by Tim Gilmore, 6/29/2017
Respectfully, Devonte Shipman asks, “What was it that we did wrong, Officer?” This kind of thing has happened to him before. This time, he’s recording it.
Officer J.S. Bolen walks forcefully toward Vonte and his friend, points his finger and says, “You crossed! Take your camera and point it across there at the red hand. That is ay crosswalk.” He pronounces the word “a” like the name of the letter.
Bolen holds up a finger and says, “One. You weren’t in the crosswalk. Two. There was ay red sign and you both crossed.”
“My bad,” Vonte says.
Bolen’s elbows are out to his sides, his arms across his chest, his palms touching, one up and one down. “That is ay $65 ticket!” he says, then points to his cruiser and demands, “Get to my car!”
Vonte pauses. His surprised “um” stretches across a nervous silence. Being commanded to the police car clearly worries him, and in corroboration of Vonte’s concern, Bolen says, “You are being legally detained.”
For years, residents have called this or nearby parts of Arlington “Sin City.”
Yesterday’s suburb-become-today’s inner-city, this stretch of Arlington is probably the emptiest urban district in Jacksonville. Block after block, 1950s and ’70s strip malls—beige, faded and sickly yellows and browns—stand empty.
Their only virtue, once, was they were new, and now they’re not. As urban neighborhoods revive, the first suburban circles built to escape the city now collapse under the weight of their own emptiness.
Operating in the few functioning storefronts in these strung-out strip malls, like the randomly spaced teeth in a mostly rotten mouth, are a plasma donation center, bail bonds offices, UHIP United House in Prayer, a half dozen storefront churches, as many barbershops, and a baker’s dozen liquor stores.
At two in the afternoon, people lie scattered and unconscious behind empty strip malls named Arlington Plaza and Arlington Village and the abandoned Christ Resurrection Power Assembly. An emaciated man with no legs sinews his wheelchair back and forth across the intersection of the Arlington Expressway Service Road and Arlington Road North. He wears a straw cowboy hat with the whole crown gone, no shirt, and a bicycle’s inner tube wrapped around one shoulder.
A city abhors a vacuum. Though it fills the void with junkies overdosing on the back steps of abandoned evangelical churches, it also permits black kids who graduated recently from Englewood or Terry Parker High Schools to walk across the street.
The city—an ecosystem after all—an ecosystem that constitutes its own organism—a live and functionally evolving animal—permits it. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office may not.
Bolen’s become increasingly agitated. The hand gestures evince more anger. While saying, “If you don’t [get to my car], you are disobeying ay direct order, and I will put you in jail,” he points, jabs his index finger and chops at the air.
Vonte asserts himself, though his tone is still polite: “That’s against the law right there.”
And that sets Bolen off. He steps close. “You look at me,” he says. “If you don’t walk to that car, I’m puttin’ you in jail!”
Vonte asks if he’s being arrested for crossing the street, and his friend asks if he can just get a warning.
“I’m about to put you in jail,” Bolen says, for “disobeying ay direct order” and “resisting without.” He doesn’t finish the phrase with the word “violence.”
As Vonte walks toward the police car, Bolen asks him if he has his I.D.
“No, I don’t.”
“What’s your name?”
Bolen stops, plants his feet wide and faces Vonte. “Alright,” he says, “So there’s another infraction. In the state of Florida, you have to have an ID card on you identifying who you are. I can detain you up to seven hours until I can figure out who you are.”
When Vonte says, “Not if I haven’t done anything illegal, Officer,” Bolen loses it. He points at the intersection and raises his voice. “You did do something illegal! You crossed the crosswalk! Against the red hand! I was sitting right there when you did it!”
Vonte: “I wasn’t paying no attention. You act like I really committed a serious crime that’s worth this time right now.”
Bolen: “It is worth the time.”
Bolen has called for backup, which now begins to arrive. He asks for Vonte to spell his name, asks his birthday—January 12, 1996—and goes back to his car to write a jaywalking ticket, as Vonte and his friend look around at the three police cars that surround them.
Devonte Shipman has only lived in Arlington a few years. The streets around this intersection of Arlington and Lillian Roads tell him they’re here for him…if, that is, he needs a pint of gin, bail, or a few dollars for donating blood plasma. Of course these streets offer him plenty of illegal substances without displaying business signs.
Here, police cruisers and uniforms carry a threat. They seem predatory. Most of the police in these streets are looking for lawbreakers to bring to justice, not neighborhood residents “to protect and serve.” J.S. Bolen doesn’t present himself as a public servant to neighborhood kids like Vonte Shipman. He rushes on the scene to catch black kids not paying attention, to threaten them with jail, and to lie to their faces by telling them Florida law requires its citizens to carry ID at all times. He clearly thinks they’re stupid. Is he a public servant in a free society, or the defender of a police state? The answer may depend on your personal experience. Your personal experience may depend on your race, your neighborhood, your race, your socioeconomic status, or your race.
Not three weeks ago, Officer Timothy James became the 18th policeman arrested in 18 months when he beat a handcuffed 17 year old named Elias Campos in the back of his patrol car. In the last two years, almost 50 cops have resigned or retired after finding out they were being investigated. Officers not being investigated include those who beat Connell Crooms and other nonviolent protesters at Hemming Park on April 7.
And J.S. Bolen.
Phone camera captures of vigilante and police violence against nonviolent black citizens led in 2013 to the Black Lives Matter movement. In reaction and direct response, police officers began Blue Lives Matter, not merely taking offense at the notion that black lives matter as much anyone else’s, but inherently equating the problems of police to the discrimination and persecution black Americans have always experienced, and defining, by the very fact of Blue countering Black, police lives and black lives as antithetical to each other.
Never mind that the right-wing National Rifle Association supports Blue Lives Matter, but not Black. Never mind that no one is born blue. Never mind that blue people were never lynched by law enforcement authorities.
As though the Tuskegee Institute’s annual lynching report, which ended in 1959, had not documented 4,733 lynchings since 1882. As though Jim Crow laws never existed as Southern retaliation for losing the Confederacy. Never mind more than 200 years of slavery in the United States prior to Jim Crow.
As though Vonte Shipman doesn’t daily cross the streets in this neighborhood whose desolation this city, this state, and this nation has completely ignored as not worth its time.
Said Vonte: “You act like I really committed a serious crime that’s worth this time right now.”
Said Bolen: “It is worth the time.”
As though Bolen understands time in neighborhoods deemed not worth time. As though Bolen understands his position as Vonte Shipman’s public servant.
No American citizen, not Donald Trump, not J.S. Bolen, and not Devonte Shipman, needs an ID to cross the goddamn street.