While we were at the DMV, a man was visibly stimming by chewing on his shirt, and readjusting it often. He was awkward and drew some attention and stares. He was also wearing an oversized shirt and shorts that made it look like he wasn’t wearing pants. The police were called.
He showed them the shorts he was wearing, but that wasn’t enough. They stayed with him while he was waiting to get his information. Throughout it all the police were drawing attention to themselves and him. Finally, tired of waiting, they got him bumped up. Then when he was done, loudly asked if anyone would give him a ride somewhere, then laughing when the people who were stuck waiting in line couldn’t.
When the police were first called to the scene, most people were pretty entertained by the idea of a man at the DMV not wearing pants. Was it a protest of no shoes, no shirt, no service? Did he just forget? Nothing was hanging out, he just didn’t seem to be wearing pants. When the joke was broken and the tiny shorts revealed, most felt that that should have been the end of it. It was funny, but it wasn’t criminal.
The cops continued presence, and the way that they kept drawing everyone’s attention, however, soon made everyone uncomfortable. It’s one thing to respond when there is the potential of inappropriate nudity, but when it turns out that that is not the case, the continued mockery is just plain cruelty. What we were witnessing was a man with a presumed mental illness and/or cognitive disability, who was being tormented for being different.
We thought that was the end of it, until we left an hour later and saw him walking with his big bag trying to get to a bus stop.
We pulled over hoping to give him a ride somewhere, upset with how the cops had treated them. Just as I got to him and asked him if I could drive him somewhere, two police cars showed up. I had been in the process of walking away because he had said he was ok, but when I saw the cops, I hesitated and waited.
They asked if I was with him. He looked at me pleadingly while saying yes, so I answered that we had been together at the DMV, leaving it just ambiguous enough in case I was pressed for information. The young one got on his case again about his pants, telling him to pull them down and mocking him for wearing such small shorts. Uncomfortable, the man asked me if I would drive him, but the young cop cut him off saying that “the nice young lady isn’t going to want someone like you in her car.”
I started saying that actually I had just offered him a ride, but they had moved on to grilling him about why he was using a “stolen” Walmart shopping cart to carry his bags, and generally being unpleasant. The man insisted that he just wanted to get to the bus stop and then he would sit down and no one would notice him. The older one finally intervened and let him go while taking the attention of the younger one away from him.
I once again offered him a ride where he was going so he wouldn’t have to deal with the cops again. He said it was ok. Concerned but respecting his boundaries, I waved goodbye. At this point the older cop started lecturing me about offering rides to “people like that”. Seriously pissed and annoyed at this point, I pointed out that his behaviour at the DMV and on the way suggested the potential of autism spectrum disorder (specifically the stimming, the difficulty processing in the face of aggression, etc) and that people with autism or someone with a mental health issue were more likely to be victims of violence than aggressors. I was safer offering a ride to him, than an abled man.
The cop looked displeased and pointed out that he had been attacked by the very same type of people who he was trying to protect and they were mentally ill. To which I retorted that that was probably because they had bad associations with people in authority. Finally, not wanting to make him decide to go after me I smiled and said I guess I was just too Canadian for my own good, nodded to him and went back to the car. In the time I was talking to the cops, the harassed gentleman made it to the bus stop, hopefully not to be harassed again.
I left feeling extremely uncomfortable. Rather than being helpful, such as potentially by offering the man a ride to his destination. Or by telling the dispatch simply to let people know that he was in fact wearing shorts, or even just providing him an additional police escort just to show people that they are aware of the situation. There were a myriad of options open to them to solve the issue. Instead they actively got in the way of someone else trying to be helpful, created a shaming environment and openly mocked the situation. They were provoking him and looking for a reason to arrest him for the crime of being weird in public.
If I hadn’t been there what would have happened? If he didn’t have someone there to help act as a shield and step in front when they moved aggressively towards him, would he have been provoked in such a way as to create the perception of an excuse to take him down?
What makes this even more perverse, is that these men weren’t bad cops. The older one, in his misguided way had tried to look out for me. He probably didn’t realize all the ways in which he was making the situation worse.
The younger one was simply arrogant. Confident in his perception that he was the “better man”. How much of that act might have even been macho showing off in front of the “female”. His actions were creating a dangerous situation. He was actively provoking this other man. He was looking for any excuse to harass him further.
This is the world that people with disabilities, and especially neurodivergent people grow up in. One where they are not who the police are protecting, but who they are protecting others from, even though violence is much more common in the other direction. A world where being weird is a crime.