This week’s piece comes to us by a regular Recomposition contributor, Invisible Man. In the face of fierce debates on racism, profiling, protests, and riots, his anecdote detailing an altercation with cops in Alberta feels painfully relevant.
There’s nothing to do on a Saturday night in Lacombe. We want to see a movie. In the fall of 1999, the nearest theatre is half an hour’s drive away in Red Deer, Alberta.
So, as usual, we drive into town with a borrowed ride – Terry at the wheel. (He’s white, you have to think of these things.) We turn into the theatre parking lot to read the lighted billboard on the north side of the building. As usual, there is nothing worth seeing.
“Let’s go to the cheap theatre. At least we won’t be wasting our money on a crappy movie.”
“You wanna walk?”
“Yeah, let’s walk.”
It’s not far from one theatre to the other. We joke and chatter as we cut through the parking lot. An older White couple passes. They stare; maybe they have never seen so many Brown people at one time. After they have passed, someone makes a crack that they are probably calling the police right now.
Three minutes later, the police arrive. Red and blue lights reflect darkly off brick and glass. The sound of a buzzer shatters the thick evening stillness. Three cop cars for four guys (…to be more precise, for three Brown guys and one White guy). One of them is the paddy wagon – and Red Deer’s only Brown cop is driving it. Apparently, we aren’t the only ones with nothing to do on a Saturday night.
They climb out of their vehicles, motors still running. We stop and turn. (There’s nothing to be afraid of if you haven’t done anything.)
They stand in a circle around us; two in front of us, one behind.
“Ok, boys…let’s see some ID,” says one of the White cops.
We pull out our wallets. I hand over my birth certificate.
“What are you boys doing?”
“Going to the theatre.”
“The theatre’s behind you.”
“We’re checking out the cheap theatre.”
“Did you walk through the parking lot?”
“We had a report of some guys matching your description breaking into cars.”
“We weren’t breaking into any cars.”
“So you guys just walked through the parking lot and didn’t touch any cars?” the Brown cop asks.
“Yeah,” we reply.
“I’ve got this,” the White cop quickly tells the Brown cop. “Where are you from?” Mr. I’ve-got-this turns to face us.
“Scarborough,” James mumbles.
“Oh, I’m from Vancouver,” says Phil politely.
“I live in Lacombe,” I respond.
“Well I see what the ID’s say. But where are you guys originally from?”
You guys. The blameless words are inflected with an intangible chill. Originally from. We look away spite of ourselves.
I have stayed quiet, staring at the pavement. A streetlight glints off the steel handle of a hip-holstered pistol. As my eyes slowly travel upward, I look straight into metallic grey eyes.
“I’m a Canadian citizen.”
“No, where are you originally from?”
The policeman flashes that familiar smile – no, that smirk – that red-faced baring of teeth that reveals what it also conceals. He fingers the plastic edging on my birth certificate.
“I was born in Canada.” I involuntarily point to the card as I speak.
“Well where are your parents from, then?”
“My father is Italian and my mother is Sri Lankan, but they’re both Canadian citizens too.”
“Sri Lanka again. OK.” He mutters under his breath as he scratches something into his notepad.
“Well, look,” the White cop continues. “We don’t have any evidence that you did anything. And you’ve been cooperative. But you’re going to be on file…”
(none of the cops, White or Brown, has so much as looked at our White friend yet) “…so make sure you guys keep your nose clean when you’re in Red Deer.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you very much, sir.” No one feels like watching a movie anymore.
I put the card into my wallet as we move on. The setting sun outlines my reflection in a darkened window. But I don’t see it. My head is lowered. I am staring at the pavement again. At the age of eighteen, I finally understand what I’ve been missing all this time.
Originally posted: December 11, 2014 at Recomposition