09/02/2014 03:59 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Why Ferguson Had to Happen

African Americans are not the only ones in this country filled with distress and distrust about what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

I am white, and I share their fear and paranoia about police. That's because I came of age in their neighborhoods while putting myself through college in Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia.

For me it's not only extremely sad, but it's therapeutic watching the pustule of denial about police violence in poorer neighborhoods finally break open.

I didn't grow up in a poor neighborhood, but my first experience with a policeman in my hometown wasn't pleasant.

In seventh grade I was pulled out of class by a detective and harangued at length for having loaned my library card to a friend who didn't return a book on time.

I'd had no notice that my library book was overdue. I left feeling humiliated, fearful, and ashamed.

Nevertheless, I was taught to respect police. They were to be called upon for help if one needed.

That's why one night when I was awakened by noise outside my ground-floor apartment in West Philadelphia near the University of Pennsylvania campus, I immediately headed for the pay phone in the hall.

And then I stopped as the the significance of what I had seen just from my window sunk into my sleepy brain.

Originally, I had rented a room on the sixth floor of this building, I'd often said hello to two of my neighbors from across the hall in the elevator. They were two white women, one in her sixties and one in her eighties.

Now at 2 a.m., the older woman was outside near the front door of the building just a few feet away from my studio apartment window.

Under a bright street light on a pitch black night she was surrounded by eight to ten burly white men standing in a circle. They were pushing her back and forth across the circle, increasingly rougher and faster each time.

The woman, drunk, panicked, and stumbling, was crying and pleading with them to stop. They just laughed. Suddenly it clicked in my brain that the men were all wearing the uniforms of Philadelphia police.

"Who was I going to call on the pay phone?" I asked myself. "More police?"

These were Frank Rizzo's police. Rizzo was the cowboy police chief who called on the black community to come to the Philly Specturm parking lot and shoot it out with his boys.

I turned around and left my neighbor in the street, shivering with fear in my bed, covering my ears trying to shut out her cries that were still echoing in my head.

The next time a drunk came around our street it was again very late at night. He was an old white man spewing racist garbage up and down the block. He was egged on by the Penn boys in the next building who taunted him into getting even worse.

Still, not one of the hundreds of people living on that block called the police while he raged on. Finally after a half hour, my landlord's husband, a Korean War vet, went out and convinced the drunk to move on.

At work as a cashier in a movie theater one afternoon, I saw a white cop I'd met there when two black boys robbed me, bash a young black man's head against the metal edge of his police car in West Philly while his black partner stood by.

In North Philly near Temple University, I arrived home from school and found a white cop had broken into our apartment. He'd destroyed three locks on the door in order to get in and leave a bottle of bootleg liquor for my roommate that he'd taken from a black speakeasy around the corner.

Sitting at our table hoping she'd come home, he repeatedly smacked his nightstick in his hammy fist while he bragged about smashing heads of Temple students protesting a rise in cafeteria prices at the campus.

With his blond crewcut and mad gleam in his blue eyes, he looked just like the Nazis portrayed in the multitude of WWII movies I'd grown up with. Fortunately, my roommate didn't come home. He left and never came back.

After that year, I moved north along Broad Street toward Temple's Med School. My new brick row-house neighborhood didn't have pots of red geraniums on the concrete stoops, but my block did have trees, big old trees, along the curb.

I was also happy to think I could study at the library there. Temple's main campus was a high-gated enclave locked up tight after dark every night.

But as I left the Med School library for the first time, a security guard stopped me.

"You know this neighborhood is bad?"

I said nothing. I was thinking it wasn't nearly as bad as other places I'd lived.

"You have any trouble with those N....s just let me know. I'll take care of them," he bragged.

I fled and holed up inside my apartment. The thought of watching another cop injure another human being in front of me made me sick.

I couldn't wait to get out of Inner-city Philadelphia and go somewhere, anywhere else.

Philadelphia was a police state in every sense of the word. Rizzo himself was elected mayor and continued his repressive "occupation" of this predominantly African-American city for another decade.

Paradise found and lost

My first glimpse of Madison, Wisconsin out a bus window was one of a fearfully green paradise. But when a postman greeted me as I walked up State Street for the first time I suddenly exhaled a breath I didn't know I'd been holding for over three years.

Unfortunately, it was only a matter of months before a Madison cop who was less than a few feet from me was pointing a gun at me.

Riots over the Vietnam war had begun on campus after students were shot by national guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio and by police and highway patrolmen at Jackson State University in Mississippi.

Back then, Madison looked just like Jefferson, Missouri, only the National Guard was quite visible lining up along the sidewalks of the campus with loaded rifles every day.

Helicopters swept spotlights over my apartment at night and tear gas was ubiquitous, even during the daytime. This occupation lasted for months.

One day when it had seemed calm, a friend and I went over to the historical library. Suddenly we heard a commotion outside.

While looking out a upper-story window. we watched two old ladies and a couple of campus maintenance men fleeing across the lawn towards the student union as police set off tear gas canisters outside.

As we left the library to go home and we were waiting for a light to change, a protester dashed by us and disappeared into the crowd on the other side of the street. Close behind him was a Madison policeman with his gun out.

The cop's face was red with rage. His gun was pointing at my stomach for several seconds while I prayed I wouldn't be shot.

After what seemed minutes but was only seconds, the cop wheeled around and returned toward the campus. I was shaking. My friend, a grad student from Boston, asked what was wrong. I told her.

"Oh no," she said dismissively, "he wouldn't have fired at us".

I knew then that she and every other white person I knew would never understand the fear of police that I've carried with me for years.