That Time We Got Woken Up by the Cops

I woke to the sound of a car door slamming. It was pitch black in the van. I felt around for my phone and checked the time. 1:45 AM.

We were camping in Door County, Wisconsin, out on the Door Peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan. In six months of van travel, we’ve had many glorious nights of legal dispersed camping on public land, usually in National Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management areas. Unfortunately, there’s not a ton of public land east of the Rockies, but we had found a site listed online as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property. It had three or four positive reviews – a nice place to spend a night in a small RV or camper.

I laid still and listened to the crunch of footsteps in the gravel as they worked a full circle around our vehicle.

A beam of light burst into the van, pausing on our duffel bags and cooking gear for a moment before it reached the two of us in our resting place for the evening.

I shook Daniel awake. “We’ve got company,” I would have announced if our lives were an action movie. “We’re getting woken up by the police” were my actual words.

There was a knock at the window. “Police department!”

My suspicions were confirmed. Ah, fuck.

That Time We Got Woken Up by the Cops - The Resume Gap

My conversation with Officer Whatshisname was an exercise in privilege.

Once it was established that we had been sleeping and intended on spending the night, he informed me that we were actually on city property, and that overnight parking or camping was prohibited by ordinance.

“Are you guys living out of your vehicle?” he asked, as if that were pertinent to the situation. Did he intend to be a hard-ass if we were down on our luck?

I explained that we were road-tripping to Michigan for a friend’s wedding, camping along the way, and that we had found the place recommended online. I apologized for our error and told him we planned to be out by sunrise. The before sunrise part was a lie, but I figured it was the best story.

The upside of the whole experience was catching a beautiful sunrise later that morning

The upside of the whole experience was catching a beautiful sunrise later that morning

He took my driver’s license and had me wait at the van. “Shit,” I wondered, “where are we going to sleep tonight?”

The cop returned a couple minutes later.

“I don’t mind if you guys are out here tonight,” he informed me, handing back my license and confirming that we planned to leave in the morning. “I’ll radio to the other officers and let them know not to bother you.”

“Thanks, Officer. Sorry for the trouble.”

It was after 2 AM by the time I got back in the van, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep anytime soon.

As I laid there, I wondered about how the interaction might have gone in different circumstances. If I were a person of color. If we were experiencing homelessness. If I didn’t speak English. If I weren’t wearing an expensive down jacket.

Would the officer have been so merciful in all those cases? Or did we just get off easy because we’re rich white American men?

It didn’t even occur to me until later that night that we could have gotten a ticket.

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18 Comments

  1. Great story… Your afterthoughts are indeed valid questions to ask.

    And there are worse views to see early in the morning. For now, it is always my alarm clock… 🙂

  2. He might have been even more helpful if you were a women. 😉 Law enforcement has always gone out of their way to be nice and helpful to me. Mr. Mt…not so much.

    I think you are right, that is is hard for professionals overcome biases against groups they have had difficulty with.

    But so far, I have lucked out being part of the: white females who seem sweet, full of smilies, slightly attractive, and needing help group.

    There are absolutely group of people I am more cautious with based on my experience. And some of those markers are hard to look past.

    Indicated by % of times it goes poorly:
    Drunk guys in a bar at 2am 20%
    Anyone high on Meth: 80%
    Bio parents who show up drunk to supervised visitation: 100%
    Someone driving a car worth more than 100K 50%
    If they start the conversation by saying “Maybe you don’t understand who I am..” 75%

    But there other groups that seem to get a bad rap, like undocumented workers, but I have always had amazing experiences hanging out with them. I’m sure the entire group can’t be as lovely and awesome as the people I have met. But that’s my bias. They are all the salt of the earth kind of people.

    It’s a nuanced issue that needs more thoughtful conversation, not less. Thanks for opening the topic.

  3. Scary story! But glad it turned out well. I very much appreciate your ability to acknowledge and reflect on your privilege in that situation. No doubt were you a bit lucky and certainly things could have been different had a few variables been tweaked. That said it also sounds like you were incredibly respectful and non-confrontational, plus maybe i’m old-fashioned but perhaps there’s a chance the cop could have been an all around nice guy? 🙂

    • Thanks, Jay. We were happy that it ended up being pretty uneventful. Non-confrontational is my middle name! Fair point about the cop perhaps being a nice guy, though we all still have our own implicit biases.

  4. I’m glad everything ended up being okay and you didn’t have too many issues with them!

    The points you brought up are interest because Door County has very, very little diversity. Wisconsin is a pretty white place (outside of Milwaukee) but Door County takes it to another level.

    • Thanks, Thias. I suppose that’s not surprising on the diversity front. We ended up really enjoying our day exploring the area, aside from the rude awakening 🙂

  5. As a person of colour I do appreciate that you stopped to ask yourself the question.

    And I’m really glad that that story ended as anti-climatically as it did. No real story is the best kind of story when cops are involved.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mrs. BITA. I just found your blog the other day and enjoyed reading through your posts. Looking forward to following you!

  6. Funny, I didn’t think of any of those things you mentioned towards the end of your post until, you mentioned them at the end of the post. But, you’re absolutely right. The outcome could’ve been totally different had you not been who you were. Things that make you go, Hmmm. I’m glad you guys were okay and no charges or tickets were issued. And the sunrise, my god, the sunrise. That was worth the hassle alone. Thanks for sharing. Your travels help me fulfill my inner wanderlust as I sit rotting in my cubicle. 😛

    • We don’t wake up in time for sunrise too often these days (and for that I’m thankful!), but road-tripping and camping definitely let us enjoy a few more than usual… even if this one wasn’t intentional!

  7. I’m glad you had no difficulties with that interaction, “nothing to see here” is the best way to walk away from that particular startling awakening.

    Sadly, if you had been a person of color, down on your luck financially, or ill, or anything other than who you are, like my family and the friends I grew up with, the interactions tend to be much less positive. No effort on their part to be non-threatening, polite, and quiet mattered, they were branded on sight.

    So, like Mrs. BITA, I appreciate that you have the awareness to realize that not everyone would have the same experience. Yesterday I had a whole day of rich white American men telling me that reality to the contrary, since the world only exists to please them, anything they disliked must be trash, and this helped take that taste out of my mouth.

  8. I’ve thought back to a few times I have interacted with the police, and like you I have wondered if my appearance altered the outcome. We often forget how our lives and experiences can be influenced by factors out of our control.

    • We certainly do. I just came across an article this morning suggesting that we should think of our behaviors/experiences as effects, not causes. Definitely worth considering in situations like these.

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