In my mid 20’s something frightening happened to me which made me realize how different my life is because I am white. Although it was scary for me, it was even scarier for the five black guys who were with me, and I experienced first hand their daily fear as young black men in America. This was in the early 90’s, when there was less racial tension in our culture. I think it’s worse now, and if the same event happened today, something terrible might happen.
Early in my career in entertainment, I worked as an editor cutting music videos for breaking rock bands. Nowadays an editor can put together an entire movie on his home editing system, but back then nonlinear editing systems were new, expensive and complicated enough that you had to go to a post production house where you would rent an editing bay for a day or a week. You’d digitize in your material and then edit your project. One of those places was Kolbe Post, on Ventura Blvd. in the San Fernando Valley.
An edit bay was cheaper to rent on the weekends, and after working Monday through Friday at my regular job, I’d often work two days straight on a weekend, editing round the clock to crank out a music video. I’d load the material in Saturday morning, edit until Sunday morning, sometimes sleeping on the floor, and then the producer and the music client would come in on Sunday, watch it, and give me changes to accomplish by the end of the day Sunday. If I did a good enough job I could get a full night’s sleep before another five days of work.
Kolbe Post had no staff on the weekends. Somebody from the Kolbe office staff would let us young and hungry weekend editors in, make sure the machines and bays were working, give us keys to lock our bays, codes for the alarm system, and then he’d leave. If there was a problem we could page him to come back.
One editor might be working on a cheap TV commercial in one bay, an infomercial in another, and the rest of the bays had editors working on rock and rap videos, all of us hoping that our video would bust through and be on MTV that month.
Our bays all had phones, which never rang on weekends, and the main office area, past the kitchen, was locked up tight. We all came in through the back entrance off the parking lot. The bays were so well-insulated we could all blast music, maintain privacy, and not worry too much about anything from the outside world penetrating inside.
We got to know each other; we were fellow craftsmen and weekend warriors all trying to make it. We’d check out each other’s work, we’d make food runs together and eat our take-out lunches in the kitchen area. We’d talk shop and geek out, debate hard drive space, special effects, and how long we’d edit to the beat before letting it lag. It was neither white talk nor black talk — it was editor talk.
At 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, the place was like a fraternity, with food containers everywhere, music blasting, people shouting and girlfriends visiting, but we’d also give each other a heads up if a producer or a client was coming in. Then we’d clean up and keep our doors shut when someone’s paycheck was in the house.
On the weekend in question there were six editors at Kolbe Post. I was working on a rock video for a Bay Area band, and the five other bays all had rap videos, which translated (at least on that weekend) to one white editor and five black editors. Some weekends it was more white than black, and sometimes it was an even split, but this weekend I was the sole white editor.
Because it was the music business, screening time often included people smoking weed. The musicians, the producers, and the music executives would show up and light up while they watched our cuts. Sometimes editors would work stoned as well, but in my experience it was rare — you couldn’t get a week’s worth of work done in two days if you were stoned, and most editors have enough “geek’ in them that they don’t lean too far that way anyway. There had been two or three screenings already, so the place had that tangy burnt smell of strong marijuana.
It was late Sunday afternoon, and we were all in our bays, cranking to finish before the end of the day. I noticed a green light flashing on my phone, and when I went to the bathroom down the hall I noticed that the main Kolbe phone lines were ringing behind the closed office door — and they kept ringing. I didn’t wonder why someone was calling incessantly on a Sunday afternoon. I just did my business, went back to my bay and shut the door.
About an hour later I went out on the enclosed interior sun porch — it was the one area where you could be outside without leaving the building. That’s when another sound that had been in the background of my brain moved to the forefront. A helicopter was circling overhead. Helicopter noise is as ubiquitous as freeway noise in Los Angeles and you just let it wash over you, but when I looked up, this helicopter was circling low. I heard a voice come from the helicopter loudspeaker, but it was as indecipherable as the loudspeaker at the airport or the train station — so I stepped back inside and went back to work. There must be some criminal in the neighborhood, I thought, and I was glad to be safe inside this building.
About ten minutes later someone knocked on my door and said that six police cars were in back of the building with lights flashing. I remembered the helicopter and something clicked. Maybe the police in that helicopter had been talking to me…but that seemed impossible.
By now, all six of us editors were out of our bays and in the hallway. All of us were young men, college educated, gainfully employed, working our butts off on a weekend, trying to get ahead in the entertainment industry. But we had a problem — six police cars had surrounded the building and the strong smell of marijuana filled the halls. Not a good scenario. Still, I was not concerned. Whatever was happening had nothing to do with us, and if it did, I knew that it was just a misunderstanding.
That’s when I saw the look on the other guys faces. They were terrified.
One of us is going to get shot.
Something bad is going to happen.
This is how people die, man.
I went to the back staircase and looked out a window to the parking lot and saw the police cars, with officers crouching behind their open squad car doors. I made eye contact with a young female police officer, brunette, with her hair in a pony tail. I thought she was pretty…until she raised her gun and aimed it right at me. They were preparing for a siege.
Then I felt nervous. I returned to the huddled group in the hall.
What the fuck are we going to do?
It’s just a misunderstanding. They’re making a mistake.
Of course they’re making a mistake! Doesn’t mean we won’t get shot!
Their genuine fear surprised me and suddenly I was scared too. I never thought that I’d ever be shot accidentally by a police officer, but I also instantly understood that this was a real fear they had all the time, and now it might come true for one of them. With five of them together, the odds were even worse.
Hey, that phone is still ringing. Maybe we should answer it.
It’s in the main office. We can’t get in there.
Maybe we should break in?
That’ll get us shot for sure.
Maybe we can answer it from one of the bays.
This was before cell phones, so we picked up the different extensions. Nothing worked. We couldn’t answer the main line. That’s when one editor got the bright idea of dialing 9, then calling the North Hollywood police, tell them what was happening, that we couldn’t answer the main phone, and give them the number for that edit bay, and wait for the phone to ring back. He hung up, and we sat there, five of us, crowded around the phone — and it rang. It was the police outside. He answered, he told them our story — we’re editors, we’re working, there are six of us — he heard what the police had to say, and then hung up.
They say there was a report of an armed robbery in progress in our building. A woman hiding in a closet called and said that they were taking hostages, and then hung up.
What do we do?
They want us to come out, one by one.
I don’t remember how we picked who would go out first, but it wasn’t me, thank god. We lined up and waited in the stairwell, and when the officer with the bullhorn commanded the next person to come out, that editor walked down four steps, pushed open the heavy metal door and stepped outside with his hands up.
I was second to last, so from the window in the stairwell I could see it all go down. As each editor exited, he’d put his hands in the air. Police would scream at him to get on his knees, and he’d obey. Two officers, with weapons drawn, would approach from either side, while the officers in front of them would keep their weapons aimed. One of the approaching officers would yell for him to put his hands behind his head. The other officer would holster his weapon, cuff one hand, pull it down, and then cuff the other behind his back. Two of the four editors who went before got pushed face first onto the asphalt so that the officer could cuff him easier. The officers would then each grab a forearm and lift the editor off the ground and lead him over to the side of the parking lot, and make him sit on the ground, his back against a horizontal creosote soaked telephone pole that marked the boundary of the parking lot. Another officer would then kneel down and question him.
Then it was my turn. I pushed open the big metal door and stepped into the golden late Sunday afternoon light.
And nothing happened. No one rushed up to me with guns drawn. No one barked at me to get on my knees. No one cuffed me. The officer with the bullhorn just rolled his eyes and waved for me to step out of the way, and then the pretty young officer who aimed her gun at me earlier stepped in, grabbed my elbow and pulled me to the side. II glanced at my colleagues, all of them cuffed, their heads down, humiliation on their faces as different officers demanded answers from them. They didn’t look at back at me.
I am white. English White. WASP. And at that moment, being a WASP also made me invisible and harmless to the police.
The last editor stepped outside, and they barked at him and treated him like the four others guys who preceded me. I was the only one who didn’t get cuffed and plopped on the ground and questioned. No yelling in my ear. No gun to my head. I didn’t even have to sit on the oily telephone pole and stain my chinos. I just stood there and waited for it to end.
That’s when I understood how in this culture I get a “by.” I could have been another Jeffery Dahmer, or John Wayne Gacy, but it didn’t matter. I simply am not perceived as a threat, while each of them were.
The “by” I automatically get goes pretty far. I always get the benefit of the doubt when I am out in public. I am never perceived as a threat. I get universal access that extends to stores and banks and jobs and bank loans, and preferential treatment by police. It’s an unstated understanding, yet I was not aware of the breadth of my automatic benefits package until that moment. I also think that the people who grant me my benefits — like the police officers that day — may not be aware of it either. I just get it and they just give it, without a thought. That’s how inbred and entrenched it is. It’s like the air we move through — it’s invisible but it’s there, and that afternoon I felt it first hand.
The police searched the building and found nothing, of course. They determined later that a disgruntled client or ex-girlfriend called it in as a prank. It was an early version of what the police now call “swatting.”
The event also changed my relationship with my colleagues. On future weekends they didn’t spend as much time hanging out with me talking about frame rates in the kitchen. I understood why. I remember getting beaten up by bullies in the park when I was a kid, and my friends not coming to my defense, even verbally. I was only 10, and I was so scared that I wet my pants, which was doubly humiliating. I was mad that the bullies didn’t pick on my friends and that I had been singled out for punishment. I didn’t want to be reminded of the incident, and whenever I saw those friends I was reminded of how they’d seen me at my worst and most vulnerable, and I steered clear.
Last year I saw one of the five editors from Kolbe Post, Michael, at a reception. He’s a well known producer and director now, and we caught up on old times. I reminded him of that incident, and how awkward I felt being the only guy who didn’t get handcuffed that day. Michael laughed and nodded, but I could tell that he may not have remembered the incident at all. That kind of event may have happened enough to him over the years that it could have been one many crazy misunderstandings with the police that he endured in his 20s. While I have one story, I could tell that he had many.