I rested my head against the window, drowsy from a long day, full tummy, and steady hum of the train. My husband sat next to me absorbed in a game. It’s a long ride from San Francisco, where we work, to Pleasanton, where we live. I thought I might take a nap.
A disembodied voice crackled, announcing the next station: “West Oakland.”
The train stopped, the doors opened. I watched the passengers. The train car was about half full. A few people got off. Three black youths, a girl and two boys, got on. They were talking animatedly, happy. All three were well-dressed: fashionable clothes that looked new and fit well. Tight black pants. Caps. A little bling. They’d taken the time to look nice, and they were out for a good time.
One of the boys sat while the girl and the other boy stood, balancing by holding onto the straps suspended from the ceiling of the car. They talked and joked together. I felt a little voyeuristic watching them share this private moment of fun, but I couldn’t help myself. I was too taken with their delight and energy. Their faces lit with joy as they laughed. The girl and the boy hung from the straps and swung their weight around, enjoying the interplay of gravity and momentum of the train and their own upper body strength.
The girl clung to the strap then braced her other hand on the side of the train. Walking her feet up the train side, she executed an impressive flip. She did it again, obviously pleased with herself. “You try doing that in heels!” she crowed. She did it again. I noted with admiration that she was wearing boots with 5″ heels.
I guessed the kids to be somewhere between 15 and 20. It’s an in-between age. Young enough to treat a train as a jungle gym but old enough for a night out on their own. I thought about my own kids, about the same age.
The disembodied crackling voice announced the next station: Lake Merritt. The train stopped. The kids stayed on. The train started again. The train abruptly came to a screeching halt. “That’s not good,” the passenger in front of me muttered. I looked around but couldn’t tell why we were stopped. I leaned my head back against the window; my husband stayed immersed in his game. The trains don’t run on time here. Stopping wasn’t unusual.
Two BART police officers stepped onto the car. Another guy, a passenger, trailed behind them. The passenger with the cops said something I couldn’t hear and gestured toward the three youths. He was a mousy white guy in a button-down oxford shirt, corduroy pants, and a fleece vest. He looked like the kind of guy who drives an SUV with Save the Planet bumper stickers.
The first police officer addressed the youths. “There’s been a complaint. I need you to step off the train.”
“What’s the complaint?” the girl asked.
“We didn’t do anything,” the boy said.
“There’s been a complaint,” the police officer insisted. “Please come with me.”
“What’s the complaint?” the girl repeated.
The mousy passenger who had made the accusation faded back. I didn’t see where he went. Now it was just the cops and the kids.
“We got a complaint that you were asking for money.” The cop’s voice carried.
“We didn’t do anything!” the boy repeated, louder.
“Please come with me,” the cop insisted. “This train can’t move until you get off.”
The crowd on the car grew restless, impatient. The two cops flanked the three youths and attempted to escort them off the train. For a minute, it looked like the kids were going to comply. The boy who was seated stood, headed toward the open door, but then changed his mind. “I didn’t do anything. I was just sitting there,” he said. He got back on the train.
The girl’s face had gone from joy to furor. “It’s that racist white guy,” she yelled, loud enough for the whole train car to hear. “We didn’t do anything, but he thinks we did because we’re black.”
A passenger stood up, Asian, “They really didn’t do anything,” he said to the cops. Then to the kids: “Let’s just step off the train so they can make their report.”
Another passenger stood up. A black woman. “Really, officers, these kids didn’t do anything.”
By this time I was on the edge of my seat. It was so unfair. These kids were just out for a good time. They had done nothing besides being full of energy and life. They hadn’t asked for money. They were being harassed by the cops for something they had not done.
I’m still not sure what made me decide to act on my sense of injustice. Maybe I arrogantly thought the police would listen to me, a middle-class, middle-aged, white woman. Maybe I saw the faces of my own kids in the black youths and imagined them being detained on hearsay. Whatever the trigger, I stood up, moving past my husband who looked at me quizzically. I walked up the train aisle to the officer who had been barking orders.
“Sir, they really didn’t do anything. They just got on at the last stop.” My voice was steady. Calm. Quiet. Pitched for the circle of people involved, not for the rest of the train. Internally I was amazed that my adrenaline wasn’t amped up, that my voice was not shaking. I don’t normally confront cops. It is not at all like me to tell a cop how to do his job. I couldn’t believe I was confronting a cop and not even nervous about it.
By this time the crowd on the train was growing antsy. A few were calling for the kids to get off the train so they could get where they were going, but far more were calling for the cops to leave the kids alone. Several more passengers stood up and started shouting at the cops:
“These kids didn’t do anything!”
“Leave them alone!”
“Racist white guy can’t tell blacks apart!”
“It must have been someone else!”
“Let the kids go!”
I felt self-conscious standing in the middle of everything. I’d played my bit part in the unfolding drama. I returned to my seat.
A woman on the other side of the car leaned over toward me, “I could have done that,” she said. She was white like me, graying hair cut shoulder length in a bob. She looked like she could live in the house next door in my white-picket-fence neighborhood.
“I’m sorry?” I was confused by her words. What does that even mean, I could have done that? If you could have why didn’t you? Did she mean that she could not have done what I did?
“I could have done what you did,” she repeated.
I smiled and nodded. I didn’t know what else to say.
My attention turned back to the growing situation. More passengers had stood up to defend the kids. Another BART police officer entered the car. The increasing tension and buzz from the crowd made it hard to hear. I realized that there were several more police officers waiting on the platform. The situation had escalated rapidly. This could become ugly.
“CHECK THE BUCKET,” the girl shouted.
For the first time I noticed that the kids had an amplifier and a bucket with them, and suddenly I saw a missing piece of the puzzle. The kids were street performers. They weren’t out for a night of clubbing. They were dancers.
Sometimes street performers come onto the BART trains. They strut up and down the aisle, put on a show, and ask for money. I personally find being a captive audience to these shows annoying. I never give the performers money because I don’t want to encourage it. But I did not realize that such behavior warranted police intervention on this scale.
Nor did I think that these kids had been dancing for money on this train. I looked around for the accuser but couldn’t see him.
I was incensed by the entire situation. The accuser had disappeared, the situation was escalating, and these innocent kids were now targets.
“This isn’t right,” I told my husband. I stood up, shouldered my backpack in case I decided to leave the train, and pushed past my husband’s knees for the second time. Without even thinking about whether or not my husband would follow me or would be upset with me for getting involved, I stepped into the situation again.
I sidled up to the cop who had originally been barking orders and who was now standing between the kids and the rest of the passengers.
“They really didn’t do anything,” I said into his ear. “They didn’t. This isn’t right. I will be happy to make a statement. What can I do to help?”
The cop turned to me. “They might not have done anything originally,” he said, “but now they are resisting. If they don’t get off the train we will have to arrest them.”
Another police officer entered the train. The mood of the passengers was growing dark, roiling. It became a palpable thing, shifting energies threatening to spill over into violence. My stomach fluttered.
I turned around, realized that half a dozen people had their cell phones out, recording the incident. I idly wondered if I would show up on youtube videos. I decided I didn’t care. This wasn’t right and I wouldn’t stand for it. These kids were being detained, harassed, and possibly arrested all because the mousy guy in the fleece vest didn’t like being bothered by dancers panhandling on BART. These kids might have danced on BART at some point, but not tonight, not on this train. They didn’t deserve this.
Another officer entered the train. It was now five officers to the three kids. The Asian passenger who had originally stepped up to intervene turned to the kids, “Why don’t we get off the train and get this handled. Then we can all get onto the next train.”
The police closed their circle, puffing themselves up, herding the kids to the exit. I followed them to the door. I was about to step off the train. I turned back to see if my husband was paying attention. He was staring at me, his face open, questioning. “This isn’t right,” I mouthed at him. He stood up, following me.
I turned my attention back to the kids. The cops had one of the boys in an arm lock and pressed him up against the wall of the station. It looked like it hurt. They had the girl surrounded. I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her screaming. I heard another voice — the other boy? the Asian passenger who had intervened? a cop? — telling her “This isn’t worth it. Stop struggling.”
I stepped off the train onto the platform.
The cops who had the girl surrounded had her hands behind her back. She was struggling and screaming. They began half pulling, half dragging her down the platform toward the station exit. “LET GO OF ME,” she shouted. “LET GO OF ME LET GO OF ME LET ME GO!”
An officer stood in the middle of the chaos just looking, sizing it all up. He was new on the scene. He was also the only officer not in the middle of the chaos. I walked up to him. “Sir, they didn’t do anything,” I said. I watched his face. Dark skin. Brown eyes. A guy who’d been having a quiet night. He turned to me.
“You’re a witness?” he asked.
“Yes sir. I was on the car. These kids didn’t do anything. This isn’t right.” The girl was still screaming. Each panicked shriek felt like shrapnel in my soul. That could be my daughter, I thought. So very not right. “I will be happy to make a statement,” I said.
“OK,” the cop replied. He took out a notebook, asked me my name. He had to ask me to spell my last name a second time. I handed him my driver’s license to make things easier for him. He started taking notes, then looked up at my husband and me. “I left my recorder in my office,” he said. “Would you be willing to go there to make a statement?”
I agreed immediately. To my surprise, my husband agreed as well. “Of course,” he said. We would probably be an hour late, or more, getting home. This was worth it.
We followed the officer off the platform, past the turnstiles, and through a door marked “authorized personnel only.” He led us down a maze of corridors, past a bank of cubicles, and into his office. As promised, he took out a recorder and interviewed us for a verbal statement. My husband and I each told our version of the events. They lined up. Each of us emphasized that the kids had done nothing wrong.
“Let me just clarify a few points,” the officer said after we finished our statements. “In your opinion, did the officers use excessive force at any time?” I said they had, citing the painful hands-behind-the-back restraining technique and the panicked girl screaming. My husband said they had not, but pointed out that the officers should have just let the kids go when so many passengers testified that the kids were innocent.
The officer asked a few more questions: had the officers used mace, batons, or physical violence on the kids? had they acted unprofessionally?
We finished the interview, the officer escorted us back into the station, said that internal affairs would probably be contacting us in connection with the investigation, then said goodbye.
As we waited for the next train, I played over the evening in my mind.
I realized that the statements we made existed only on a recorder in the cop’s office. The kids wouldn’t know we made the recorded statement. If they got lawyers, the lawyers wouldn’t know. Our testimony might never be heard by anyone involved in the case against the kids.
The more I played over the questions that the officer had asked us, the more I realized that the questions were all about the conduct of the other officers, not about the kids and their innocence.
The internal affairs investigation would, no doubt, turn into a huge deal. The situation had escalated so rapidly, fueled by racial tension. So many people had recorded videos. The train had been halted for 15 minutes or more. Passengers were irate. There would be much attention on the conduct of the cops.
I didn’t care about the cops. I wanted to help the kids.
Somehow, I doubted that I had.
Next time I see dancers on BART, I’m giving them whatever is in my wallet. I’ll think of it as their defense fund.