Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Just Another Night in the Police State


We’d been talking for hours outside a corner store, on a hot summer evening in Detroit, about organizing locally against prisons and police. We got in random conversations with other folks hanging out, including a black man wearing a “my life matters” T-shirt. We’d taken a break from our strategy schmooze to visit a friend who’d had a hard day, and the three of us went to find a fascist poster that, word had it, was put up recently. Fortunately, someone else had already removed it. We dropped our friend off at home, and circled back to the corner store for more abolitionist scheming. The flashing lights, ominous blue and red, of two sets of cop cars suddenly illuminated the rehabbed apartment building across the street from us, now housing richer, whiter people, while earlier displacing poorer, nonwhite ones.

“Want to go see? Do some informal cop watching?” was our shared basic impulse.

Now around midnight, the corner store was bustling with late-night beer sales, especially from the college students of nearby Wayne State College. So we figured that’s likely who the police were stopping.

We walked the half block, dark from the lack of street lighting in Detroit, and right around the bend saw two Wayne State police cars. Crossing the street, we walked parallel to the cops’ vehicles, saw a small car stopped in front of them, with what looked like four maybe-white college-age folks inside, and one cop, white and male, alongside it. The cop looked over at us.

I can’t quite recall the order of the next few seconds. It felt simultaneous. The cop did this awkward series of backward steps, unsteady yet menacing, hand on his gun, looking at us. And two people on bicycles cruised by: a white man and black woman. The female cyclist yelled at the police, saying that they almost ran her and her friend over only moments earlier. “I don’t fucking care if you’re police; you almost killed us,” to closely paraphrase part of what she said. “Shut up!” screamed the cop in return.

We doubled back past the police cars, returning to the corner store’s parking lot, where the bicyclists had gone, already explaining what happened, with quickened breaths, to two black man who’d both noticed the scene, all seeming strangers to each other. Apparently, a cop car had sped toward them, without lights, the cop on his cell phone, cutting them off and almost hitting them in order to be backup for the other cop car, which had already pulled over the small vehicle full of student types. The bikers had their lights on and were in the bike lane. The two cyclists kept repeating how they weren’t doing anything illegal; that the cop was being reckless; that they could have been killed. She wanted to report them.

So my friend and I offered to continue our informal cop watch and get the license plate of the car. We could still see its lights flashing down the block, and walked back. As we at once wrote down and memorized the number, the cop started growling at us about what we were doing. We turned away, without word, and went back to the parking lot.

It didn’t take long before the woman’s story of last night circled into stories of other days and nights, beginning when she was a tiny kid in an affluent Detroit suburb, a block from her home. The cops pulled her and her dad over in their car, for the same “nothing” as this evening. The woman said that she has a cousin who is a cop in another city, and he is not only a good person but a good officer, she noted. But she added that when he tried to complain about irregularities in his department, he got pulled from the street and put at a desk job for a year and a half. There are no good cops in a bad system, she and her friend agreed. It was about power, she remarked.

Yet you could hear the remnants of belief, perhaps a product of growing up in an economically comfortable suburb and getting to go to college, that somehow, some police were there to offer justice, that reporting this particular cop tonight to his department would get results and not put her at any further risk. It took her a while to get why we, her new mutual aid society, were urging her to maybe not give the police department her name and address; to maybe not bike home with just her friend tonight. And you could see that sink in, perhaps the product of Ferguson’s uprising and Black Lives Matter’s emergence, and many — too many — cell-phone-recorded “cop watch” videos of cops murdering black people and especially black women like her.

So the six of us — three black and three white — started bonding over the systemic violence of policing, as the corner store started locking up for the night and turning off its lights.

We gave her the plate number, along with our names and emails, and we all finally introduced ourselves. The cyclists started to prepare to bike home, with thanks all around.

Then we saw him. That cop. That white male cop. In his car. Driving by us once. Twice. Circling back, cutting through the parking lot. Driving by again, stopping, clicking on a big glaring spotlight directed at us, blinding us, making us clear to him. The four of us reiterated that the bikers should not venture out alone, that we’d all get them home. They hesitated. The cop circled by again. “Was that eight times, now?” said the woman.

The six of us set out on foot, with their two bicycles in tow, and one of the men, who’d had a guitar over his shoulder, now took to playing it aloud and talking about revolutionary movements like the Black Panthers, and all of us continued swapping anti-cop tales, bantering as if old friends.

But we soon saw him again. That cop. Driving past and ahead of us; stopping, turning, and circling back. Cutting through alleys to meet up with us again, always in his car, slowly stalking us, asserting one of the weapons of patriarchy familiar to most women.


With all the weight of institutional impunity and white supremacy along with militaristic machinery behind him.

He finally dipped into a gas station at an intersection ahead of us, and we paused a slight distance away, near enough to watch him. “We’re close to home now,” said the woman. “We can make a quick run for it on our bikes from here.” We told her that she shouldn’t risk leading the cop to directly to her home, especially because it was so close.

I wasn’t sure what was stronger at this point: the tension due to the cop trying to terrorize us, or our solidarity. The man with the guitar spoke of making community as also finding unity. We began trying to figure out how to maneuver around the cop and get the bicyclists to their house without him following us the whole way — and then the cop, on his cell phone again, went into gas station’s convenience store. We urged our new friends to zip out on their bikes and, if needed, we’d distract the cop.

There was a big, long round of hugs, and suddenly they were gone, just as the cop suddenly returned to his vehicle, put on his flashing lights, and careened quickly out of the gas station, in a direction opposite where the two bikers had gone. We kicked ourselves for not getting the woman’s phone number, to be sure they got home OK.

The four of us walked each other back to the corner store where we’d started, mostly listening to story after story from the guitar player about all the times, from young kid to teen to adult, that he’d been stopped, harassed, hassled, and abused by cops for being black, and as he added, poor.

Minor indignities. Bit by bit, adding up. This city. Other cities. Other women, some allowed to go home, strong but a bit more afraid. Others murdered, in their homes, like Korryn Gaines.

*   *   *

(Photo by Cindy Milstein, sign of the times, made by a friend for a recent evening rally in Detroit, organized as one response to the cop executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.)

Note: The woman and her friend made it home safely — for now. Special thanks to my friend-accomplice last night for being the solid, caring person that they always are, and contributing insights to this story. FTP.

If you want to get word when I put out new musings, sign up at cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Enjoy, share, reprint, post, tweet any of my writings as long as it’s free as in “free water” and “freedom.”

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This entry was posted on August 3, 2016 by in Dispatches from Vanishing Detroit.
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