close the cargo door, gave me back my license and registration and told me he was going to let me off with a verbal warning. I drove away angry.

As a brown person in the United States, I’ve been subjected to prejudice. Unless you are a person of color, you do not know what it is like to live in a world where whites view you with suspicion and with contempt.

Sometimes that suspicion is passive, like when the store clerk asks for identification when I use a credit card when multiple people in front of me, all white, were not asked to show identification to make their credit card purchases. Other times it is more obvious, like when my teenage son was asked by white upperclassmen on his lacrosse team to climb over a wall and go get stray balls at a practice because as a Mexican, he should be used to climbing over walls. I should note, we are not Mexican, but this is an example of ignorant assumptions made by racists.

Distrust from people around you based solely on the way you look is upsetting on its own, but for me, a guy who served in the military for 24 years, it is infuriating and not because as a military retiree I think I deserve special treatment. It is angering because I want and expect to be treated like everyone else. I feel like I have earned my place in American society. I shouldn’t be looked at with suspicion based solely on my appearance or my last name.

I’ve had my many bad moments with white police officers. In Miami, I was once thrown to the ground and put in hand cuffs and stuffed in the back of a car. My crime? I wish I could tell you. Once in cuffs, they told me to shut up when I tried to talk, so I did. Eventually a supervisor came over and talked to me while I was in the backseat. He asked me to explain what had happened. I told him that I was telling his officers what had happened in an incident I had witnessed when out of nowhere, two cops violently threw me to the ground and cuffed me. He helped me out of the car, removed the cuffs, apologized, and let me go. The supervisor was African American. I wonder what would have happened to me had he not been on duty?

I know the unpleasant interactions I’ve shared here pale in comparison to what African Americans experience on a daily basis. Changes in law enforcement are long overdue, but I do not think that changes in training are the only answer. We need more minorities in uniform, we need higher recruitment standards and the police need to earn the trust of the communities they patrol. And I’m not talking about buying some poor black kid a bike at Christmas for a photo opportunity, I’m talking meaningful investment of the police into the communities they serve. Hearts and minds, I know a little about that from the Iraq War.

We do not have a police training problem in America, we have a race problem. Fundamentally, what a child learns at home from his or her parents is what they carry into adulthood. Parents are the mad scientists of adulthood. From birth, they help construct adults. Even the things they don’t say and do, have an impact. Don’t eat vegetables at home? Guess what your kids won’t develop a palate for?

Shielding your kids from the unrest that is happening now robs them of an opportunity to learn that American society is deeply flawed and moreover, that they can help fix it. If you choose not to bother them with it, they will grow up to be unsympathetic people who do not help their fellow man. They will sit on their side of town and worry about the square footage that they live in.

In our house, we have daily conversations with our kids about what is happening across the country. We talk about how they feel when they see events unfolding on the news. We discuss the responsibility we have for each other as human beings. We share emotions, empathy and how to bring about meaningful, lasting change. We get angry. We get disappointed. We manage ourselves through it, but we don’t ignore it. We are careful to help them understand all sides of the story.

But around us in the suburbs, there is no outrage, no mobilization of the masses. Social mobilization in the suburbs comes only when kids aren’t getting a graduation ceremony. Angry moms on social media protest over the fact that their cheerleader daughters are being denied prom and a graduation ceremony. They mobilize other bored parents, encouraging them to reach out to the local city councilman and to write the mayor, petitioning them to grant a waiver and allow the high school seniors to organize a car parade during social distancing. The complaints even stir the press, who oblige and cover the parental exertion.

For white suburban American families with kids, the compelling social issue of the year is a lack of graduation festivities for their kids and how COVID-19 destroyed their kids’ senior year. Suburban activism at its best. Riots, protests and police killings might as well be on Mars. It is something that can be viewed through a portal on television and on social media, but it can be turned off like a spigot whenever desired. And that is the problem right there. The great divide.

Imagine the impact of 15,000 suburban moms or dads mobilizing in just one neighborhood and doing something to help those who peacefully protest. Imagine if across the country middle class suburban communities mobilized and tried to bring about change by working with law enforcement and the black community, serving as a bridge, a facilitator, a sounding board or whatever is needed. What would be the impact if in the suburbs people gathered and discussed things openly instead of passively liking and re-posting memes and spreading vitriol. What if the effort went beyond a hashtag, beyond a social media cause occurring on Mars? For many in the burbs, supporting the movement is fashionable, but the support is not enduring and the energy and the interest behind it will fade once something newer and shinier comes along.

Right now, as the country burns and more than 66,000 National Guardsmen have been deployed to quell domestic disturbances, on the Nextdoor social media app, neighbors are trying to muster support for another Fourth of July parade for the neighborhood kids. Others are gearing up for the community pool’s seasonal opening.

For years, I have been talking to my kids about what it is like growing up as a minority in America. I have explained to them that they can achieve anything they want in life and they believe it. They know they are only restricted by their own drive and desire. However, I have made them keenly aware of prejudice in this country and it is something we talk about routinely. Why? Because unlike white kids, I do not want my brown children to end up dead at the hands of law enforcement.

I tell my kids that if a police officer stops them and tells them to get on the ground, they should not question them. They should comply. If a cop roughly puts them in cuffs or detains them, for no reason, they should not fight back. They should calmly follow police instructions and comply. Cops might also sometimes ask questions and while some social media heroes who are white and armed with cameras and law degrees might say that it is better to not cooperate and antagonize the police, I encourage my kids to talk because if they are innocent, they've got nothing to hide.

That might seem counterproductive for a parent to teach their kids not to stand up for themselves and to allow those in trusted positions to abuse their authority and violate their civil rights, but as a minority I’ve learned that when it is me, a white guy with a gun and a badge on the side of the road, credibility usually goes to the guy with the gun by default and our courts have proven that true. That is why I tell them to comply. Even if they are taken in and they are completely innocent. They should do what the cops want and and then call me. Those matters are settled in the courts and not on the side of a road.

Many of you might not agree, but my responsibility as a father is to ensure that when my kids leave the house that they return and if they have a run in with the law, even if it is a mistake, they are to respect the badge and come home safe.

I’m not proud of that approach, but like active shooter drills at schools, it is what we have become. And if you're reading this and you find it alarming that I have to have conversations like that with my kids, welcome to my America.


©2020 by Steve Alvarez, Burb Dad.