Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Black Woman Caught in the City Park With No Place to Hide

Readers may write Gene Owens at 315 Lakeforest Circle, Anderson S.C. 29625 or e-mail him at

Given the occasion for her arrest, it might be inappropriate to invite Lula Mae Battle to the White House for beer, but maybe a little sweet tea and banana pudding in the mayor’s office would help ease the hurt.
Ms. Battle was arrested in Mobile, Ala., on the morning of June 3 for ducking into some bushes for an emergency rest stop. She was 50 feet short of the comfort station she was headed toward after her bank denied her access to its restroom.
Ms. Battle is 81. She is black in a nation with a black president and was arrested in a city with a black mayor whose administration is defending the young white police cadet who called an officer to arrest her. This does not seem to be a racial matter. It’s more a matter of sensitivity toward the aged and infirm.
The scene of Ms. Battle’s ordeal was Bienville Square, an oasis of live oaks and azaleas in the heart of downtown Mobile. Mobilians who want to underscore their local roots like to boast that they were conceived under an azalea bush in Bienville Square during Mardi Gras (appropriately enough, the square is bordered by Conception Street).
I have walked the park many times, en route to lunch on restaurant-studded
Dauphin Street or to my bank on St. Joseph Street. I have walked past lunchtime
brown-baggers feeding their leftovers to squirrels and pigeons, avoided the eccentric preacher who consigned to hell all those whose understanding of scripture contradicted his, and averted my eyes when I saw scruffy men relieving themselves against live oaks. And I have availed myself of the city-maintained restroom under the bandstand in the middle of the park. It’s open during daylight hours for all to use.
The city has sought to curtail the tendency to use the live oaks as urinals. It has a police substation on the premises, where a cadet keeps watch on the behavior of its two-legged denizens. The substation is surrounded by bushes. It was in these bushes that Lula Mae Battle sought seclusion when her bladder told her, “Time’s up.” The alert police cadet spotted her in the act and called an officer.
The elderly lady pleaded with the cops not to take her to jail. She had a problem with incontinence, she told them. When her bank turned her away, she made for the comfort station in the square, but when she realized that she could hold out no longer she tried to hide in the bushes surrounding the substation.
“Should have worn Depends,” clucked some of the bloggers who responded to the story in the Mobile P r e s s - R e g i s t e r.
Maybe. But sometimes incontinence manifests itself unexpectedly when you haven’t had the foresight to wear absorbent underwear. Or maybe your money runs out before you have a chance to replenish your supply.
And maybe the cops should be trained to show empathy and solicitude toward the elderly.
Lula Mae Battle is not a wealthy Harvard professor with a friend in the Oval Office. She’s a simple black woman who lives with her niece in a predominantly black section of Mobile. She grew up in an Alabama where the people she knew ate poke sallet instead of arugula. She came of age in a South where people of her complexion were denied access to public accommodations that weren’t labeled “colored.” She was 28 years old when Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and their allies brought the Montgomery bus system to heel.
There were no portable johns beside the cotton fields of her youth, where rural laborers earned their beans and fatback. The trees and bushes on the fringes of the fields provided privacy for those who had to go. In her salad years, even white folks didn’t find restrooms conveniently arrayed along Interstate highways or in BP convenience stores or Hardee’s burger joints. When things got urgent along rural roads, they often pulled to the shoulder, made for a big tree or a clump of sparkleberry bushes off the right of way, and found relief.
Lula Mae Battle surely knows that those days are behind. That’s why she sought comfort in her bank. That’s why she tried to make it to that rest room in Bienville Square.
But when you’re nearly 82 years old and ancient muscles are not up to the task of controlling a full bladder, 50 feet is a long way to go.
What she did was an act of desperation. Yes, it was against the law. Yes, the law is a reasonable one. And, as Barbara Drummond, a black woman who speaks for Mobile Mayor Sam Jones, told me by e-mail, “We ... have empathy for her, but the police was doing their job.” So Ms. Battle, who has no record of previous arrests, was taken to the Mobile County Metro Jail. She was booked and released under $500 bond. She is scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 15 to answer charges of public lewdness. I agree that it’s the job of police to enforce the law and, in this case, to keep a public park clean and presentable. I also think it’s their job to use understanding and discretion in dealing with weaker members of our society, and especially those who have reached an advanced age. As Lula Mae Battle put it: “When you got to go, you got to go.” How about that sweet tea and banana pudding, Mayor Jones?