Last night, my partner’s bike was stolen from our front yard. Not surprising in hindsight; it’s a smart bike, and it shouldn’t have been outside on a dark December evening. A neighbour who’d seen something suspicious alerted me just a little too late. I contacted my partner, who was still at work, and he said phone the police.
So I did. They logged the report and an investigator called me back this morning; which quite impressed me, it’s just a bike, for heaven’s sake! The man was on the ball, too, knew something about patterns of local bike theft. He would be sending someone to interview my neighbour. No doubt about it, he made me feel the crime was serious, probably organised and definitely worth pursuing. He wants to catch these crooks.
But on another level, he made me deeply uncomfortable. He picked up on my partner’s foreign name at once. He did have the decency at least to ask straight out, is he black? But then; where’s he from? Does he have a British passport? I answered obediently, becoming unpleasantly aware that within seconds my partner was metamorphosing from victim into suspect. Well I suppose, I kept thinking vaguely, from your point of view it could be a set-up, he could be part of an immigrant-criminal network. Does he have a job? The questions continued. What as? How long has he had the bike? Does he still have documentation for it? Before I could answer that one, it was, “Now, give me your honest opinion, Ms er . . ., is he a well-organised, reliable sort of person, or . . .?”
“Are you joking?!” I sensed he was prompting me to say. “My partner could no sooner find old documentation for that posh bike (assuming he ever had any, which I doubt!) than find his way to Mars! You should see his disgusting room! I don’t believe he’s ever filed so much as a bank statement in his life! Not that he gets bank statements of course! Not like you and me!”
Instead I mumbled something about a lot of paperwork, so the bike documents might take him a while to locate. In the background my deaf partner (who cannot make his own phone calls) assures me he can find the bike receipt. I pass on the message.
Only then do we get on to the details of the bike itself.
The man is doing his job, I suppose. But there was no escaping his starting-assumption; what business does an immigrant black guy have owning a £2000 mountain bike in the first place? (And having a well-spoken, probably-white, probably-being-conned girlfriend into the bargain?) It reminded me that anyone who joins the police force must accept, consciously or unconsciously, that their job is basically about protecting the haves of the world against the assaults and presumptions of the have-nots; and in order to do that, they have to make snap-judgements all the time about who belongs in which category. Who, in other words, can expect unreserved support, and who automatic suspicion. Most of all, their consciences must remain absolutely untroubled by reinforcing the wider injustice implicit in that obligation.
I really want my partner to get his bike back; I share his sorrow over losing it. But I have distinctly mixed feelings about the criminal, and am quite lukewarm about pointing that investigator to the information on him my neighbour will be able to provide. I don’t believe in black and white, heroes and villains, good and evil. I’m fairly sure, that on balance, whoever he was, that bike thief, in this horribly unequal city he’s much more of a victim than we are.