The most abject racism I've witnessed since I moved to Philadelphia about two years ago happened Monday.
I was getting the police reports from the 14th Police District on Haines Street in Germantown, just as I do every other week, when a man walked in. He was white.
He walked up to an glass partition, where police officers are stationed to talk to members of the public who come by. That's pretty regular, too.
But what followed wasn't regular at all. "I want to speak to one of my own kind," he said to the black, female officer who manned the front of the station. And he pointed to the only officer on duty that was male and white.
Did he mean he wanted to talk to a man? Or was his implication more sinister? It wasn't immediately clear, although I think everyone in the station—including two other non-officers and the officer herself—assumed as much.
"Well," she said, "I can pretend to be white and a man."
The man smirked but didn't say a word. He didn't seem to be budging from his odd request as the officer, who appeared to be nonplussed, went to the back of the office to talk to her colleague.
I assumed she would fall on her sword and bring out the male officer. That probably would have defused the situation—which hadn't yet escalated at all—to some extent. But the police had their defenses up a little bit more than that.
The original officer came back out. It was clear she was in a slightly less friendly mood than before. "He wants to know why you want to speak to him," she said. "Why you want to talk to one of your own kind."
"I want to talk to one of my own kind," he said, before losing any trace of subtlety in the matter. "He's white, I'm white."
That's when things started to break down. "That's the way it should be in this city," he said. "That's the way it should be in this country,"
He was probably looking for a fight at this point, spewing hateful speech that didn't make sense and clearly wasn't socially acceptable, especially for a man who looked to be in his 50s. And if he was looking for some form of combat through speech, it worked, because his words made the police dig in that much more.
"I don't even know if he's white," the female officer said. "Hispanic, whatever," the man retorted. "I'm Hispanic too."
"Well," the female encountered, her voice rising ever so slightly. "It's not his job to talk to you. It's my job." She asked him what she wanted to bring up.
"I'd rather not say," he said angrily. "Why can't I talk to him? ... Where is the lieutenant?"
There weren't any lieutenants in sight (who, ironically, wear white shirts). The officer he wanted to talk to, however, eventually came out. "We're all the same," he said. "If you want to talk to someone, talk to one of the officers here." He gestured toward his colleagues.
"Get me the mayor," the man said. "Get me the president!"
I know it sounds like he was mentally unstable, but on the surface, he didn't exactly give off that vibe (aside from the things he was saying). He seemed, otherwise, to be moderately aware of social cues, and that added to the situation's strange nature. It felt like I was watching an PSA on racism, edited ridiculously to ensure that no one would miss that point. Racism is bad, the PSA would teach others. Don't do this.
But this was real, and incredibly bizarre.
Things devolved quickly after that. "Out," the black officer said. "Please leave."
The man continued screaming about seeing a lieutenant but in the end she walked him out and he didn't come back. She ended up walking back in, shaking her head.
"Now I've heard it all," she said.
Racism here often bubbles up below the surface, in much more subtle ways or in private conversation. It's often not as public as that—I think it's fair to say that most of us don't feel like we're living in the 1950s in Montgomery, AL. But that's what it felt like in Germantown on Monday, if even for a short moment.
It would surprise me if the incident is officially written up, and aside from chatter among police, it'll likely be forgotten in time. But it was definitely a sad reminder that feelings like this exist here and everywhere, regardless of how far we attempt to push them down into a hole.