It is Thursday the 22nd of October 2015 and I boarded a bus towards Munich in Amsterdam a night ago. I planned to visit two prospective clients to discover to which extent I could aid in their efforts by offering my hardware and software engineering services. There is really nothing special about such trips as I have boarded buses by the same company to Berlin numerous times before. The buses take a while to get there but if you plan your trips throughout the night, you sleep throughout the trip and wake up at your destination while spending about a tenth of the amount you’d generally spend on airfare or a third the amount one would spend on train tickets. The reason I keep using the buses is the complementary Wi-Fi and the on-board power outlets which is something the train operators haven’t figured out to offer in a in a qualitative manner yet . To be quite honest, I also haven’t developed the luxury demand yet that makes long-distance travel by bus unbearable .
In Munich , around 10 o’clock , the police boarded the bus for another one of those “random” checks. I’ve been raised to consider the police my friend. I understand the notion of them being in office to protect and serve the people and I have felt comfortable in the presence of the law as long as I can remember. Naive as ever I went into this experience just like that… with the police as my ally.
About half an hour into the police’s search through the bus, after having singled out a few passengers from the Eastern or Southern part of Europe and having confiscated my passport along with that of a most likely African passenger, the officers ordered me and the other dark-skinned passenger off the bus. Apparently they had not found what they were looking for and seemed quite determined to make a bust . While packing up my belongings to exit the bus, the female officer rummages through my belongings and accidentally drops my Macbook Air, picks it up and tells me it is alright. For a split second my mind races to the hell I’ll have to venture through if the laptop ends up defective and I would have to setup a new laptop with all of my build environments and rewrite all the uncommitted code on my trusty old pal. I would end up losing days installing all of my tools – Jeez! Obviously I take her word for it because she must be an expert in assessing the state of electronic devices as she is also an expect in singling out which rows on buses from Amsterdam “smell like they hosts weed-trafficking passengers” . God forbid I talk back to a police officer.
We’re taken out of the bus and the officers help themselves to a power trip by having me take off my shoes in front of the wonderful offices of Mercedes-Benz and Ernst and Young in Munich while they rummage through my personal belongings for a second time. Pedestrians walk past and gawk at the display and bikers coast by glancing at the theatrics involving the police and a few richly colored gentlemen. There is so much wrong with this image and how subliminally dots are being connected but I am no authority in psychology and neuroscience so I abstain from further comments.
The funny thing is that I haven’t once been involved in any offense but at this moment it sure doesn’t feel like I’m a law-abiding citizen. That probably isn’t the intent of such operations, but it does reflect the result. Every corner of my luggage is scrutinized and hardly a word is uttered towards me as I undergo this ordeal. I don’t feel like a respected citizen of the European Union at all. I don’t feel protected, by the people that are there to protect and serve.
At some point I am informed that my African brother and I are to enter the unmarked police vehicles for further processing at the precinct based on the female officer’s keen sense of smell. Obviously this team is so skilled at pinpointing targets by aroma that canines aren’t consulted, as a matter of fact they are nowhere near the scene, yet I can’t help but believe that man’s best friend is a better skilled and more reliable “sniffer”.
Considering I am in Munich for a few appointments for new work, I am obviously not amused as keeping those parties waiting is not going to help me in achieving that objective (of scoring new work), however; unbeknown to me my concerns at the moment do not reflect the gravity of the situation I am in.
In the car I overhear the female officer say a few demeaning things about the dear passengers in the backseat while driving towards the station under the assumption that we don’t understand a word of German. With my fluency in Dutch, a Germanic language that I consider my mother tongue, and my late encounters in Germany over the last few months I have picked up a fair share of German to make sense of this conversation, but I keep myself composed. This is what it feels like to get in touch with the police? Unidirectional respect?
At the station my luggage is turned upside down yet again and I’m patted down like there is no tomorrow. Nothing turned up. At this stage I am ordered to undo myself of my clothing. The police hasn’t taken any real effort to engage in a dialog to discover my reasons for visiting Munich. After finding nothing after putting me through a demeaning experience I’m let of with as little as a “sorry”. Going through an experience like this happened to be sufficiently degrading to make me never want to have an encounter with the our friends at the police ever again.
There I stand, in front of the precinct quite a distance removed from the station that I bought my ticket to, left to figure out alternative means of getting to my destination. The police doesn’t even have the courtesy to at the very least offer me a drive back to the location where they ordered me to enter their vehicles after such a horrible experience.
Especially since it was rather obvious that we were singled out, being the few richly colored passengers on the bus, I have come to realize even more that the world isn’t as accepting as we sometimes portray it to be. Better put… The civilized west isn’t as progressive and enlightened as it portrays itself to be if such experiences are to be considered acceptable.
Even the conversational component is disappointing. You’re ordered to do as commanded without a real alternative. The tone is off and the treatment is not one of mutual respect. However; I kept my cool and suffered through the ordeal without as much as an utterance from my part.
Now I’m on the bus back. I missed my second meeting because I was strapped for time and I have my friends at the police to thank for this. Perhaps I shouldn’t generalize, I had three officers to thank who made an educated guess that there was a high probability of me turning up a trafficker. As far as educated guesses go this one ended up as useful as a random pick by a blind baboon would have been. The friendly bus drivers who are coincidentally driving me back to Amsterdam at night mentioned that the police was probably tipped off which could mean that I just became a victim of an anonymous tip. When I inquired to the reason or motivation for taking me to the station the female officer basically responded with a lousy “I smelled weed on the bus”. So much for probable cause because it is so rare to pick up a remote hint of cannabis on a bus from Amsterdam. No canines were present but her olfactoric finesse was sufficient to raise red flags about the presence of weed in the present or past at any location in a bus from Amsterdam.
I still understand that the police does its job, but during the experience I felt an intense hatred for the office. After a multitude of such experiences it isn’t far-fetched to imagine that the parties subjected to such treatment develop an enduring hatred for the office and everything associated to it. I guess the idea of being powerless is one of the many frustrating things about this ordeal. Can I blame people for disliking the police if many of their experiences are as negative as the one I’ve had and probably often even worse 1?
I often marginalized the impact of discrimination and treatment by the police, but I just realized that I do not have the right to blatantly broadcast any utterances pertaining such topics until I have been through a comparable experience. Many of my not so richly colored friends feel differently about some of these topics because they hardly run into experiences like these – not at the frequency that different looking folks endure such experiences. Then again everyone experiences things that are rather unique to whatever groups they belong to so at some point we are all probably subjected to discrimination of some form. Anyways… One cannot possibly be expected to fully understand the gravity of that which their richly colored peers experience if they cannot relate to it. I’ll do you one better… I, as one of those richly colored folks, cannot relate to the many experiences that I hear from others that share my complexion which means that I don’t even come close to fully understanding the plight of the colored in the West. Although I experience discrimination in many different forms. I brush it off and move on. I believe it keeps me from becoming bitter and cynical about the world, but I am also slowly realizing that ignoring reality is unfair as well since it harms objective interpretation.
The once carefree David is now cautious and on guard in some situations, a natural response when in a rather hostile environment but a sad place to have to venture to for any human living in a self-proclaimed enlightened part of the world.
In the end this post isn’t just about discrimination. The point here is that many events influence us in manners unimaginable to others. Nobody should have the audacity to tell anyone of semitic heritage to get over the 1940s because we have no idea how this event has rippled into the lives of many fellow humans who may be hurting to this day. I can’t tell any of my friends to get over that historic episode for that little country where a coup was followed by turmoil and political assassinations spearheaded by this charismatic leader, as I have no way of totally understanding the impact those events had on my friend and his family when they discovered that the murder of beloved father was connected to this episode and the people involved. I have no right to tell my black friends to brush of that Dutch tradition, cherished by millions of children (and adults), in which some characters appear in what some believe to be black face as just an innocent celebration because I haven’t been called out for zwarte piet like my brother has and even if I had, the tone and context may have been different enough to change reception altogether. I don’t have the right to tell a zealot that my fierce comments shouldn’t phase him or her because I don’t fully understand how it impacts him. Understanding is the name of the game. Just live and let live.
I would like to remind everyone to seriously consider the impact of one’s treatment of fellow human beings as it is too easy to ignore the destructive impact that some of our actions and utterances have. The world can use a lot more love and understanding – especially if you have been appointed to serve in a public office and therefore represent something bigger than any one person.
Think about that.
Let’s face it. It was demeaning but it wasn’t a cavity search yet, so I guess the experience could have been far more degrading. ↩