Newsletter 31: What to Do When a Traffic Cop Responds to Your Son Saying Hello to Him by Insulting Barack Obama

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here is one from December 2016, about an incident I had with a police officer in Athens. This was right after the election, so take everything I, or anybody else, said in the days after that with much, much salt. I’ve been looking for this dude for the two years since and still haven’t seen him.

So, last Saturday, I called a uniformed, on-duty police officer an “asshat” right to his face.

First off, a few bullet points on how I feel about police officers.

  • I believe that police officers might have the most stressful job in the country. You know how, at your job, you look for moments of calm and peace, even when most of your day is high-intensity? How grateful you are for the occasional assignment that allows you to shut your brain off and chill for a second? Every interaction every police officer ever has is fraught with peril, because he or she is seeing people at their most vulnerable, or destitute, or most heightened emotional state. You know how a couple of weeks ago in this newsletter I said that I admired professions that required dealing with strangers and the general public? Cops do that more than anyone, and they do it usually when that stranger is highly emotional and volatile and is unhappy to see the police officer. I can’t fathom how difficult that must be.
  • The job of a police officer should be as close to apolitical as any job possibly could be. It has been disturbing, in the last year, to hear stories of police officers refusing to work security at sporting events in which athletes have been a part of protests, like Colin Kaepernick or the St. Louis Rams players who did the “hands up, don’t shoot” protest. Cops should be like nurses or doctors or firefighters, always: Even if someone is holding a sign that says, “Police Officers Suck,” a good police officer should protect that person as if they are someone who gives to the Police Benevolent Society. If my mother had a patient come in who disagreed with her politically — for example, if her son came in — it would never even occur to her not to take care of that patient at the best of her abilities. It would, in fact, be disqualifying for her to do anything else. It is bizarre that any police officer would ever imagine this wouldn’t be the case for his or her profession.
  • Of the dozens of police officers I’ve known in my life, I’ve only known one of them to be a jerk. And he would be a jerk if he were veterinarian or a priest or a grocer.
  • I believe that, the vast majority of the time, police officers are a force for good and are here to help. Helping is literally what their job is supposed to be. I believe most, more than most, understand this and treat their job accordingly.
  • A good police officer can do as more good in a community than almost anyone else in any other profession can.
  • I know not all cops can be like this, but I can still dream.
  • Every single time I’ve ever come across a police officer, I have been immediately compliant and docile. One time my wife made a snide comment within earshot of a police officer and I nearly dove under my car seat. This isn’t just respectful, it’s wise.
  • I feel safer when I see a cop. Always.
  • This is certainly because I am a white male, but that doesn’t make the statement any less true.

So! Now you know how I feel about police and can move along with your day.

OK, back to last Saturday. So William and I went to the (disappointing) Georgia-Georgia Tech game at Sanford Stadium here in Athens. Afterward, we headed downtown to get together with the Waitin’ Since Last Saturday crew at South Kitchen. It was fun. We sat at the bar, and William ate Mac & Cheese while we all drank and watched the Alabama-Auburn game and groused about the loss. William even got to take his first Uber home. Another really fun aspect of the afternoon was the fact that I wasn’t in the local jail for calling a police officer an “asshat” to his face two minutes before we got there.

So here’s what happened.

At William’s school, they’ve been learning about Community Helpers. Any time you need help, the kids are taught, you can go to a Community Helper and they will help you. Police officers. Fire fighters. Nurses. Bus drivers. Sanitation workers. Librarians. They are, as my personal instructional television program of choice as a child might put it, The People You Meet In Your Neighborhood. It’s a positive program that aids kids not only in understanding where to turn to if they need assistance, but also as to who the people are who provide the fabric and backbone of the community in which they live. In a school like ours, where there are kids from all different backgrounds, it’s vital, I believe, that they understand from the get-go that our community is what binds us, what keeps us connected. We have lost so much faith in institutions as a society that I do not think it is the worst thing in the world to let kids know there are still institutions that they can trust, that are there to help them. We’re all in this together. It’s one of the many reasons, with William only just one semester into pre-kindergarten, why I love that freaking school.

Thus, they have taught the kids, every time they see someone in one of those professions, to stop and say, “Thank you for being a community helper.” I’ve seen William do it to firefighters, and a bus driver, and several police officers (one of whom got so excited that he let William sit in his car and gave him a badge sticker), and even a couple of waiters. It makes me happy and proud every time he does it.

So, with the postgame crowd spilling through the streets of downtown Athens, there were officers on every corner directing traffic and pedestrians. It was a gorgeous day, but the Bulldogs had just lost, so it was a sullen, more sparse-than-usual crowd spilling out. We came to the corner of Washington and Lumpkin when an officer stopped us. He then waved us through. He looked about my age, maybe a little younger, white guy, with a lopsided nose and the creased mouth of a heavy smoker. He was tired, I think, as anyone might be who had been dealing with drunk college kids jaywalking all day.

Halfway through the intersection, William stopped and turned to him and said what I’ve seen him say dozens of times.

“Thank you for being a community helper!”

Every parent thinks their kid is cute. But my five-year-old is really cute. Seriously, look at this kid.

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Every single person, in every profession, has started beaming when William has said this to them. They all have tough jobs. They are all underpaid, and underappreciated. They all deal with dickheads all day long. When a five-year-old stops to thank them for helping people, they get pretty excited about it. The world’s a lonely place. It means something when someone stops to tell you they’re thankful for your place in it. We should all do it more often.

But this cop did not smile. In fact, that weathered, smoke-lined face immediately fell into a scowl. He stopped waving people through, dropped his arm and looked dead at my son.

“I’m not a ‘community helper,’” he said. “I’m a police officer.”

I wasn’t upset yet. My default personality mode is “affable,” and I tried to keep it light. We kept walking as I explained.

“Well, at their school, they’ve taught them to all thank community helpers for helping the community. That’s all he’s doing.” It was a little strange that I’d have to defend my five-year-old for showing his appreciation to a public servant, but again: Compliant and docile.

The scowl did not drop.

“Well, ‘community helper’ sounds a little too much like ‘community organizer’ for me,” he said, with a creepy little grin starting to sneak up the side of his face. “I actually have a real job.”

Now. It is worth noting that William wasn’t upset by this interaction and, in fact, seemed not to have noticed it at all. So I cannot blame an emotional reaction, because of a crying son or something, for what happened next. It was just my gut response to this strange man deciding to slough off a legitimate compliment from a sweet five-year-old who just wanted to say thank you, all out of some nonsensical political talking point he vaguely sorta remembers from a few years ago.

Also it is possible I’d had a little bourbon at the game.

“Oh come on,” I yelled, doing my best to make eye contact with the cop while still walking away. “A little kid just tried to say thank you, you asshat. What are you even talking about?”

I am not sure he heard the ”asshat” part. I didn’t mumble it or anything, but as anyone who has seen me on television or heard me on a podcast, sometimes I tend to speak faster and less clearly than I think I am at the time. But he clearly noticed I was pissed. I was still walking away, but I was still looking at him. I wasn’t glaring: I was mostly just confused. But I was mad. And he knew it.

Now. There are several things he could have done right there. He could have told me to stop walking. He could have come over to me. He could have flipped me off. He could have called for backup to pick me up for, I dunno, whatever crime I may or may not have committed, down the block somewhere. He could have apologized. Life is a cavalcade of possibilities.

But he didn’t. He did something odd: He just looked down, then, after a second, he turned his head in the opposite direction and started waving more people through. Was he sad? Was he ashamed? Or did he just not hear me? Did he not care? Did he have a lot better things to do than discuss elementary school policy with an idiot on a street corner? I don’t know the answer to that question. I do think it was probably fortunate that I was a white guy holding the hand of a five-year-old at that moment. I just know we kept walking, to the bar, where William could eat mac-and-cheese and I could drink more bourbon and move along like it was a normal day. Which I suppose it was.

I’ve been thinking about this incident all week, and what to take away from it. I spent the first day or so still stewing about this cop, this guy who couldn’t even hear a nice word from a five-year-old without twisting it into some weird agenda item he is misremembering from an old Breitbart post. But I don’t feel that way now. I was the one in the wrong. Even if what he said was rude, even if he was being a jackass, it’s my job, as a citizen who wants to have faith in institutions, who wants his police officers to be community helpers, who wants those who work hard to make us safe not to feel so under siege sometimes, to let it go. I should have done that.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time the last few weeks mulling on what I can do, personally, to make the world a better place, a world that suddenly feels a lot meaner and angrier than it was a month ago. And the primary thing — not the only thing, but the most immediate one — is to try to just put more goodness and patience and understanding into the world than impatience and grievance. I’m not always that great at this, particularly when I’m driving in heavy traffic. But no one is served well by me making a snarky, nasty remark to someone, particularly someone who can make more of a difference in our community in his daily life than I can in mine. We need to rise above. We need to do better. I need to do better.

Still: It wouldn’t have hurt him just to freaking say, “thank you,” either.

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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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