THERE IS A WOMAN who answers the phone here at The Washington Post who is something of a pro when it comes to taking abuse and listening to crude stuff. She sits there most of the day and people call to tell her what they think of the paper and the news and she takes it all down, saying as little as possible, I guess, so she can get on to the next caller. She's a short woman, with long, dark hair and a very sweet smile. She's had a very rough week.
She wrote a memo about it: "Reaction to the P.G. police slaying stories: No other story that I can remember has brought such opinionated, hateful phone calls from our readers. The surprising thing is that they are split right down the middle, with the white callers using the alleged murders for exonerating alleged past police brutality and the black callers defending Terrance Johnson, regardless of circumstances, because they feel the P.G. police deserve it."
She went from there, saying she had received "hundreds of calls" and you could sense right from the memo that she was upset. A lot of hate had come over the phone to her - black hate of the Prince George's County police and white hate of blacks because one of them had allegedly killed two white policemen. When I talked to her, which was after she had written the memo, she was still a bit upset.
Anyway, the thing to do with a situation like this is not to take sides. This is a tragedy. Two men are dead; a wife is suddenly a widow and children are without a father. That is more than enough. But there is more. The youth who was arrested on suspicion of rifling a coin box and normally would have been sent home that night is up on a murder charge and he might be in jail for the rest of his life. That, in its own way, is also a tragedy - also more than enough.
But there is something here that tugs. There is something here that brings me back to when I was around 15 and I got stopped by the police, my friends and me, in the car my father owned and we could not come up with the registration. So the police asked for a radio check and the radio eventually said that the car did not belong to my father, but to someone else. It was stolen, the cops said, and we, they added, were under arrest.
So they took us to the stationhouse and questioned us. We were innocent so we were cocky. There were smirks on our faces and a swagger in our walk and when I was asked a question, I leaned my elbow on a high desk and started to answer when a moster of a plainclothes policeman took a couple of giant strides across the room and hit me in the mouth. Later, he said he was sorry and he also said something about no hard feelings, but there were hard feelings and although they are gone now I remain suspicious of what happens in a stationhouse.
This is what, in their own way, the black people of Prince George's County are saying. They have had their own experiences, some of them, and they've had collective experiences, too. They can keep count and by now the number of suspicious or outrageous incidents quite high, the beatings, the shooting of unarmed men. That sort of thing. There is a deep-felt enmity and it comes out on the telephone. Some of it is quite prosaic.
There was one man who told how his 5-year-old kid went up to a policeman at a shopping center to say hello, as kids sometimes do, and the officer refused to answer.
The whites, of course, don't feel this way at all. They don't know what it's like to get no response for their kids and they're not really concerned about police brutality, real or alleged, and they feel, instead, that the cops are handcuffed - unable even to protect themselves. The proof of that is that some kid was able to come into a stationhouse and allegely kill two fine policemen. "What more proof could you want?" they ask. Here are the victims.
Well, the trouble is that there are more than enough victims to go around. There are the dead policemen, of course, and the live ones who still grieve, and the families and the loved ones and all of them. There is the youth, also - 15 years old and possibly facing a life in prison. You learn nothing, though, if all you do is count the victims, take the white ones for the whites and the black ones for the blacks - taking wounded and dead with you as you leave the field.
There is something else to be said and it has to do with the Prince George's County police. They lost two men and a big part of the communities they served didn't feel sorry at all. The people there thought they had it coming. They saw the bodies and some people thought the true victim was the person who is still alive. Things have to go pretty far to get so bad, but they apparently have. If there is one thing the black callers and white callers have in common, it was they had something to say about the police department. What it has apparently done is polarize the community. If you doubt that, come and talk to the woman who answers the phone here at the newspaper.
She had a very rough week.