On a hot summer afternoon back in 1979, my teenage friends and I sought to negate the boredom of those times — no fancy home video games back then — by searching for a diversion.
We lived just a mile from Florida State University and often went down to campus to find some fun. Imagine our surprise when we stumbled upon a cheerleading camp at Osceola Hall, a private dormitory. Teenage boys randomly finding a collection of 200-plus girls was like Capt. Jack Sparrow stumbling upon buried treasure.
When a well-meaning camp counselor told us we were trespassing, we weren't quite hearing it. He wanted to protect the girls, and we wanted to collect phone numbers and addresses and brag about our "raps." When he said he was going to call the police, we responded with, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," and one of us might have said, "Go ahead."
Moments later, a patrol car whipped around the corner, and in a panic, we ran up one of the steepest of Tallahassee's seven hills. Unfortunately, a second officer was waiting at the top.
We complied when told to stop and explained that we were just bored knuckleheads meaning no harm. The officers, sternly but respectfully, explained that regardless of our adolescent urges, we had to stay away.
We were hot. They were bothered. But they didn't call us thugs; we didn't call them pigs. They let us walk away and we spent the rest of the day dissecting how the moment turned so serious so fast.
In the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., I look back on that memory and realize it could have turned out differently if either party chose a different reaction. This is why the growing chorus vilifying Brown and praising Officer Darren Wilson strikes such a negative chord in my heart.
Neither Brown nor Wilson should be labeled as the sole problem in this conflict. In fact, as a grand jury sorts out the evidence, we need to realize it will take different approaches from both sides to prevent this from recurring.
In America, however, we look to assign blame like an old movie producer crafting a western. Put the black hat on this guy and the white hat on that guy and call it a day.
It's far more complex, and a mother and father who lost their son deserve more than the cavalier attitude people employ watching the old sheriff gun down an outlaw.
Trust me, if you were the parent of a young black man, you couldn't dismiss the death of an unarmed teen with such ease. It's one of the reasons protests have sprouted around the nation, including in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
I believe some see Brown's death as a deterrent: a message to young black men that if they don't pull up their pants, cut their hair, stop listening to loud hip-hop music and be respectful, they're all going to get shot.
A years-old sendup by comedian Chris Rock laid out just such a premise, but as Rock so deftly does with his humor, he laced in a bit of social commentary by suggesting that if you don't want to "get your a-- kicked by the police," ride with a white friend.
The subtle message is that defiance will not die that easily among teen spirits, especially in the cauldron of the justice system's racial disparities.
Even GOP Sen. Rand Paul recently wrote in a Time magazine article, "Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention."
Every parent needs to teach their kids to be compliant when dealing with law enforcement, but those lessons should be taught out of respect, not fear. At the same time, law enforcement must be the adults in difficult situations, defusing that defiance. It needs to heighten its efforts to earn respect through communication and outreach, staffs that mirror the racial makeup of their communities and a balance between officer safety and the adage "protect and serve."
Every negative encounter between officers and young black males, even if it doesn't result in death, can lead to more sinister outcomes down the road. Every positive encounter can foster a relationship that moves us closer to a more meaningful peace.
I don't know how my friends and I would have turned out if those cops had taken a far more aggressive approach, but I'm glad they recognized that discretion is the better part of valor.
If they didn't, one of those friends may have never joined the police force and enjoyed a long and decorated career.
That's all I'm saying.