It all started with a hat.
“You sure remind me of Sam Hall,” said the old-timer in the lobby of the Post Office in The Plains, Virginia. “Did you know him? He was sheriff around here for 22 years. A good man. He wore hats like that.”
I answered that I did not know Hall, that I had first come to Fauquier County in 1994 and so was a relative newcomer to the area. But my curiosity was piqued.
“Sam Hall?” said the 82-year-old black man. “Yes, he was sheriff down in Warrenton.”
“Do I look like him?”
“No, but he wore hats like that.”
“Was he a good man?”
A few seconds passed. “He was fair.”
“That’s about all you can ask for in a police officer.”
I’ve always been a law-and-order guy inclined to give the police the benefit of the doubt. I agree with Eric Hoffer that “freedom is impossible without authority. The absence of authority is anarchy—and anarchy is a thousand-headed tyrant.” And as a Vietnam veteran, I abhor the idea of putting a man in uniform, having him do your dirty work, and then despising him for it.
That said, YouTube is awash with appalling instances of the police abusing their authority, sometimes tasing or even shooting people for no good reason. In a recent example, a panicky Minnesota policeman has been acquitted in the unjustified shooting death of Philando Castile, who had a permit to carry a concealed handgun and was obeying the officer’s instructions.
Is this a new phenomenon, I asked myself, or has modern technology simply made us more aware of what’s been going on all along? Entering “Sam Hall” and “Fauquier” into a search engine brought me closer to an answer.
This led to a blog titled, “Growing Up Colored: Life in rural Virginia in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.” The author, Stanley Brown, explains: “These stories revolve around the small town of Remington, Virginia, in southern Fauquier County.”
The blog entry for April 4, 2015, “A Good Place to Land,” begins in the here-and-now and then harks back to earlier times. Brown, a heavy-set man in his early sixties, sensed that he had aroused the suspicions of a motorcycle policeman as he walked the mile and a half back to the repair shop where he’d dropped off his truck earlier in the day. He found himself scanning his surroundings, looking from the sidewalk to an adjacent field in search of a soft, wet spot to land “just in case I was slammed, face first, to the ground, like is happening to so many these days.”
Brown called such take-downs a new trend, and wrote that it’s easy for those unaffected to say things like “he shouldn’t have resisted” or “all he had to do was do what he was told . . . if it isn’t you being gripped in a chokehold, or it isn’t you with a knee on his neck and his arms being forced to go in directions they weren’t intended to go.”
And indeed, the YouTube commandos seem to think if they scream, “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” for the dash cam recorders, they can do pretty much anything they want. Another exculpatory catch phrase now seems to be, “I feared for my safety,” which has become an all-purpose justification for the use of lethal force. And juries, apparently, are buying the argument that frightened cops have carte blanche.
Brown recalled that in the 1970s he had a few run-ins with the police over traffic stops, once or twice getting right up in their faces, and at no time did the officer “fear for his safety,” nor did Brown fear for his, even during heated debate. But he wouldn’t attempt to argue with the police today.
“Regular citizens on the street haven’t gotten any tougher than folks in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, have they?” Brown asked rhetorically. He guessed that citizens are in fact a lot softer now, but so are the authorities. “I can’t fathom sheriffs like Luther Cox or Sam Hall or deputies like Butler Grant or any of the peace officers from that era saying that they did ANYTHING because they were ‘afraid.’ I don’t think the words would have come out of their mouths. They were men, Dammit!”
Brown’s experience suggests that police officers of past decades were braver, tougher—and less violent. They were more concerned with protecting the public than protecting themselves.
The last thing I want is to offend worthy police officers who don’t abuse their authority and never would assert fearfulness as license for the unnecessary use of force. If this doesn’t pertain to you, then you have no cause to be offended.
But for the others, and you know who you are, my advice is to be like the late Sam Hall. If necessary, get a hat.