I had a nerve-wracking experience at a little liquor store here in Temple, which happens to be a few miles down the road from Waco, Texas, where the recent biker death toll occurred.
It started innocently enough. I had my billfold tucked in a jeans pocket and a black bag clutched in one hand. I tend to use reusable bags when possible. I left my cane in the car. It’s a short trip in and out. The store looked empty but I figured the employees were in the freezer (which they were).
I placed a bottle in bag and suddenly a woman burst out of the back saying something frantically, but unfortunately I don’t hear well so I waited on her to get closer. She looked upset, almost frightened as she snatched the bag out of my hand and placed it on the counter. She called out for the other cashier, who came out. Two white women, if you’re needing to set the scene properly. I’m also a white woman, but apparently also a danger, because I realized at that moment that the first cashier thought I was a shoplifter.
Me, with a tricky knee. A shoplifter? How could I explain? I was in the store, not limping away, but the first woman behaved as though I was a dangerous object about to explode.
I tried to explain but then I saw the second cashier pointing to the bag and to me. I’d been in that store rarely but the second cashier remembered me and the black bag.
She pointed back and forth. She was vouching for me, I realized. Fear washed over me. In part due to something bad that happened to me many years ago-close friends and family know about it. Despite being a generally law-abiding person, I have reason to feel tense around the police. Cruel memories.
When I came back up to register, the first woman, the one who cried wolf, apologized. She said the store had a problem with shoplifters. This is what I did: I didn’t yell or accuse or cry. I pointed out a couple of little bottles behind the cashier’s desk and added them to the tally. I opened my billfold to display my cash (just some Washingtons, but oh well) and pulled out plastic to pay. Bought more than I’d intended to at the outset, but you understand, don’t you?
I completed the transaction and left. The experience left me shaken. My mental calendar flew back to nights where I’d been gay-profiled, and to the other experience which, trust me, was a humdinger.
The second cashier somehow remembered the tall blonde woman who walked with a limp and who carried an eco-friendly bag. I was lucky.
Not so lucky were some of the bikers down the road in Waco, in the aftermath of a shoot-out at Twin Peaks restaurant that left nine people dead. The number of arrests kept expanding-160?, 170?-but police weren’t taking any chances. If you wore gang colors, even if you’d done nothing but keep your head down, you were going to jail. You’d been profiled.
Turns out a number of those bikers had no priors and other than a few knives in pockets, posed no danger. The majority of the bikers happen to be white, yet they have more in common with African-American death-by-police victims than might seem obvious at first.
They’d all been profiled and handled accordingly. Arrested, booked, charged, their records stained. I’ll state this right now: even those with records deserve a more thorough reckoning than merely a “jail-them-all” rush to judgment by the Waco police.
It’s a troubling attitude in our all too ready guns-up climate, and one that more and more Americans are beginning to understand can also target them.
Have a thought for those accused-and, as well, think of those who speak up and defend. Someday you may be called upon to be someone’s defender, as the second cashier acted for me today.
Thankfully, there are citizens calling for fair treatment of the bikers. An uncharitable person might ask where these defenders were when African-Americans have experienced similar round-ups or worse.
But, you see, you have to imagine yourself in the shoes of those accused. A biker’s boots, perhaps. Or a young man’s Nikes. Even a librarian’s orthopedic sneakers. Once you see yourself, then empathy appears, followed by a defender’s concern and outrage.
I walked away unharmed, un-arrested, with little to complain about, really. I’m a lucky person, and well aware that I am. May all of us, whether we wear colors or are people of color, receive the benefit of the doubt that the law guarantees.
For it could be you who is called upon to be someone’s defender. Speak up. Pull out your camera phone. Don’t walk away.
Photo: Roses rest on the seat of Jesus Delgado Rodriguez’s motorcycle in front of his home in New Braunfels, Texas, May 20. Rodriguez was killed in a deadly shootout, involving rival motorcycle gangs in Waco, Texas. Rodriguez’s family members say he was not part of an outlaw motorcycle gang, contradicting police claims that all nine bikers who died were members of criminal gangs. | Mark Wilson/The San Antonio Express-News via AP