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opinion | Sebastian Stockman

Marching for Eric Garner’s benefit of the doubt

“There’s an elevator right there!”

That was an MBTA Transit cop addressing me Thursday night. He was on the platform at the Alewife T station. I was on the escalator with my 1-year-old son in his stroller, holding it at an angle with the back two wheels wedged against the escalator step and the front two wheels aloft, ready to hit the ground.

“What?” I said.

“There’s an elevator right there.”

“I know.”

“Is there a baby in there?”

I nodded. “I’ve done this a million times.”

“There’s an elevator right there!” he said again.

“I know, it’s all right.” I said smiling and shrugging.

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The cop shook his head. “It’s your kid, but that’s insane.”

As it happened, my family — me, wife, daughter, son — was on its way to Boston Common for the demonstration in response to recent grand jury decisions and instances of police violence. As a home-owning white couple in our mid-30s, with two children under 5, my wife and I don’t, as a rule, have much to protest. But the video of Eric Garner’s death during an apparently routine street hassling made the inconvenience of keeping the kids out past their bedtimes on a school night seem minor.

Anyway, I know you’re not supposed to take a stroller on the escalator, but I don’t know if there’s an actual ordinance against it. But I — a doughy, non-threatening white male — shrugged off the officer who pointed this out and . . . that was it. My family and I got on the Red Line train to Park Street.

Once in my early 20s, which I think of as The Era of Especially Bad Decisions, I awoke from a deep slumber to find a police officer tapping on my driver’s side window. I was home in rural Missouri for the holidays and, while entirely too drunk, I’d apparently driven to the parking lot of a lumber yard a mile or so past my mother’s place, put the car in park and gone to sleep with the engine running. The cop tapping on the glass had run the plates and seen that the car was registered in my mother’s name, so he wasn’t sure whether I’d stolen it. Instead of busting in the window . . . he called my mother to come get me, which she did, with my stepfather. No arrest, not even a ticket.

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A few years later, I was walking up a Philadelphia street early one morning. My friend had just flown in from a visit to the Dominican Republic, and I was going to drive her to the train station. On our walk to the car, I asked if I could check out the awesome souvenir she’d brought back in her checked luggage. She handed me the three-foot-long machete. I wasn’t wielding it recklessly, or hacking at trees, or threatening anyone. Nevertheless, even at 6:30 in the morning, that kind of weapon attracts attention.

A police car pulled up to the curb. Philly cops are notoriously — oh, what’s the word, pugnacious? I was understandably nervous.

“Is that a machete?” the cop in the passenger seat asked.

“Yes?” I said.

“Why don’t you put it away?”

I did, and the cops . . . pulled away. They never even got out of the car.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m very happy not to have been booked, or cuffed, or wrestled to the ground, or pepper-sprayed, or had a gun pointed at me in any of these instances. I’ve never been worried during a routine traffic stop. I’ve always taken for granted that I’d be given the benefit of the doubt.

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Thursday night, that’s what my family and I were marching for. The benefit of the doubt, for everyone.

Related:

Kari Hong: It’s time to get rid of grand juries

Dan Wasserman: ‘I can’t breathe’

Renee Graham: For African-American children, there’s no ‘Officer Friendly’

Michael P. Jeffries: Ferguson must force us to face anti-blackness


Sebastian Stockman is a lecturer in English at Northeastern University. Follow him on Twitter: @substockman.