Maybe this is all worthy of online class discussions?
From Love Rules, a few days after a troubling incident with the local sheriff in which Conan is treated as a criminal while Lynn helplessly looks on. Now during lunch, Conan, who has been withdrawn since the experience, asks:
“What did your folks tell you about cops when you were a little kid?” he says.
“You know. If I was lost or in trouble, I should go to a policeman. Policemen were my friends. The usual.”
“See that wasn’t the usual in my family. They told me if I was lost, find an older black woman and she’d help me. Stay away from policemen. Stay away from whitey. If for any reason a policeman approached me, be polite, give my name and address, but no more.”
Like in the old war movies, I think, where prisoners gave only name, rank and serial number.
“When I got my driver’s license, my grampa made me go through this whole routine. First he showed me tapes of that guy, Rodney King, being beaten practically to death by L.A. cops. ‘That’s what happens to niggas who never learned what I’m about to teach you,’ he told me. Then he made me practice what I’d do in all kinds of circumstances.”
“What kind of circumstances?”
“You know. Circumstances like when we were stopped the other night . . . My grampa made me sit in the car, at the end of our driveway. He drove up behind me and flashed his lights. ‘I’m a honky cop,’ he yelled. ‘What’re you gonna do?’ I opened the door to get out and he yelled ‘You’re dead! Assaulting an officer with intent to do bodily harm!”’
“That’s sick,” I say.
“He wanted to keep me safe. He made me practice sitting still in the car, with my hands resting open fingered on the steering wheel—not moving until he gave me instructions, and then I was to follow those instructions to the absolute letter.”
“It sounds like that training stuff they did during Vietnam—what to do when captured by the enemy.”
“Absolutely. We practiced for two weeks, every day, before I was allowed to drive on the streets.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little extreme?”
“Maybe. But I’m still alive. Not like my friend,” he says, once again turning his attention toward the tree. The warning bell rings. I want to stay right at this table, next to Conan, and hear the rest of his story. I want to know about his friend who’s no longer alive. But he’s already standing and has his backpack slipped over a shoulder.
Conan retreats to his shell, leaving Lynn puzzled and hurt, worrying that he no longer loves her. Finally, because it is so difficult for Conan to talk about the earlier loss of his friend, he writes of that time in a letter to Lynn. They meet at a local coffee shop where Conan hands Lynn the letter and asks that she read it. He sits with a book at another table, while she reads his account.
Dear Lynnie, I’m writing this because it’s so hard for me to talk about what happened, but I want you to know. I don’t want us ever to hide anything from each other. Getting stopped by the cops the other night, and having them rip apart the stuffed dog my sister loved so much, made me think about some things I’ve been trying to forget. Things I’ve not had to think about too much since we moved to Hamilton Heights. Where I lived before was in what’s considered a bad part of L.A. Drive-by shootings, drugs, gang stuff, poverty, you know. I pretty much stayed out of trouble--it helps to be big. I went to a magnet school in another part of town, played football, avoided that gang shit. My best friend Mark, from when I was five, did the same. My grampa met us at the bus every day, walked us home, made sure we did our homework. Mark’s mom worked until late, so he usually had dinner with us. When I went to a magnet school, Mark did too. When he signed up for football, I did too. That’s how it was. No drugs, no alcohol, no gangs, just clean-cut American boys, living a clean-cut American life.
Mark’s dad was almost never around, but now and then he’d show up and try to make up for lost time, be the big man--he’d bring video games, or take Mark to a Lakers game or a Rams game. They usually invited me to go, too, but my grampa always said no. When I appealed to my mom and dad, they said no, too. When I asked why it was “because I said so, that’s why.” So one day Mark’s dad showed up in this black Lincoln Continental, straight off the showroom it looked like. And he tossed Mark the keys. Told him to be back by midnight. Mark came straight to my house. It was one of those rare times when no one was home to tell me no. I climbed into the passenger side and we took off. We drove to the beach, and up in the Hollywood Hills, then around the observatory. It was like riding on air. Mark wasn’t a reckless driver. We didn’t speed, we just took it easy and drove all over, feeling good. We were on our way back to my place about eleven or so, allowing plenty of time for Mark to get the car back. Cops pulled us over on a side street off Vermont--a dark, industrial area. As soon as the red lights hit, I put my hands on the dashboard, fingers spread apart. We didn’t do nothin’! What kinda shit is this? Mark said. I told him to calm down, put his hands on the steering wheel, but he opened the door and got out.
This is my dad’s car! he yelled. I’ve got a license! I saw him reach into his jacket pocket, to show I.D. Don’t! I hollered--but my voice was lost in gunfire. I saw him fall and I knew he’d never be up again. I sat there, frozen, my hands still on the dash, my fingers still wide open, like my grampa taught me. They handcuffed me. Made me sit on the curb, like the other night. Only that night I watched the cops take their time calling an ambulance. I watched them step over Mark’s body like it was nothing more than a dog turd in the street. I watched the ambulance attendants look for a pulse, then pull a blanket over him. It took hours for the coroner to arrive, before Mark could be moved. It turned out the car’d been stolen. They said the cop thought Mark was reaching for a gun when he reached into his jacket. All I know is Mark’s dead, and he didn’t deserve it. That’s what I couldn’t tell you. No one else here knows, and I don’t want them to. But it’s different with you.
I doubt that Conan and Lynn are still together, but wherever they are, they carry with them all that they learned from each other nearly two decades ago—they carry expanded empathy and understanding which, if it can spread throughout the nation, will put an end to the horrors that go with unpunished “murder by cop” practices. Maybe this is all worth Zoom classroom discussion?