Arrested. . .for Square Dancing

After More Than Sixty Years, An Event  Comes Home

Stephen Cooper--Banned--accept no stories from him.  After I had done all the work he said not to publish.

© Copyright 2021 by Stephen Cooper

Photo of people square dancing.


I don’t remember how I was asked to go to the Dean’s Office. Perhaps some student at Union College came over, sent by someone in administration. I was told told that the Dean of Union College, where I was a second year student, wanted to see me.

I quickly walked over to the administration building not thinking that there was any problem. When I entered the Dean’s office there were two rather tall men in the office. Dean Huntley sat at his desk and said that these detectives or policemen wanted to talk to me. They asked whether I could come down to the Station to speak to the head of the department. Not knowing what it was all about, I said no problem.

When I got to the police station I found out what it was all about. Surprisingly, it starts with Square Dancing. Yes, I was asked to come down because of my association with Square Dancing.

Before going to Union College, I was a student at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. One of my Stuyvesant friends invited me to go Square Dancing at the Community Church on East 35th Street in Manhattan. After going there that one time, I was hooked. Every Friday I went to this group, which had a great caller (the ‘Caller’ describes each of the movements in the square dance going on—dosedo and allemand left, etc.). The Square dancing was interleaved with various folk dances and an occasional folk song.

Upon leaving New York City after graduation, and moving to Schenectady (home of Union College) I soon found that there were regular Friday night Square Dances at the Schenectady YMCA. The caller in Schenectady was not as professional as the one in New York, but he was still very good. The dancers in the group were excellent. Most of the dancers at the YMCA were older than me. They came from the city of Schenectady and nearby towns. Some came from rather far away. I remember that a large group drove over from the city of Gloversville, a city known in the past for making gloves. In any case, I stood out as different from the mature working people who attended the dancing at the YMCA.

I was the only student from Union College to go to these evenings at the YMCA. I never saw another Union College student at these Friday evenings. As I was somewhat different from the others at these dances, the people there came to know my name, and to see me as unusually young. While we were all quite different, we bonded in some way for our love of dancing.

So why did my Square Dancing lead to my being asked to come down to the station? At that time, I had no idea of why I was asked to come down to the Station. When I got to the police station I soon found out why I was a “person of interest”. From the immediate discussion with the head detective, I learned that there was a “peeping Tom” incident at the YMCA pool. I learned from the detective that some man had looked into the women’s dressing room near the pool. I did not even know there was a pool or a gym at the Y, much less know where the dressing rooms were. But in any case, as the people at the Y were questioned, my name came up, as I was one of the more “unusual” members of the Y. The police came to see if I was the “peeper”.

The chief detective (I assume he was the head detective) asked me a number of times if I was the “peeping Tom.” I replied, again and again, “No, I was not.”

That was sixtyfour years ago, in 1957. Times have changed. Knowing what I know now, years after my sophomore year at Union College, I would now ask for a lawyer, and that would have probably raised the suspicion in the police that I was in some way “guilty”.

And there were no ‘Miranda Warnings’ or any other protections for the person, “Me”, being questioned. I was alone in that office, just sitting there while the police asked me a number of times whether I was the “peeping Tom,” as though all they needed to do was to ask me and that I would just break down and admit to the entire incident.

But trusting in my innocence, I just did what the police asked. I don’t remember everything they asked me, but it soon became clear that my student record at Union seemed to interest them. I was a good student at Union, a premed (I did not stay with that program), and I was high on the Dean’s List. I now see that arresting a “good” student at Union College would lead to headlines in the local paper such as “Police Nab Union College Super Student as Peeping Tom.” That is how reputations are made in police departments. Picking up a homeless man who slept on a park bench does not elicit such headlines, or promotions.

The questioning went on for a while, and nothing really happened. The same questions were asked over and over, and I always told them that I was not the person they were looking for.

After a while I realized (from talks back and forth among the police) that they were waiting for a witness. Of course, they needed the woman in the dressing room. Could she identify me? That was their Ace for my arrest. That is what they were relying on.

Soon, as I sat at this large desk, they brought in a woman to look at me. She was slight, lighthaired, and rather shy in this situation. She was asked to sit facing me across from the desk. She was probably as confused and nervous as I was.

They asked her, point blank, whether she could identify me. Was I the one she saw looking into the Ladies’ Dressing room at the Y? Was I the “peeping Tom?” For a few moments we sat across from each other, and each of us didn’t know what to say. I remember saying something to the woman: “Please be very careful in your identification as this is very important and I was not the person they think they have and so please, please, be very careful.” She smiled at me, and understood how important this was. She said she could not identify me.

Then the police left us alone, perhaps to give her time to think more clearly whether I was “the one.” And then I did something quite foolish.

During that second year at Union, by the oddest coincidence, I was reading “Compulsion” by Meyer Levin. This novel was a fictional retelling of the “Crime of the Century” committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Leopold and Loeb as they were known in the press, murdered a little boy just to show how “smart” they were and that they could get away with it because they felt they were “geniuses” and “brilliant”. As we were left in the room alone by the police, I wonder now whether they felt I would break down and confess to her and not to them, and that was in the Police mind as I sat there across from this woman.

Being alone with that at woman, I did something completely absurd. I blurted out to the woman something like “have you read ‘Compulsion’?”, trying to suggest (in my confused mind) that they picked me up, not only because I was the only student at the Square Dancing evenings at the Schenectady Y but that I was, in what I now realize in the policeman’s world view, a good student who is likely to commit a crime and feel that “a smart student” could get away with it. Just like Leopold and Loeb. I can’t believe I mentioned that book, as it would look as though I was trying to do a Leopold and Loeb crime and get away with it—even if it was only being a “peeping Tom”. Luckily she had not, and that problem disappeared.

This question was not picked up by the police (assuming they were listening on on us outside the room we were in) and this foolish question never came into play.

But then the oddest thing happened. As if there could be ‘odder’ things considering the situation I was in. The police came into the room and said they wanted to try one more thing. They took two index cards, put one above my right eye, and one below my right eye, so only my right eye was showing between the two cards. As I sat there with my right eyeball open between these two index cards, they asked the woman whether they could identify me. Or rather, could she identify my ‘eye’?

In my current and more mature state, I realize that an identification is usually one where you compare the “suspect” to a group of similar people. As I was clearly white (by today’s terminology) that meant that I would not be compared to a group of AfricanAmericans, but rather to people who approximated my look. Such a single identification procedure would not be acceptable today as times have changed and as we have seen in many police misconduct scandals.

No matter. As it turned out, the woman could not identify my “eye” or my “eyeball” (perhaps this would be called “eyedentification”), so it did not go further.

Soon I was told I could go. The two detectives who drove me to the station took me back to my dormitory at Union. After being let off by the police, I waited a little while (to “calm down” I think) and then I walked over to the Dean’s Office to tell him all is Okay and I was “Not Guilty” and there was no problem.

I remember very distinctly the Dean saying “Well, if you were guilty we would have to expel you.” He did not say anything comforting such as being glad I did not do anything problematic or criminal. He only thought of the school and what a student doing something wrong would mean for the school with bad publicity and scandal.

More important than the details of what happened sixtyfour years ago, is what I see my experience means for current police practice. I can’t go into all the worrisome details, but even the few points of my story in my Sophomore year have meaning for today. Years have gone by, but I see how easy it is for someone with a less promising background than me to be brought in for questioning and without safeguards, to get arrested, tried, and even convicted. I see how the police mind works from that little incident. There was no linking me to anything untoward at the Y (I gather that not a single person saw me near the dressing room at any time) except that I was “different”. And that led to my questioning and sitting there for an identification session.

If things had gone differently my life would have been quite different from what happened in the next sixty years. No graduate school, no fellowships in Europe and around the world. Perhaps no wife and no family. It could have all gone wrong. And I suspect that it has gone wrong for many people. There are many stories of men being convicted and serving years in jail for something they did not do. I now feel for them in a way that I could not without my experience. I know how life can change due to policing problems.

Sometimes I think what would have happened if I were a young black man, in this majority ‘white’ city of Schenectady? Perhaps the interrogation would have gone on longer and stronger. Perhaps a “plea” deal would be offered, and confessing might look better than ten years in prison. “How about just admitting you ‘did’ it, and you will get off with no time—and not risk ten years in prison.”

I was innocent, and I went back to my normal student life. But it could have gone some other way. Who knows? And I hope this story leads to a cautionary tale of what can go wrong, what has gone wrong with many other men (specifically black men), and I know that my experience has heightened my understanding of errors being made in our society.

Stephen Cooper retired after 40 years as a Professor at the University of Michigan Medical School. During his working years as a Microbiologist, he did research in Denmark, Germany, and England, in addition to his work in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is now a published playwright with a number of productions around the world. He currently resides in Florida. (                                                                                      

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