Good Cop, Bad Cop, Even Worse Cop
My name is Lang Srey, and you’ve got to hear my story.
I was the scrawniest refugee you ever saw, when I came to the United States. Fourteen, Cambodian, with the weight of my family on my shoulders - I was the oldest. And a boy.
It was November of 1980. San Francisco. “Wow!” I thought. “So this is what heaven is like.” My mother had told me, when we were waiting assignment in the refugee camp in Thailand, that she had forfeited a chance for all of us to go to France. She was holding out for heaven - America. I thought this was much colder than heaven should be, but it was far better than the camp. And the four years before that…
We met other refugees at the processing center, from Laos and Vietnam. And of course there was a pile of Cambodians. And in all that pile, we were the only ones going to Jacksonville, Florida. Well since we were the only ones going to Jacksonville, it must be an awesome place. We wouldn’t be confined with thousands of other refugees, as we had been in the camp. I could already hear the quiet.
When we arrived in Jacksonville we were met by our two sponsor families. We stayed overnight with the Cambodian one, and the next morning, the American one took us to our new apartment – behind a school. They were all kindness. And so were our new neighbors, refugees themselves – from Cuba, Romania, Vietnam and Laos. We all learned to survive in this new place together. We walked to the grocery store together, crashed each others’ parties, and made friends with our black neighbors – we were in subsidized housing, “The Hood” – but we didn’t care. It was a hell of a lot better than the hell we had come from. I was happy.
I’d missed five years and eight months of school. Two years longer than I’d ever been in school – I’d had first grade, second grade, third grade, and part of fourth. In 1980, they put me in eighth. With not a word of English. Well, I didn’t fail. In Cambodia we’d followed the French system – I’d learned the multiplication tables at six, and had started foreign language at eight. American eighth grade was easier than Cambodian fourth grade! I failed English, though - but I made it up in summer school.
My mother needed help paying our utility bills, so I started working shortly after I started school, at a Chinese restaurant, Fridays and Saturdays. We didn’t have a car, of course, or even a bike, so I walked the seven miles to the restaurant, worked seven hours on my feet, and walked seven miles back home after midnight. I had no idea it wasn’t safe – after all, the streets were lit.
Now, some refugee kids get in trouble with the police. But I never had that luxury – I had to help my mother pay the bills. But no one told the Jacksonville cops that.
My “warmup” for the police came about an hour after midnight one morning, as I was walking home from work. All I could think about after washing dishes for seven hours and then mopping the floor was washing me – a nice, hot shower. Suddenly I got the feeling that someone was following me, slowly, in a vehicle of some kind. And then, a whizzing past my ear. And then another. And then the truck screeched past me, and sped off.
“What was that?” I asked myself. “And what are those two things bouncing off the grass?” I went to look. Beer cans. Empty.
I changed my route, after that. To avoid more flying beer cans. I began to walk as far off the sidewalk as I could, and across the parking lot of any strip mall on the way. Which is where the police came in, a few months later.
About one in the morning again. I heard a screech of tires behind me, and shouting – at me. But I couldn’t understand a word. “Why is he shouting at me?” I thought. “Am I supposed to stay on the sidewalk? Or is there some kind of curfew, like the curfew in Phnom Penh after the Vietnamese kicked the Khmer Rouge out?”
The next thing I knew the officer had grabbed me by the collar and slammed me up against his patrol car. He kept saying… something, and I kept saying, “No English!” He slammed me again. And again. Then, he kicked my legs – I guess so I’d spread them. And then he shoved me into the back seat of his patrol car, and angrily slammed the door. He swung into the driver’s seat, called someone, and they talked a few minutes. He finally swung out of the car again, opened the back door, and let me go.
I was fifteen, but looked much younger – not yet five and a half feet tall, and so thin a junkyard dog would have spit me out. Over the next few days the bruises faded, but my ideal of America was gone. It was not heaven on earth, as my mother had said. To cross a “white” police officer in the south in the 1980s was certain disaster, and I realized I had been lucky – it had never occurred to me to put up resistance. But I had no idea what was to come...
Fast forward to 2011. By this time I had a university degree, a white-collar job, a gorgeous 2300-square-foot house on the water, and a nice American wife.
The problems started shortly after we moved into the house. Most of our neighbors were friendly, but there was one man who clearly wanted us out. Our house was much nicer than his; he hated that. We were well respected in the neighborhood; he hated that. I wasn’t “white”; he hated that. And my wife was a Northerner – a smart, well-educated, well-traveled woman. I think he hated that most of all.
He began to harass us, and said he “knew people” in the municipal government. We didn’t move out. He got some of his neighbors to harass us. We didn’t move out. He got control of the homeowners’ association, and harassed us through it. We didn’t move out. This went on for ten years.
One day, I was stopped by the Jacksonville police. They said my driver’s license had been suspended. I went to court, the judge ruled it a mistake, and I started driving again. Only to be stopped again – my license had been re-suspended less than 24 hours after the judge had cleared it. The cycle repeated itself again and again, and I finally started keeping a copy of the judge’s ruling in my glove compartment. Note that the government never informed me that my license had been suspended – I would only find out when stopped by the cops.
As the years had passed Jacksonville had become less and less like the wild, wild West, and the Jacksonville police, when they stopped me, were always very respectful. They believed my story (with or without the copy of the judge’s ruling) and always let me go, with the promise that I would fix my license.
The neighbor was finally caught embezzling $10,000 from the homeowners’ association, and once word got around the neighborhood (and his wife left him), he stopped bothering us. We breathed a sigh of relief, and began to relax. We didn’t know that Lang’s license had been suspended again, probably months before.
Enter the Jacksonville Beach police. Jax Beach is a very “white”, very expensive ocean-front community. We went there often because it was… nice. In town we were always well dressed, wallets out. No problems.
We used to go to the beach in the evenings – the ocean would put back what the workday had drained from us. We’d hike several miles, swim in the surf, and get back into our car looking rather scruffy. We always went straight home.
One evening we were stopped at a red light a few blocks from the beach, and were motioned to turn into a parking lot by a couple of patrolmen. We asked what the problem was. They said my wife had not been wearing her seat belt. Of course, she had been. And the next forty minutes were pure hell.
I will tell this part of my story quickly. These cops obviously didn’t like anyone who wasn’t “white”. And having my wife in the car did me no good – she’s part Native American. The officers ran my license, and it came back suspended. My wife told them that she could explain more quickly than I could what the problem was (we were in her car, so didn’t have the judge’s ruling in the glove compartment). They told her she couldn’t speak, made her face forward so she couldn’t see what was happening to me, and made me get out of the car. At which point one of the officers put his hand on his gun. They kept us there for forty minutes, and then let us go. They seemed to think it fun to play around with us. We were terrified.
We went home that night and agreed that if we didn’t move out of the South, we were going to be shot. I put in for a transfer, and waited… About two months later, Trevon Martin was killed. And a few months after that, another black man was killed because a “white” man didn’t like his music.
My transfer came through, and suddenly, I was a refugee again. But this time, so was my American wife! We lost our beautiful home – we had to short-sell it. We had to leave our friends. We moved three thousand miles away, to California. And those freeways? I had to learn to drive all over again!
But I’m like a cat who’s dropped upside down, and whips around to land on its feet. Our biggest problem with Jacksonville had been the lack of educational facilities; now we had access to world-class universities, and the first thing my wife did was go back to school to learn Khmer. Her son was now just an hour’s drive away. As soon as our credit cleared we got a smart little condo on the water – with a boat slip for our kayaks. A milder climate, better restaurants, more hiking trails and larger parks, the Napa wine country… and the museums. America isn’t heaven, but it’s not exactly hell.
And those two cops? Undoubtedly, still stuck in Florida. On policemen’s salaries, in a community where everyone else is rich. With no concept of the karma they made in 2011. And continue to make every day, as they prowl around looking for people who aren’t “white”.
Isn’t this the author? If so, shouldn’t it be “my license” or is the use of the third person to refer to himself for effect?