Police Stories I

I’m a selfish person. When I hear news, even when it has little to do with my existence, I’m able to swing it around quickly to make it all about me. I like to make things about me. It’s almost a hobby. So this summer when hearing about the police killing of George Floyd or hearing about the Black Lives Matter protests, my selfish brain turned my thoughts to a project of my own that was, even by my low standards, remarkably unsuccessful.

Back in 2017 I was trying to launch an oral history project consisting of interviews with local law enforcement personnel that I intended to turn into a play. My jobs were to create the interview template, raise the money, and write the play. My friend Melissa was conducting the interviews. Melissa became interested in police because she was (and is) and activist. She had been part of Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016. (These were protests organized by members of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation against a shale oil pipeline that was slated to cross their primary source of drinking water.) The state sent police to evict the protestors. Melissa told me how at one point a line of protestors faced a line of police across an open field. She saw this nice young officer over there not much older than her son and she couldn’t imagine that he—even if an order were given—would march across the field against a nice person like her. But the order was given, and he did. Melissa is a kind person who doesn’t take things personally, but she wondered how police felt about these sorts of situations.

Me, I’m not an activist. I run a small theater company in Charlottesville called Big Blue Door, which my wife and I founded in 2012. I teach classes in improv, sketch writing, and telling true stories. (Or did before Covid-19 shut us down.) I love teaching. I love seeing people discover that they’re funny, discover that they have interesting lives, and learn to listen to one another. We structured the organization so the classes would pay the bills so I haven’t had to do fundraising.

But from time to time we’ve taken on other projects. Big Blue Door conducted our first short oral history interviews as part of a 2014 fundraiser for our local chapter of the International Rescue Committee. The event wasn’t very successful as a fundraiser (which should have been a red flag) but the interview format worked well, and I’d been excited to try it on a larger scale. Oral histories are non-confrontational. (Not like TV hosts interviewing politicians or celebrities.) The interviewer begins with open-ended questions and follows up and redirects to help the interviewee find stories that are important to them. Questions like, ‘Who is someone who mattered to you growing up?’ and follow ups like, ‘What do you remember about that person?’ Most people find the process enjoyable and moving as they explore parts of their own life and discover that they have good stories. Happy, sad, proud, embarrassed–all stories are welcome. The point is to help the subject tell the truth about whatever they’re able and willing to tell the truth about.

So after Trump was elected in 2016 and the country seemed dangerously split, I was looking around for what Big Blue Door could contribute in its tiny way. My goal was not to help democrats understand republicans or vice versa. (At the time journalists were pumping out lots of interviews with swing voters in Midwestern diners and the world didn’t need more of it.) But my own politics are heavily informed by my living in the Czech Republic in the 1990s after the Soviet empire collapsed. I’ve reflected and studied in the years since on what happened (and is still happening) in the former Eastern Bloc. One thing I’m sure of: Well-governed cities do better during times of social and political upheaval. And at the level of a small city, even an organization as miniscule as Big Blue Door could help a little.

So I dreamed up TrueVille, a brand-new Big Blue Door project. TrueVille would interview workers in different divisions or departments of local government—land and buildings (taxes, assessment, permits), parks, fire, schools, roads, water (I was especially interested in water), and police. Then we’d match the interviews with interesting exhibits or presentations in different mediums (visual art, videos, interactive websites, and live plays). Nothing splashy or earth-shattering. Just simple, affordable projects that we could handle once or twice a year.

I decided we’d start with the police. Why? Government-wise, police are where the rubber hits the road. Adults interact with police more often and more intensely than any other arm of the government. Also I was a social science major in college and studied police more than other parts of government so the learning curve and research wouldn’t be as steep. Also the police and protests against the police had been in the news a lot (as they are now), particular after the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

For the interviews the subjects would be out of uniform. We’d ask some questions about policing but the interviews would follow wherever the subjects’ minds went. Maybe work, but maybe family, hobbies, friends, beliefs, or daily life. We wouldn’t impose a police identity. The matching project would be a play. I’m a good playwright and I knew how I could mix and match segments of the various interviews into an entertaining montage-type show. There wouldn’t be characters or plot or villains. It would just be a cast of actors, men and women of different ages, appearances, and races, sharing stories pulled from the interviews–big, little, funny, sad, and strange–that would loop and twist, echo and call back one another, to build into a solid 45 to 60 minute show. So we had our project and we knew what we were going to do. Melissa and I tweaked the interview template questions and I turned them over to her, and we were off and rolling.

Unfortunately, the rolling was mighty slow. For a couple of weeks Melissa couldn’t get anyone to sit for an interview. But then the police chief gave approval. He wouldn’t do an interview himself but he said he’d let his people know they were allowed to be interviewed if they wanted to be. Simultaneously we found a former police officer through a friend of a friend. He was our first interview. After that it was word of mouth, person by person, very slow, but as word got out that is was an interesting and fun experience volunteers started coming.

Meanwhile on the fundraising front after raising a couple hundred dollars through small gifts from my regular students and performers, I hit a wall. We couldn’t find donors outside our immediate circle. The few decent-sized donations we received were anonymous so there was no way to use them to find new donors. The biggest grant-granting foundation couldn’t help me unless I was testing an academic theory or wanted to do ride-alongs (which would reinforce the work identity our model of interviews was designed to diminish). The big local theater company wouldn’t touch the project. Another organization ran a contest where the general public got to vote on projects to be funded and TrueVille got only three votes.

By spring Melissa was almost done and I had only about 20% of the money raised.

Then the Alt-Right started coming. In May 2017 they came for a protest in one of our downtown parks, then their first tiki-torch rally later that night. A KKK chapter came in July. Obviously, in the great scheme of things my little project didn’t matter much. But like I said, I’m selfish, and the Alt-Right was killing me. Raising money requires a pitch, a story about why you’re raising funds and what it all means. Each visit by the Alt-Right, each counter-protest against the Alt-Right, and how the police dealt with both, changed how police were perceived, which forced me to rework my pitch. The worst was the July KKK visit. The Charlottesville police were heavy-handed in preparation for it. Then after weeks of fears the KKK only brought 40 people, and the counterprotest was massive for the small area (estimated at 1000 people). The KKK packed off early. The police were hot and wore too much gear. They immediately issued an order for the counterprotestors to disband which most didn’t hear and couldn’t have left quickly if they had heard because of the crowding and an overhead helicopter. State police got frustrated and fired tear gas directly into counterprotestors.

This was the sort of incident that I’d been predicting in my failed appeals for local institutional support over previous months. The point of community building, by the way, isn’t to prevent catastrophes. My tiny play based on police interviews would never get the whole town holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya.’ The point was to build ties of curiosity, respect, maybe personal affection, so when catastrophes happened there would be a way to begin rebuilding. Now it was too late. It was already summer and we’d promised all these interview subjects that their stories would become a play. Instead I had barely managed to pay Melissa’s (very low) compensation, my core business was neglected, I was working long hours each week for free, and all of this had been in the hopes of possibly maybe improving the trust between the community and the police which was lower now than when I started. If I were better at networking, better at explaining, better at finding resources and opportunities, things might have gone differently. I just didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t have time to learn.

Then came the full Unite the Right rally in August 2017 that made international news. On the 11th Alt-Right marchers carried tiki-torches across the campus of UVa, despite rules against using fire in protests. The university police did nothing. On August 12th the Alt-Right rallied around the statue of Robert E Lee downtown. An unlawful assembly was quickly declared and Virginia state police cleared the park from the north in a line that pushed the Alt-Right directly into the counter-protestors, mostly locals, on Market Street. Meanwhile Charlottesville police stood to the side and did nothing. Even in cases where there were were clear transgressions they made no arrests and protected no Charlottesville citizens.

Even as selfish as I am, August 11th and 12th did not bring to mind my little oral history project. It disappeared from my thoughts. But after some time I revisited TrueVille trying to see some way forward. No one could watch a play about police in this town without wondering about the Unite the Right fiasco. Why were the police ordered to do anything? How did the rank-and-file officers feel about being ordered to do nothing? Melissa would have to go back to every interview subject and follow up with questions. We had no money and no energy, and the tone or the interviews would be too different for continuity. The project was no longer tenable.

Arts organizations are always trumpeting their success while claiming they take risks, risks, risks, but somehow the failures disappear without discussion. TrueVille was a disaster for me and a lost opportunity for our community. If I’d managed to raise the damn money in March, we could have had a play by May, and that might have created a few connections that could have bridged the community-police divide during the summer. Community building, as I said above, does not in any way prevent catastrophes, but it can help communities learn from their catastrophes and grow stronger from their failures.

Since I spent so many months trying to give the police a chance to tell their stories, what did I learn and what could I share that would be relevant to law enforcement, Black Lives Matter, and other issues going on today?

Next: Police Stories II: Do Black Lives Matter to Blue Lives

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