Note from Doni: Please join me in welcoming John Ryan to ANC. He and I worked together at the same newspaper some years back, and when I saw this esssy he’d posted on his Facebook page over the weekend, I asked for and was granted permission by John to re-post in here on ANC.
In 2017, I organized voter turnout for Planned Parenthood in Southern Virginia. This was just weeks after the protest/riots in Richmond where white supremacists killed and maimed peaceful protesters.
Most of the canvassers in my outfit were black. Most of the neighborhoods we organized in were majority black communities. One day we got a call from a team leader. She had canvassed in a middle-class white neighborhood that afternoon. Through her tears, she explained that while on shift, a white teenage guy had let his German Shepherds loose on her when she knocked on his door and asked for his mom. The dogs nipped at the canvasser, broke the skin on her hands, and she literally ran up a tree for safety. While she was in the tree, the boy stood in the yard and laughed while the dogs snapped at her from bellow. She said it was minutes of humiliation, degradation, and fear.
I called and reported the incident to police and left at once. I met the canvasser at a safe location. We sat and visited and I bought her a milkshake at the Micky D’s on the corner. As we waited for police, I tried to talk her into giving the police a report. She didn’t want to talk to the cops because she didn’t believe they’d do anything. To her, that would be just as trying and defeating an exercise as being cornered by a racist teenage fuck. I tried to reassure her that this was silly, that she was the victim of an assault, and that she could trust law enforcement. Unfortunately, she believed my naive, privileged ass. Unfortunately, I talked her into believing that law enforcement would be as outraged and alarmed as the rest of us.
After the two white cops arrived, she explained what happened. Virginia Beach’s finest just shrugged. “She was on his property, there’s not much we can do,” they replied. On her behalf, I felt helpless, and violated, and small. I explained that the canvasser has a right to knock on a front door and absent a locked gate or other posting, she was not a trespasser. I further explained that even then, the canvasser wasn’t subject to having dogs held on her to the point that she was terrified and captive.
The police officers, again, just shrugged. My canvasser scoffed and shook her head. That’s when the older cop, the one who hadn’t done any talking to this point, stepped forward and said to the canvasser, a mother of two, “do we have a problem here, girl?” I cut between the two and replied “hold up, remember that WE called YOU.”
We were told to stay out of trouble and the officers left without filing a report, or even taking a recorded statement from the victim.
Now, I know “not all cops …” which is very true. I work with great law enforcement personnel here in Yellowstone County every day. But that’s not the point. The takeaway here is: there are people in this country who do not believe that the system, and especially the part of the system with badges and guns, gives a shit about them. Time and time and time again, the system reminds them that these feelings are rooted in truth. Not understanding this is a form of privilege and ignorance. Having this privilege and ignorance does not make you a bad person. It does not make you a racist. It’s what you do next that counts. When you’re feeling small, and maybe a little challenged, do you seek to understand what it’s like for our fellow sisters and brothers? Or, do you get defensive and avoid the hard, introspective look?
That’s what counts.
TL/DR: Black lives matter.
John Ryan was raised in Redding and graduated from Enterprise High School. He worked as a reporter for the Record Searchlight for seven years before he left to finish his degree in government and economics at Sacramento State. He earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota and worked as a political organizer in five states. John lives with his wife and two children in Billings, Montana, where he prosecutes criminal cases as a Deputy County Attorney.