"There was no problem until you got here": More on race and policing
In 1989 I was on break from college and driving through my hometown of Glen Burnie, Maryland. Can't remember what my intentions were or where I was going, but I noticed a group of about twelve protesters, all white, with signs standing at a busy intersection. I slowed down to see what their signs said and couldn't believe my eyes.
"I ain't afraid of no spook" "Hey yo—is yo black and a criminal—call NAACP 1-800-NIGGERS"
The protests were triggered by the NAACP looking into possible police misconduct in a case where a black man was alleged to have killed two white kids. When the police found him, he was allegedly brandishing a knife, so they shot him dead on the street.
But another sign showed that these idiots were also upset that Nelson Mandela had been released from prison.
I parked my car and walked over to the group. I asked them what it was all about. "You're ridiculous," I said.
"Fuck you," a skinhead teenager replied.
So I rooted around in my car and found a large piece of cardboard. I walked to the nearby movie theater and asked the kids working there (mostly black) if they had a marker I could borrow. When I told them what was happening they were as incensed as I was, and they all said they would be making signs and showing up as soon as their shift ended. They found a large black marker for me and I made my sign—with the straightforward message "RACISTS OUT."
I walked down to the protest. Two Anne Arundel County cops were standing nearby, looking rather bored behind their mirrored sunglasses. I also noticed a reporter talking to one of the younger protesters.
I stood next to the group and when they saw my sign they started hassling me.
"Racists out? What are you, a nigger lover?"
"Faggot" got thrown at me, along with other taunts. I noticed people were honking and giving them thumbs-up. What century am I living in, I wondered? It felt utterly surreal.
An old man—who it became obvious was the leader of the group—approached me. "What's your name?" he asked. I told him. "Mike Hughes," he said. "I'll remember that. Do you live around here? Why don't you come to my house and we'll talk about this sometime?" He grinned.
At that point a young kid—maybe eight-years-old at most—started kicking me. "Nigger lover!" he repeated over and over.
The old guy smiled.
The cops just stood there.
Then a guy in his late teens got in my face. "Faggot. Why do you love niggers so much? You gay for niggers?" He shoved me.
I stood still.
He shoved me again. "Fucking queer."
I stared him down. The other kids were laughing. This was high comedy. The older guy chuckled as he watched.
This time the teen swung at me. I ducked, but his fist still connected with the side of my face. It hurt but I was glad he hadn't seriously nailed me. The leader pulled him away, but he was obviously amused.
I walked over to one of the cops. "I want to press charges."
He looked at me stone-faced and said, "I didn't see anything."
"You were looking right at us. You saw him punch me in the face."
He repeated himself. "I didn't see anything."
I walked to the other cop. "I want to press charges," I said.
"Press charges for what? I didn't see anything."
At this point I was getting seriously pissed. "You were standing right there. He was shoving me. You saw him hit me in the face."
He shrugged. "There wasn't any problem until you got here."
I was stunned. So I approached the reporter. "You saw that guy shove me a bunch of times. Then hit me in the face. Will you tell the cops what you just saw?"
"I can't do that," she said.
"But you saw it, right?"
"I'm a reporter," she said. "I can't say anything."
All this time, more people were driving past and honking their approval of the racist signs. I couldn't believe the level of support—this was my community?
The protesters were still taunting me. So I stood a little farther away, out of their reach. When the older guy told them it was time to end the protest, they all filed past me. The little kid spit on me. The old guy (who I was later to learn was a well-known white supremacist and had been arrested for having explosives in his home) stopped and said, "Mike Hughes. I'll keep an eye out for you. I'll be seeing you around, Mike Hughes."
Just as they were leaving, a group of kids from the movie theater came walking up the street with their signs. It made me so happy to see them, this gaggle of mostly black teenagers full or righteous rage. Since the protesters were gone, they hung around for a few minutes and we talked. Those kids gave me hope in the face of all the virulent racism of that day.
The next day an article came out in the The Baltimore Sun's Anne Arundel County section. When I read this part I started shaking and cursing.
"At one point, a scuffle began between Mr. Hughes and another protester." (full article here)
A scuffle? The reporter had watched me being assaulted. I hadn't raised a finger.
But one phrase lingered, and it's the one that bothered me the most. It wasn't all the racist and homophobic slurs that had been thrown at me. It was the words from the cop:
"There wasn't any problem until you got here."
Apparently some things haven't changed.