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  • Ken Ilgunas

My four months of getting hassled by cops

On my walk across the Great Plains, I had countless encounters with law enforcement. At one point in Montana, I was awoken by an armed posse led by the local sheriff. In Petersburg, Nebraska, I was detained and driven out of the county on false charges of breaking into local homes. In Kansas, I was approached by cops every day — sometimes several times a day — so that they could check my ID and see what I was up to. In Texas, a cop pulled over and interviewed me to determine whether I was an environmental terrorist. In my normal life, I’m never approached by cops. But on this 146-day trip, I must have been targeted by cops several times a week.

On the one hand, I can identity with people of color who are routinely suspected of wrongdoing just because of how they look. (In their case, they’re black, and in my case, I was a bearded and bedraggled stranger.) But, on the other hand, I’ll never really understand what they have to go through. I never felt fear in any of these encounters. I never worried about getting manhandled, beaten, or shot. I never felt my dignity was being assaulted because I knew that this targeting would end the minute my hike did, and I’d go back to my old life in which my whiteness makes me invisible to cops. Honestly, being detained or cornered by cops was a source of amusement to me more than anything else.

I was treated with respect in all of these interactions. I’d call them “warm,” even. They usually ended with the officer wishing me good luck. One time, when things got scary in Atoka, Oklahoma — when a stranger approached my tent in the middle of the night — I called the cops, who came out to make sure I was okay. Another time, in Augusta, Kansas, the police department offered to let me sleep in their offices on a particularly cold December night. Despite being suspected of wrongdoing all the time, I ended my journey with great respect for cops and what they do.

But this is not a “all cops are wonderful” post. There is no question in my mind that African Americans are disproportionately targeted, mistreated, and killed. (Make sure you read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” before you disagree with that comment.) There’s no question that doing what I did — trespassing across the whitest part of America — would be one hundred times harder, and deadlier, for a person of color.

I’m not sure what this post is other than a double dose of sympathy from someone who’s neither black nor a cop: I sympathize with folks who are racially targeted and I sympathize with the men and women who put their lives on the line for us every day. This post is an acknowledgement of the good work our cops do and an acknowledgment that things must also change.


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