By Helen Gerhardt
I didn’t look away, willed myself to wait for the sergeant to speak as the T lifted us upward out of the North Shore Connector tunnel.
“The police are human, very human,” the sergeant said, “I’ve most surely been on the end of it.” He looked aside again, into some painful memory.
I thought of Richard Carrington, coming home to Pittsburgh after fifteen years of military service to dedicate his life to ending violence in black communities, to building public safety. I remembered the pain and anger he expressed at finding himself repeatedly on that wrong end of the use of police force, treated as though he were an insurgent in his own neighborhood, along with his sons.
Just so, Brian Johnson’s service as Air Force firefighter could not be seen on his black face by the police officers who had stopped him just a few blocks from his home, on his way to volunteer at the local emergency room. The exam he had just taken for the Pittsburgh Police Academy could not be worn as a shield to protect him from being forced against a wall, without any apparent cause, without any explanation afterwards. Twenty years later, as retired black Pittsburgh police homicide detective, he told that story to help shine a light on the causes of community mistrust of the Police Bureau that he had served for two decades.
The sergeant had paused as the T now soared above the ground, watching my face, maybe needing more than neutrality to risk saying more. He knew he was speaking to a white woman who had been a sergeant in the Army National Guard. I thought of my own unnecessary use of force against an Iraqi civilian – I remembered the smile on that brown face fading away into terror.
“Yes, I know the police are human – I’ve been on that other side of a weapon.”
The sergeant’s face changed – what seemed to be a softening, maybe concern for what he saw on my own face, maybe a different set of memories pulling back another way.” A war zone is different, now. Everything’s different in a war zone. You know you’re just trying to survive – the rules aren’t the same.”
“I know I saw a lot of people’s lives get wrecked, for no reason. I know I helped with that.”
“Yes. I saw a lot of that, too. But we didn’t have a choice. We were just trying to survive. ”
I thought of all the police officers and their lawyers that I’ve heard speak of such fear for their lives as motive for the use of force, of how many times I’ve heard Homewood described as a sort of war zone.
The sergeant seemed to be claiming a special pass for us, as veterans, as distinct from police officers, based on our own greater cause for terror. But such fear could not explain what I myself had done in Iraq, as it did not explain the behavior of the police who had frisked their fellow citizen Brian Johnson, forced up against a wall although he had presented no sign of threat. Such exonerations could not apply either to the behavior of our military at Abu Ghraib, or to the behavior of the state troopers who had stopped Richard Carrington and his passengers without cause and ordered them to strip down to their underwear on the side of a public highway without the least scrap of evidence of wrong-doing.
“I still think we’re the greatest country on earth,” the sergeant said.
“I think we’re as great as we act. And we haven’t been acting so great, these last years.”
“Yes, well that’s true. That is true.” He paused. “But you got to remember who we’re fighting, now. Baathists, Taliban, ISIS, they’ve killed all those innocents, all those babies…”
“We’ve killed so many babies,” I broke in, “so many children. So many thousands.”
“Yes.” The sergeant replied with gravity,with pain. “Yes. I killed babies myself. Yes.”
We sat in silence together, rising and slowing with the T as it approached the Allegheny Station.
“But that was a war zone.” Again he claimed the difference. Maybe the defense was the way he held onto life despite what he’d done. He had come so far with me in honesty, in such a brief space in time. I had neither suffered or inflicted as he had – did not bear the level of grief I could hear in his voice. I could not bear to challenge him again, to cause any further potential damage to any foundation for survival he had built.
I reached out my hand to his. “I’m Helen.”
He took my own hand, held it, looking gravely into my face, told me his name, then said. “Most folks call me Sarge.”
He paused. Kept looking me full in the face as people flowed around us, as we remained seated together. “I’ve earned that.”
And we went our ways, he to his daughter, waiting to pick him up at the station so they could cook a meal together for their family, and I onto the Citizens Police Academy graduation, knowing that our conversation had touched us both to the quick, had touched on the root of the contradictions and tensions that I had felt during my own deployment, and on the root of the kinship I felt with the police.