Civic Engagement LPD Nebraska Politics racism

My government taught me that I am its enemy

What if I had been there with another man? For that matter, what if I had not been white? What exactly were a dozen cops planning to do to me in the woods under cover of night?

A protester holding a sign at 27th and O Streets on May 30, 2020. Photo by Dylan Widger

I was raised to trust cops. The first time this faith was shaken was in 2009. My girlfriend and I were newly dating. We thought it would be romantic to get outside of Lincoln to look at the constellations. We went to Wilderness Park, outside of town.

A SWAT team — six men in black armor, with rifles — hunted us down in the woods. They stopped us from getting to our car, and they called in another six officers in squad cars.

I put on a folksy accent when I spoke to the cops. I made a reference to football, and tried to seem like a “good old boy.” This quickly deescalated their aggression. I now know a name for my performance: I was using my white privilege.

Rapport established, one particularly talkative cop told me that the police were not looking for people like me in the park. Instead, they expected to find gay men having sex. I was advised by the cops to stick to another park at night, so that I could avoid seeing gay people.

I am not always perceived as straight, but I had evidently passed in the eyes of these cops. What if I had been there with another man? For that matter, what if I had not been white? What exactly were a dozen cops planning to do to me in the woods under cover of night? These inescapable questions opened my ears to Black people, queer people, immigrants and others who are constant targets of brutality and oppression by police.

That was a transformative experience. Over the last two weeks, I’ve had a further transformation. I watched livestreams of police in Lincoln attacking my friends. My friends were jailed and tear-gassed for peaceful political speech. Children who are too young to vote tried to express political beliefs and were met with rubber bullets. A journalist was assaulted and detained because he recorded the police committing these crimes.

Until a few days ago I really believed in the Lincoln city government. Sure, we all know federal government is broken, but it seemed to me that local government was different: a collaboration among citizens, working together to solve problems.

Until a few days ago, I did not learn the lesson that the SWAT team had tried to teach me in Wilderness Park. I persisted in believing that governments protect human rights. Because of this belief, I volunteered in local political campaigns. I testified in city council meetings when I felt I had valuable perspective on an issue. I joined coalitions of other citizens. I thought local government valued our voices.

I am embarrassed at how badly I misunderstood. In truth, city government sees my friends as enemy combatants. It sees Lincoln neighborhoods as, to use the word of the Secretary of Defense, a “battlespace.” When criticized, it responds with simple violence. My government sees my political thought as a hostile ideology to crush. It sees racial justice as a threat to order.

I am feeling deeply betrayed. I don’t know who I am becoming. Perhaps my political opinions will become the hostile ideology that my government fears. What I am now seeing and feeling for the first time is something people of color have long known. I feel foolish for my previous lack of understanding. I don’t yet know how I will change to accommodate the fact that I am my government’s enemy.