The first police car approached slowly, angling off the narrow walkway that runs beneath the Sorlie Bridge in downtown Grand Forks to where I sat on a bench, contemplating the Red River, on a sunny day in 2017.
I sensed the second marked cruiser coming up quietly from the other direction, again pulling off the walkway to within a few feet of me, boxing me in.
I didn’t see where the third uniformed officer, on a bicycle, came from, but there he was.
I knew immediately why I had become “a person of interest” to these law enforcement officers, who wore the serious expression of soldiers on a mission.
I knew because I read the newspaper.
A day or two earlier, my paper reported, a woman who had been rollerblading in the area told police that she had been assaulted by a man who ran into her with his bicycle, knocking her to the ground. At first pretending to help her up, he grabbed her and tried to drag her into bushes. He punched her in the face and told her to “be still and shut up.”
She escaped and reported the assault to police, describing the attacker as a white man with long gray hair and a gray beard – and one more feature.
“I believe the fellow you’re looking for was described as thin,” I said as the officers approached me, for once in my life grateful for my bulk.
“Descriptions can be partly wrong,” one of the officers responded. At least, that’s what I think he said. I was surrounded by men with guns, after all.
They were polite in that trained, officious way. They called me “sir” and asked to see my identification, which I provided. They asked what I was doing, sitting by myself by the river. “Sitting,” I said, trying not to make it sound flippant. “By the river.”
They explained that someone had seen me walking on the Greenway and thought I fit the description of the attacker. They mentioned the day of the attack and asked where I had been in the late afternoon that day.
“Probably somewhere between here and my apartment,” I said, adding that I like to walk to the river for a little exercise and – thinking this might help – that I live quite near the police station. Hey, we’re neighbors.
I told them I don’t ride a bike. I should, but I don’t.
We chatted a bit more. Then, as they prepared to leave, I asked them to tell the person who reported me that it was OK. I, too, want my city, my river walkways, to be safe.
But I wanted desperately for them to believe I was not the cretin who rode his bike into a jogger and then assaulted her. So, when my newspaper reported a few days later that police had arrested a thin white man with gray hair and a gray beard, my heart sang.
I wrote about the incident a while later on Facebook, explaining how uncomfortable I had felt for those moments when I was facing police officers, answering their questions, trying to look innocent. A woman who read that post responded that the discomfort I felt was nothing like what the jogger had gone through. I was not the victim, she said, and I agreed wholeheartedly. I certainly had not meant to imply that I was.
But you know what else I’ve been thinking recently as I recall that day in June 2017?
I “fit the description,” as they say, most of it anyway, so these officers had checked me out. They had surrounded me as I sat on a riverside bench and asked me questions that implied suspicion. I was a little alarmed, yes.
But I wasn’t afraid.
I knew I was innocent, and I trusted the system – these men with their guns and uniforms and badges, and the criminal courts if it came to that.
But what if the attacker had been black? If I, too, had been black?
I don’t mean to suggest those officers, all white, would have treated me any differently if they were acting on a report that a black man had attacked a woman near the river and here was a black man, fitting much of the description she had given, sitting on a bench by the river.
I trust them. They are my neighbors. I don’t fear them. It didn’t occur to me that I might be cuffed, wrestled to the ground and further restrained by having a knee pressed against my neck.
But I can see how that fear, however unwarranted in this specific case, might have occurred to an innocent black man.
And that is part of what is meant by the words, “White privilege.”
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.