Suspicious minds: Paranoia, prejudice and common sense

Abigail Hickman Photo courtesy of Abigail Hickman

I recently drove downtown to take advantage of Pack Memorial Library’s book giveaway. After several hours perusing the volumes on offer, I was walking happily back to my car with a pile of newly acquired books in my arms when a man in a tracksuit darted out from a corner of the cold, dingy parking garage. He appeared disheveled, and I thought he smelled of urine. Later I realized that the smell had emanated from the garage, not the man. But he was black and male, I’m white and female, and I’ve been programmed to believe that the conjunction of his race and gender permitted — indeed, encouraged — me to label him “suspicious” and consider calling 911.

As we walked toward each other, I was already thinking about how I could gouge him with my keys, which I carry positioned between my knuckles in such situations, just in case. But as we came shoulder to shoulder, he asked, in a voice that could have come from a national news anchorman, “Need some help?”

“No, thanks,” I mumbled as I headed toward my car, feeling both relieved and a little ashamed.

When I’d parked in the garage, I was rushing to get to the books and accidentally hit a button on my key holder that triggered the car alarm. At least four people had seen me frantically attempting to get into my car, banging on the windows and swearing like a drunken teenager. And one of them, a man in a business suit (which raises its own questions: Just who did he think he was, dressing like that on a Saturday in downtown Asheville?) had witnessed me kicking the driver’s side door with a ferocity heavily suggestive of criminal behavior. Yet none of those folks had called to report me. Had their thumbs been poised above the “9” on their phones when my blond hair and plum lipstick made them hesitate?

Last year, the Asheville Police Department logged 7,194 calls about “suspicious persons” — an alarming figure, considering that, on average, 20 of my fellow Ashevilleans called the police each day to report someone they thought seemed “suspicious.”

But that got me wondering: What, exactly, is a suspicious person? I naively assumed that a quick Google search would provide a clear answer; instead, it merely underscored how ambiguous the term seems to be.

“We define a suspicious person according to the law,” Christina Hallingse, the APD’s public information officer, told me cheerfully. Trouble is, the law itself doesn’t give a precise definition. And when I phoned the N.C. Department of Justice, a recording said the number had been disconnected. Suspicious indeed.

Undeterred, I tried other numbers, asking both humans and machines in the office of Attorney General Roy Cooper to explain what makes someone “suspicious” under state law, but I received no definitive response. In the meantime, however, I’d begun assembling my own working definition, which clearly applied to elected officials and their staff who didn’t seem to understand the very law they were charged with enforcing.

Where was Jack McCoy when you needed him?

How does one determine who’s the good guy and who’s the bad?

If neither our local Police Department nor the Attorney General’s Office can definitively say what consitutes a suspicious person, it appears to be left up to each of us to do the job ourselves. And why not? After all, this street-level characterization is what appears to be driving the definition anyway. The Police Department doesn’t generate suspicious-person reports: It merely documents what some fearful or suspicious resident said.

In fact, the spreadsheet I received from the APD seemed suspicious in itself: It didn’t indicate what had prompted the calls. Was the person in question brandishing a severed head? Wearing a Freddy Krueger mask? That lack of regularization left me feeling edgy.

And remembering my own suspicion of a man whose only crime was offering to carry my books, I wondered whether the APD’s arrest records might show signs of racial bias — particularly since some of the folks lumped into those numbers undoubtedly turn out to have been falsely charged (and, meanwhile, others who really are guilty are probably never charged).

In the first week of 2016, I learned, there were 104 arrests. That didn’t seem like a lot, considering that almost 88,000 people now live in Asheville, and the numbers for this particular week were most likely amped up by holiday DWI charges. All in all, it left me feeling pretty safe; I was also cheered by the fact that only 33 of those folks were black. Well done, people of Asheville: None of that Chicago prejudice down here in our sweet mountain town, thank you very much.

But wait a minute: Asheville’s population is 13.4 percent African-American, yet they accounted for 31.7 percent of the arrests that week in a city that’s overwhelmingly white. What light, if any, does this disturbing information shed on the nagging question of what makes a person so “suspicious” in the eyes of the law that over 7,000 of us were said to fit that description last year?

I never really got a clear answer to that, but perhaps I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe it isn’t a matter of “who?” but rather, “why?” Why do women carry their keys as weapons as a matter of course? Why was I afraid of the black man in the parking garage? In part, it’s because we’ve been conditioned to expect an attack, to view the unexpected or the “other” with suspicion. And in the process, we create doubt and fear, manufacturing imaginary offenses that may never actually happen.

So when it comes to suspicion, how much difference is there, in the end, between accuser and accused?

Racial profiling is a terribly destructive force. And while I’m not the police, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I’ve certainly contributed my share of knee-jerk suspicion based solely on situation and unthinking judgment. In that regard, I hope I can do better this year: I’d like to be able to walk past my fellow garage parkers and base my level of alarm or relief on their actual behavior, not just their appearance.

At the same time, there are real dangers in this world, and it seems only common sense to try to dodge them as best I can. So perhaps I just need to learn to view my own suspicions with a healthy dose of suspicion — and to strike a better balance between prudence and trust.

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About Abigail Hickman
Abigail teaches English at A-B Tech and is happily nestled into a Weaverville neighborhood. She enjoys eating Ben and Jerry's ice cream directly from the container.

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20 thoughts on “Suspicious minds: Paranoia, prejudice and common sense

  1. Let's Be Honest

    Black males make up about 6% of the population but commit 50% of murders and 55% of robbery according to the FBI https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/tables/43tabledatadecoverviewpdf That being the case, are we really being paranoid to be especially suspicious of black males? “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps… then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” -Jesse Jackson

    • bsummers

      That’s one way to look at it. Another way, from that report, is this:

      “White individuals were arrested more often for violent crimes than individuals of any other race, accounting for 58.7 percent of those arrests.”

      • Bsummers is an apologist

        bsummers you are just trying to cherry pick a number that you think makes whites look as guilty as blacks, but you are wrong. If 72.41% of the population represents 58.7% of violent crime and 12.61% represents 38.5% of crime you wind up with a probability of being arrested for violent crime that is almost FOUR TIMES higher for blacks that whites. Also take note that the federal government counts hispanics as white when they are arrested but hispanic when they are victims leading to an higher number of “white arrests” and a gap in violent crime that is bigger than the numbers show.

        • bsummers

          I didn’t “cherry pick” anything. That’s a quote that the FBI felt compelled. for whatever reason, to place at the bottom of those tables. If I had to guess, they probably felt like it was worth mentioning that, despite higher rates among certain races, you’re still more likely to be victimized by a white person than any other race in this country.

          Really? You go by the handle “Bsummers is an apologist”? Life must have been pretty unfulfilling for you up to now, waiting for some reason for that name to mean something.

          • Bsummers is an apologist who missed the point of my post

            The point is that when Jesse Jackson turns around and sees a white man he is 4 times less likely to be victimized than when he sees a black man. Of course the majority of the population is going to be responsible for the majority of crime, the point is that there is a small segment of the population that is committing a hugely disproportionate share of violent crime. Making excuses for that or claiming that some other group is bad too does not change the facts. P.S. I love that you replied to yourself 2 hours later. Talk about unfulfilled, you probably won’t sleep tonight trying to figure out how to explain the data away.

          • bsummers

            Who are you? What’s your name? Doling out insults is easy when you’re anonymous. What are you so afraid of?

            Point is, “Bsummers is an apologist who missed the point of my post” (if that is your real name), you can choose live in fear, or you can try to seek solutions. I choose to try to see beyond issues of race, because there’s nothing but a bottomless chasm of The End Of America down that hole. Try to have the courage to recognize that the largest contributor to violence isn’t race, it’s socio-economic. Somewhat more blacks are poor and have lived in atmospheres of crime and poverty than whites. There’s your statistics. You can choose to try to fix that, or you can choose to arm yourself and barricade yourself and console yourself that it wasn’t you who brought the whole thing down, it was THEM. Good luck.

  2. Mike O

    “What is a suspicious person.” That’s a very good question. Is it their behavior or just the way the look?

    Sorry to jump off topic a but, but the same reasonable line of questioning can be posed to other people. I pose another one question: What is a “gunman”? Any man with a gun? Are police officers gunmen? What about hunters? What about law abiding citizens, legally carrying on a sidewalk? Why do people assume that just because they see someone with a gun, they are doing something bad and have to be given a label of “gunman” which carries an obvious negative connotation.

    People should not be labeled as suspicious just because they carry. Did you know that there are nearly 10,000 people with Concealed Carry permits in Buncombe County alone? On any given day thousands of your fellow Buncombe County residents are legally and peacefully carrying weapons. (They aren’t the ones committing crimes with those weapons by the way. Those people don’t bother with permits.) I bet if one of these people following the “don’t profile others based on appearance” mantra happened to catch a glimpse of someone’s holster under the edge of a jacket, they’d freak out and call 911.

  3. boatrocker

    I get uncomfortable whenever I see just about anybody in my personal space late at night, in a parking garage, in a dark alley, etc.
    I don’t see the color of their skin, but I do see the potential for humans to revert to the basest, most savage and self absorbed instincts that make humans as a species quite dangerous.

    47.6% of closet bigots can also quote crime statistics about minorities and crime, while 71.1% of them will ignore the Reagan inspired privatization of prisons since the 80’s in order to focus on jailing of minorities for profit.

    The other 34.5% can’t add very well.

    • Let's Be Honest

      Did you just call me a closet bigot because I am capable of using google? Why don’t you try it? While you are there check out “Social Anxiety Disorder” as it pretty well explains how you feel minus the color blindness. You may want to consult an optimist on that one.

      • boatrocker

        I dunno, did I call you personally a closet bigot? It couldn’t be due to any comments that you might post here.

  4. Big Al

    It saddens me to see a white woman doubting herself over her caution because the suspicious person in question was a black man. Didn’t we just go through a phase of flagellating the entire male gender over not being sensitive enough to violence against women? Now we have to throw all of that away because our concerns might be racist?

    My personal experiences with suspicious persons in Asheville has been with young white men (usually drunk, stoned or manipulative in the way of con artists and beggars) but I am sure I would feel differently if I were a woman (or a smaller man). I think Abigail is entitled to whatever caution she believes is necessary without being labeled by anyone (or herself) as paranoid or racist.

    As for this notion of “programming”: assuming that it exists, is it all nurtured by her own kind, or does the black community hold some responsibility with its’ gangsta rap culture and the annual ripping off of the Band-Aid and the scab of racial healing that occurs every February? The entire white race is “invited to a dialogue”, then scolded, yet are expected to finish by holding hands and singing Kum-Ba-Yah.

    Abigail, be the best person you can be, but stop buying into the guilt trip. Do whatever you think is necessary to be safe. If that makes you “racist” in someone else’s eyes, then you are better off being a live, safe “racist” than a victimized or dead idealist.

  5. Glaciers of Lice

    you already know fam lol parking garage metaphor you a freak gurrrrrrrlll!

  6. Mootchka

    “I wondered whether the APD’s arrest records might show signs of racial bias”

    Uh, yeah, that’s pretty much a safe assumption to make.

  7. BGP

    “…we came shoulder to shoulder, he asked, in a voice that could have come from a national news anchorman, “Need some help?”
    “No, thanks,” I mumbled as I headed toward my car, feeling both relieved and a little ashamed…”
    It’s actually a known fact that some bad guys use situations like that to choose their victims. Had you accepted his help, he may very well have used the opportunity to attack you. Once you both got to your car, he could have drawn a weapon or simply hit you with his fists. He could have stolen your car, or worse, pushed you into the car and taken off with you driven off. Or he could have attacked you near the car and stolen your purse. Of course, he may not have done any of those things. But you had no way of knowing. No matter what color, size, sex, or whatever else a person is, a healthy dose of suspicion could save your life. Your inner voice told you to prepare to defend yourself. Maybe your inner voice new something you didn’t.

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