July 20, 2007

A Cup Runneth Over

Today I involved myself in an incident. I was seated in the courtyard of my local public library, a few steps away fom the libary's indoor/outdoor cafe. Suddenly, I heard a man inside the cafe shouting, "This is a public place! It's a library!" The man behind the counter was arguing with him and was asking him to leave. The shouting man said he would not leave. So the man behind the counter called the police. They arrived within a couple of minutes, whereupon the man behind the counter told them that the shouting man kept "screaming" and would not leave. The police then detained the shouting man, who is black and was wearing a soiled long-sleeve shirt and jeans designed for colder weather. The man explained that he had only asked for a cup of water and was immediately refused and told to leave.

The cop made him stand there a long time. A lot of us were sitting nearby, looking and listening, but no one was doing a thing. This black man, being forced to stand in the midst of a bunch of white people comfortably seated at tables with umbrellas, made for a stark contrast. Ironically, just ten minutes before, I had purchased a bottle of water in the cafe, and had complained that the smallest bottle available -- 24 ounces --- was too big. I still had two-thirds of the bottle left. I felt like I had to do something.

The first thing I did was to walk over to the man, who was standing there quietly, and ask him if he wanted my water. He politely declined, and seemed perfectly coherent. I then asked him what happened when he asked the man in the cafe for water, and he said he was told to get out. So I turned to the cop and said that, if the man's story is true and all he did was ask for water and was told to leave, that really wasn't fair. All the cop would say was, "We don't know yet what happened here."

I went back to my seat a few feet away, and thought that, if I had asked the man behind the counter for a cup of water and was refused and told to leave, might I not have yelled at them too? Would they have called the police on me? I don't look homeless, but I was wearing shorts, a short-sleeve shirt, and sandals. Where do they draw the line on calling the cops?

After a few minutes, the police officer quietly escorted the man away. I think, I hope, that the situation was diffused and that the police were merely going to ask the man to leave. But I had to wonder: was that cup of water really so precious as to be worth robbing a man of his dignity?


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