On White Privilege, Police Brutality and Baltimore

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image via oncealittlegirl.com
image via oncealittlegirl.com

University of Baltimore MFA student Tracy Gold considers the recent riots in light of her comfortable Towson upbringing. 

I’m white, and I live in a neighborhood of yuppies near the water in Baltimore City. So, I can’t speak to what it’s like for the folks affected by police brutality.

But I can speak to what it’s like to deal with police when you’re a stupid, white teenager. I believe these kinds of stories are important to tell right now; they highlight how unfair our current system is. Sure, life’s not fair. But criminal justice should be.

I grew up in an affluent Baltimore County neighborhood that was five minutes from the Towson mall but looked like a slice of countryside. We couldn’t see our neighbors’ houses from our huge, tree-bordered yard. We christened the first (of many) houses to sell in the neighborhood for over $1 million as the 1.2 house. Almost all of our neighbors were white, and most kids went to private school. Our house’s deed read: “No pigs, no Jews, and no horses.” As a half-Jewish equestrian, I delighted in breaking one of these rules, and rued that my parents wouldn’t let me break the third.

One night that lives large in family legend, two cops walked up to our French doors and knocked, hard.

My father paused whatever movie we were watching and answered the door.

“Good evening, officers,” he said.

“Good evening,” one of the cops said. “Excuse me, sir, are there any teenagers living here?”

I was home cleaning my saddle before a horseback-riding competition. Guilty as charged, I stood up from my cleaning station on the floor. The cop looked at me sternly.

“Well, yeah,” my dad said. “She’s been home all night, and my son is with friends.” “One of your neighbors called to say teenagers were throwing things at cars on Seminary Avenue, and that someone threw a water bottle at her,” the cop said.

I looked at my mother and tried not to smirk. The throwing things at cars part, at least, sounded like my younger brother for sure.

“We’ll let you know if we hear anything,” my mother said.

“She said they ran this way. We already checked next door,” the cop said.

(Later, we found out the cops gave my neighbor Nick quite a scare. Nick, a year younger than my brother, was home alone and seizing the opportunity to watch porn when the officers knocked on his door and said, “Son, is there anything you’d like to tell us about?” Though Nick was briefly terrified by the officers’ omniscience, they left on his assurance of innocence.)

“We haven’t seen anyone go by,” my dad said.

The cops thanked us for our cooperation and went on their way.

As soon as the police left, my mother called my brother.

“Travis? Where are you? The cops just came to the house.”

“I’m…running…in…the woods…golf club…” my brother said.

“What?” my mom said.

“I’m hiding in the woods! A maniac was chasing me with a golf club!”

My mom relayed the message to us.

My father reached for the phone. “You need to come home. Now.”

“I can’t! Golf club!” my brother said.

“There’s no one outside. Come home. Now.” My father’s typical tactic for anger management was to silently walk away to another room. When that proved insufficient, and he actually raised his voice, you knew you were in big trouble.

So Travis headed home, and in the meantime, my dad called the neighbors on Seminary Avenue. And here, it turns out, is what happened.

My brother and a few friends were indeed throwing things—water balloons—at cars on Seminary Avenue. From the cover of darkness and the trees of our neighbor’s yard, they threw and laughed as the cars cruised by.

Until one car stopped. The driver, a huge white guy in a wife-beater, came out wielding a golf club and cursing. By this point, our neighbor, a Baltimore County judge, had come to see what the ruckus was about. She was hit by a water bottle thrown by Mr. Road Rage, which hurt but caused no real damage.

As my brother and his friends dispersed, allegedly chased by the guy with the golf club into the woods behind our house, our neighbor called the cops.

Travis had to write an apology to our neighbor, and he was grounded. That was it. The police trusted my parents—and the neighbor’s kid, Nick—enough to move on after just a few questions.

When we were discussing this incident over a recent family dinner, I told my brother, “If you were black, the cops would have found you and beat you up that night.”

No they wouldn’t have,” my brother said. “Because I would have just stayed in the woods for the rest of my life.”

From my privileged perspective, when it comes to dealing with police, this is the difference between being white and being black in Baltimore. This isn’t my only story of a run-in with the cops that ended with a stern look—I had my own fair share of shenanigans. For a white kid, run-ins with the cops turn into funny stories. For a black kid, run-ins with the cops are life or death.

And if you’re black, you don’t even have to be making mischief to get involved with the cops. If you’re like Freddie Gray, you just have to make eye contact and run. Because you’re scared. Because you know what could come next.

Tracy Gold is a writer, editor, marketer and teacher. Her stories and poems are published or forthcoming in several journals and anthologies. She is an M.F.A. candidate in Fiction at the University of Baltimore.



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11 COMMENTS

  1. Much of this tale sounds familiar and accurate to this kid who grew up in a smaller town a half-hour from Baltimore. But it is not just that the author was white; the fact that she was living in a million-dollar home in an affluent area had as much to do with the cops’ behavior. Of course, those two aspects are connected; and maybe _that_ should be a bigger part of the conversation.

    • That’s an excellent point. I was actually surprised that the deed of my parents’ house said no pigs, no Jews, and no horses, but did not mention black people. There is a long history of both legal and surreptitious segregation in real estate in this country that led to this concentration of wealth in white neighborhoods.

  2. I appreciate the story, and as a real estate person, the part about the deed was eye-opening. My best guess about why blacks weren’t specifically excluded is that they never would have had access to the neighborhood anyway; Realtors and lenders were using their own tactics to meet that end.

  3. This is an important story to tell, Tracy. Thanks for sharing. I also remember many stories of teenage escapades that resulted in similar outcomes and I was not raised in a wealthy neighborhood, but a lower-middle class-borderline poor one. Great writing!

  4. what a ridiculous, obvious, and useless piece of writing…you really needed to get into the act, didn’t you?

    • What a ridiculous, useless response to Ms. Gold’s personal experience. How does it feel?

  5. Tracy – you may be interested in my experience as a child in Philadelphia, waiting for the bus (at a street bus stop) to take me home from my private school. Several other kids had been throwing snowballs at passing cars but I was the one who was wrongly singled out by the policeman who stopped his car to chew ME out for something I didn’t do. Perhaps it was because I was taller and bigger and looked older — I don’t know what caused the officer’s “guilty” judgment — just that it was the only such experience I ever had, and that it is one that I have always remembered for the injustice of it all…. One hates to say it, but if the policeman could have added my being black to the other characteristics (taller, bigger, maybe older), would I have earned a ride to the police station?
    – Just a thought
    – Rich Wray

  6. Tracy, I am deeply moved by your story. It makes a very important point about the difference between how white teens are treated by the police and the way black teens are treated by police. I hope your story is read widely because you are an informed and gifted writer who I respect for telling your story while understanding how different it is for those of a darker hue.

  7. So dramatic. Since Ms Gold is from the Hood – she full well knows what an experience a simple trip to the Towsontown Mall Friday night/Saturday/Saturday can be. After the 2nd time of being locked inside a Mall store due to disruptive teenagers I gave shopping up weekend shopping. Those Kids are not from Towson but arrived via the number 8 bus. By the way, I have a WHITE 21 year old male who has been pulled over by the Police – several times – he knows the drill – keep your mouth shut and let them inspect his big black truck, with blacked out windows. He did ask one time ‘why did you pull me over ?’ and that inquiry was met with a stern ‘I will tell you later’ … of course no explanation was ever offered by the Police. Ms Gold – do you ever watch Youtube – of course you do – and now hopefully your readers will also. Google Towsontown Mall. It starts in the Home.

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