By Sasha Abramsky
On a recent Saturday at 3 a.m., my family was awoken by somebody howling, literally howling, on our porch. Then the man began pounding on our front door. Again and again and again, hitting the iron knocker against the wood as hard as he could, and, when that didn’t do the trick, hurling his body against the door.
While the rest of my family hid, I called 911, and told them someone was attempting to break into our home. The operator asked me a question: What color was the man on my porch?
The pounding grew fiercer. Three times, I had to call 911. Finally, after 20 minutes two police cars pulled up, sirens on, and through the door I heard a police officer ask our visitor what he was doing. He was, he slowly slurred, trying to get into his girlfriend’s house. "But she doesn’t live here," they told him, as I opened the door. "This family does, and you scared them very much. You need to apologize."
The young man, clearly bombed out his mind, quietly muttered, "I’m sorry." The officers made him sit on the curb across the street from our house, asked him to call his parents — which he refused to do — and finally let him phone a friend to pick him up. He was, they told me, simply drunk out of his skull. He just needed to sleep it off.
Having written about the criminal justice system, among other topics, for 20-plus years, I was in no hurry to ruin another person’s life by insisting that the police press charges. On the other hand, as I lay in bed that dawn, sleepless, a number of things began bothering me about the whole interaction. They have been bothering me ever since.
So, in case our unbidden visitor is reading this, here’s a note to you about what happened:
Dear anonymous intruder,
You have, I suspect, no idea how lucky you are. In your idiotic drunken stupor, you tried to break into a house. You succeeded in terrifying a family of four.
In many states, including Florida, legislation such as "stand your ground" laws would have given a homeowner on the other side of the door the right to shoot you, and your death would have been ruled self-defense.
Even absent a trigger-happy homeowner, however, you were the beneficiary that night of three pieces of extraordinary luck.
The first was that you encountered two courteous and sensitive police officers willing and able to empathize with you. Instead of simply seeing a threatening "perp," they saw a kid, likely a college student, who had had a few drinks, a few pills too many, a vulnerable and foolish human being who simply needed to sleep it off. They used both their discretion and their common sense in not escalating the situation, in not coming in guns blazing, ready to hurt you, to arrest you, to start processing you through the criminal justice system.
The second thing is that you happened to try to break down the door of somebody who has written about the crisis of mass incarceration for decades, who has interviewed hundreds of crime victims, criminals, attorneys and prisoners, and who believes from the bottom of his heart in not seeing the worst in people; who believes in second chances and in not needlessly amping up legal proceedings against individuals who are not genuine threats to society.
When I saw what sort of pitiful state you were in, you reminded me of many of the incarcerated young men and women I have interviewed who did something stupid — oftentimes far less stupid than what you did — and faced with unforgiving police, and scared victims, and DAs looking for easy convictions, ended up serving years and sometimes decades in prison.
And when, at 4 a.m., I asked the police officers, after they had sent you home with a friend, their take on what had happened, and they said that in their honest-to-goodness opinion you were just out on a bender, I took their word at face value. I didn’t want your life to be ruined by a needless criminal prosecution, and, after asking my wife, I told the police that we did not want to pursue charges.
But perhaps the thing that made you luckiest was the color of your skin, that vital identifying characteristic the emergency operator had been so quick to ask me about.
It’s certainly possible that those two humane police officers would have been just as kind, considerate, and empathetic to an African-American male in the same situation. I hope, and want to believe, they would have been.
Yet, in those circumstances had they treated an African-American suspect so gently and so calmly, they would have been bucking a very powerful trend, for, in many, many instances in recent years, a very different saga has emerged to that of your get-out-of-jail-free story.
In July 2009, the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, an African-American, was arrested by the police at his own home, after he returned from a trip overseas, realized he had lost his keys, and broke open his own door. He was arrested despite showing the police his Harvard ID and his driver’s license — which had his address on it and showed very clearly that the home he was breaking into was his own.
In September 2015, an African-American woman in Santa Monica, Calif., hired a locksmith to help her get into her house after she had locked herself out. A neighbor called the police, and 19 officers arrived, several of them with guns drawn, and arrested her.
In North Carolina, a young African-American man, a foster child to white parents, was pepper sprayed after entering the home he was living in, because police had responded to reports of an unidentified African-American intruder.
And the list goes on.
You benefited from the kindness of myriad strangers that night, and you may very well have benefited from the color of your skin. Let me finish with some advice: If you want to make good for scaring four people half to death, perhaps you could do some volunteer work at a criminal justice reform organization, or a drug treatment center, or a racial justice group.
It won’t make me sleep any better — I suspect it will take a while for my jitters to dissipate. But it might at least convert your good fortune into something from which the broader community can benefit.
Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is "Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream." He can be reached at [email protected] © 2017 Sacramento Bee