Thursday, Aug. 30 was a beautiful day. A bit of smoke was visible in the distance, but the air was crisp and cool, so I threw on a black hoodie, grabbed my cellphone and keys, and headed out to take my dog for a walk. This is our daily ritual, a walk around the Takelma Way subdivision (behind Shop ’N’ Kart) every morning before I head off to work.
The podcast I was listening to was quoting Obama’s speech reacting to the Zimmerman trial,”Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago ... there are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store, that includes me.”
As I was listening, an Ashland Police Department SUV drove slowly past me. I made eye contact with the police officer as he rounded the corner, and thought of the role that sex, race and class play in even being stopped by an officer in the first place. Then he reappeared.
He parked his car and approached me, calling for me to stop and talk. I removed my headphones. He asked if I lived in the area. I said yes. He said, “In this neighborhood? I told him I lived around the corner, on Clay Street, to which he replied, “You live in that apartment complex?” “That apartment complex,” mind you, is Section 8 housing.
I told him no, he asked my address, and I asked why he needed to know. He told me he was responding to call of two individuals with a dog who approached a car and then left when they presumably spotted the caller.
I was confused and told him I didn’t come from a car, I had left my house and walked onto the street. He clarified the individuals were approaching a car and then turned around, which was deemed suspicious activity. They couldn’t tell whether the individuals were male or female.
I told him I was alone, that I hadn’t seen anyone that fit that description. He asked again where I lived, if I lived in the apartment complex. I told him no. He asked my name, first and last, I gave it to him and walked away. As I was leaving another cop showed up on a motorbike.
My home is right by the overpass on Clay Street. I’ve lived there the better part of a year, and I am told that it used to be a “rough part of town.” The cops are regularly called, and use the space where we park our vehicles to monitor activity under the bridge.
I’m writing about this because the culture of Ashland is escalating in a way that is exclusionary. Why did Ashland police need to respond to a call about a couple approaching a car with two units as if it were a serious crime? Most importantly, why was the police officer fixated on having me state that I lived in the apartment complex as if living in low-income housing somehow implicated me as the suspicious person that “approached a vehicle and then turned around?”
Because it matters, I am in my late twenties, white, and female. I hate to think what would have been assumed if I fell into a different demographic.
As a taxpayer who pays these officers’ salaries, I am extremely disappointed. It is not lost on me, however, that the behavior of the police is a reflection of the community they serve. To the south-end residents perpetually calling the police: Please ask yourself why you are making that call and if there is any way you could connect with your community rather than dividing it. Since Ashland is an insular community that lacks financial and racial diversity, it’s easy to forget the role we play in acting out bias on a daily basis. In my opinion, it’s important to take stock of how we are behaving and reacting to one another, and what those actions are grounded in. In this political climate, we must not give in to fear-mongering and socially constructed stereotypes.
Carmen Solari lives in Ashland.