"Us" vs. "Them"

Posted: April 18, 2008 in Civil Rights, Discrimination, Homelessness, Morality, Police Harrassment

A friend of mine and I met today at an Internet cafe to do some catching up.

After buying our coffee we decided to sit at one of the tables outside. Not long into our conversation I noticed a homeless gentleman that I’ve seen numerous times. He looked pretty much the way he always does. He was walking along with his backpack slung over his shoulders. Then he stopped, set down his backpack against the wall of one of the buildings and sat down beside it, trying to stay out of everyone’s way.  

As I watched he took off his shoe and made to shake it as though it had a pebble or small stone inside. Then he reached inside of the shoe with his fingers to make sure that whatever had been inside was actually gone. With that he slipped his shoe back on and began to tie the laces.

Before he could finish tying his shoe I noticed a police officer walk up to where he was sitting and saying something.

Because of the distance I couldn’t make out what was being said. But from the gestures the homeless gentleman was making, it seemed as though he was explaining to the police officer why he was sitting on the ground. At that point the police officer must’ve asked him if he had any form of identification, because the homeless gentleman reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet and handed the officer, what I’m assuming, was his ID.

The officer took a look at it, but didn’t seem interested in "calling it in." He handed the ID back to the gentleman, and then seemed to be pointing back and forth along the length of the building. The homeless gentleman nodded his head up and down a few times and seemed to be saying something. With that, he finished tying his shoe as quickly as possible with the officer still standing there watching him.

The homeless man then stood up, picked up his backpack, slung it back onto his shoulders and began walking away. As he did though, I noticed him shaking his head in disbelief.

My friend and I had been watching this all along and looked at each other. He could see the look of disgust on my face. Then I said, "Can you believe that bunk? The guy was trying to take a pebble out of his shoe and gets hassled. Unbelievable."

Unfortunately, for persons who are homeless, being hassled by police officers is a common occurrence. Just their presence in certain areas of the downtown district is enough to draw attention from law enforcement – even if they’re doing nothing more than sitting. It’s the same thing if a homeless person is at one of the shopping centers.

I’m not saying that all police officers go out of their way to hassle the homeless. For the most part, our local law enforcement personnel are actually pretty tolerant of the homeless. When they do have to interact with the homeless they do so in a professional and courteous manner. There are however, those officers who are a bit over-zealous when it comes to making sure the homeless "don’t cause any problems."

I recall one particular incident where I had been "detained" by local law enforcement. While one of the officers was requesting a check on me – to see if I had any warrants, I presume – the other officer looked me straight in the eye and said, "Why don’t you people leave? As a homeowner in the community that’s what I want."

Did that irritate me? Oh, you bet it did.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – especially coming out of the mouth of an officer in full uniform. What bothered me the most, however, were the words, "you people." It had the connotations of an "us" versus "them" mindset – something which may have some value in a sporting event, but in the real world carries with it overtones of prejudice.

Now, as I write these words and think about the exchange I witnessed earlier today between that homeless gentleman and the police officer, it makes me wonder.

What if the homeless gentleman hadn’t been homeless? What if he had been, for example, a high school student? Would he have been hassled? Or, would the police officer had ignored the situation altogether?

There is something else I find going around in my mind: a parallel.

Just because there are some police officers who are overly aggressive with their law enforcement authority, doesn’t make every officer a "bad cop."

In the same respect, just because there are some homeless who choose to do nothing with their lives, doesn’t mean that every homeless person is "a bum."

Our nation’s homeless – for good or for bad – are a part of our society.

If we continue to think in terms of "us" versus "them," we lose sight of the fundamental ideals on which this nation is founded…

"We the people…"

Until we remember that "those people" are a part of "us," it seems to me that we won’t have much chance at reducing the numbers of homeless.

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