Playwright and actress Sarah Pitard remembers her interactions with the Chicago Police Department and wonders how they relate to news stories about police brutality across the United States. These are her words, which she calls “The Chicago Misogynistic P.D., a Prototype of Urban-American Policing.”
One day, coming home from rehearsal in Chicago, a man tackled me to the ground, groping me, and trying to rip off my shorts.
I screamed and the police were called. Several people came out of their houses. The officer’s first question:
“Was he black?”
He was an overweight, white male. The cops looked shocked. Oh boy, this is going to be a long night, I thought.
The police didn’t catch him, they didn’t take any statements despite several witnesses, and they didn’t care. The man hadn’t actually raped me, they said, so there was nothing they could do.
The incident put my experiences with Chicago Police at a new level of obscenity. My encounters with troublesome officers had already convinced me that many policemen had brushed off their responsibility of citizen protection and morphed their role into an aggressive form of hyper-macho chauvinism.
My troubles had started during my second year at DePaul’s Theatre School, after I’d moved off campus to Ravenswood. I would walk to the Wilson Red Line on my way to campus, past a Jimmy John’s where there were always two or three cops standing around. They used to catcall me, tell me to smile, and make lewd sexual comments about my body.
I did not feel safe, and after two weeks of the same harassment, I changed my route to work, adding an extra 15 minutes to my journey.
This was in 2004. I had moved to Chicago for theatre school from Champaign, IL. My first three and a half years in the city were a whirlwind – acting, training, immersing myself in plays and English literature, and falling in love. I was your average acting student, naïve, but determined to succeed. Then, in my final year of school, I experienced that first horrific sexual assault.
As I’ve realized since then, my experiences with Chicago Police were also not extraordinary for a young woman living in a large city in America. I’ve heard stories of police misconduct spanning all the way from New York City to L.A. – stories that don’t become high profile and don’t usually make the news at all, because they don’t end in arrest or death. These experiences, however, are conspicuous for many women, and inform our lives.
After the first sexual assault, I brushed it off. I sucked up my pride, went down to Florida, and bought myself a little spring blade knife – if the police couldn’t protect me, then I would protect me.
A few months later, walking down the same street, it happened again.
“Lay down and I won’t hurt you,” he said, waving his knife in my eye. After a brief knife spat, I was able to call the police who picked up the attacker at the end of the road.
At the police station, one of the officers approached me. “Okay, tell me what really happened here.” I didn’t know what to say, as I’d already told him the whole story. “What do you mean?” I asked.
The officer looked at me with contempt. “He wasn’t trying to rape you. He just wanted to give you head.”
To this day, I’m not certain that I would have ever been able to take the case to court if my attacker hadn’t finally admitted what he’d done. He was imprisoned on four accounts: attempted rape, assault with a knife, possession of an illegal weapon, and indecent exposure. But to the cops, apparently he just wanted to give me head.
I was 21 and I’d already been the victim of two documented sexual assaults. In my parents’ mind, there was no way I was going to walk around anymore. They bought me a car. I moved to West Rogers Park.
One evening, when returning home, I turned right at the intersection at Western and Pratt, and that’s when I saw the flashing lights. How strange, I thought, I definitely wasn’t speeding.
As the officer approached my car, he was smiling, and something didn’t seem quite right. I rolled down the window and he looked at me for a minute. “Sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to pull you over. I thought you were someone else.”
I didn’t say anything – there was something creepy about the way he was looking at me. “You’re really hot,” he said, “Can I have your number?” I rattled off a fake number, smiled, and went on my way. I parked a few blocks away in front of my home, sat in my car for a few minutes and cried. What if I hadn’t given him my number? What if I had said no?
Not all of my police encounters have been concerned with verbal or physical sexual assault. Some have simply been aggressive.
I spent the final few months of my time in Chicago visiting friends and saying my goodbyes. One afternoon, on my way to Andersonville, I threw on my breaks as a car barreled through a stop sign, nearly hitting the passenger side of my car. I blew my horn, my heart beating fast. The next thing I knew, the man in the car jumped out at me, flashing his police badge, and ordered me to roll down my window.
I was terrified. He looked angry. When I explained to him that I had no idea he was a policeman, since he was driving an undercover car, he told me to drop the attitude. “You just blew a red light and nearly smashed into me!” I exclaimed.
“Do you want me to arrest you?” he said. “Now apologize.”
“For what?” I asked.
“I will seriously handcuff you and take you to the station. Is that what you want? Now say it.”
I felt disgusted. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“Good girl.” And he walked away.
These are just some of the encounters I’ve had with police, but there were more. Speeding tickets thrown in my face, officers ogling me with their eyes, officers demanding submission…And it’s not all happened in Chicago.
In LA, as my friend and I sat in her parked car, an officer approached us and insinuated that he thought we were out offering sexual favors for coke. When we disputed his claims, he became angry and verbally abusive. All we could figure was that he was trying to score “sexual favors” for himself.
I think it’s important that those of us who have been subjected to or witnessed police misconduct come forward with their stories. Perhaps the only way to convince the government to take action is to show that these incidents are NOT ISOLATED and that they don’t always end in arrests and death. This happens to people all the time, and is almost always unreported.
I see questions on social media like “Why are cops suddenly killing people now? Why is police brutality only starting to happen now?” But the truth is, it’s been this way for as long as I can remember.
One might ask how on earth I could still like Chicago after what I went through there. But in truth, I love Chicago: the people, the architecture, the restaurants, the music, and the actors and artists, who are some of the most talented in the world. I often find myself sitting in my London flat and thinking about what I would be doing if I still lived there. I even brag about the fierceness of the winters… because where else does walking outside make you feel any more alive?
I’m thankful that I AM alive, and that I’m here to write about what happened to me so that others might feel empowered to do the same.
When I heard that Sandra Bland, yet another unarmed black person, had been detained for failing to signal, and then shortly afterwards died in police custody, I simply wasn’t surprised, but it made me think…did I avoid jail, and perhaps even death, because I’m white? Did I avoid it because I allowed the police to take advantage of the situation? Or was I just lucky? I will never know. But I do know this – there is an ingrained misogyny that exists deep within U.S. police culture – and it knows no color.
Sarah gives special thanks to Johnathan Lee Iverson, Kenneth Jay, and Vanessa Moll… “your belief in me knows no limits.”
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