Back to the Future
“Don’t you remember when police officers had the baseball cards?”
This happens a lot. Though I’m Milwaukee-born, I’m an Army brat and didn’t fully experience the city until I moved back an adult. Subsequently, I miss many of these “remember back when” references of my Milwaukee-bred peers.
“Don’t you remember??” he insists.
Gabriel is a true son of Milwaukee. I met him over a decade ago when he was a radio personality for WMSE. As we pass one another in the lobby, we both do a double take, hug, and fall into our usual rapid-fire exchange. The last time we bumped into each other this way, we stood talking in a grocery store parking lot. This time, at least, we had chairs.
“So, let me get this straight,” I say. “Once upon a time, Milwaukee police officers walked around with baseball trading cards in their pockets?”
“And handed them out to the kids on their neighborhood patrols?”
“And it became your life mission to restore this tradition because …?”
I settle back in my seat. The evening bustle of the front lobby sweeps back and forth in front of us as Gabriel tells me about his project, Cops4Kidz.
“The officers who patrolled my neighborhood as a kid, they gave us cards,” he said, recalling how he and his friends had often hoped for football or basketball card, too.
“I mean, we took ‘em,” Gabriel says with a laugh. “One, they were free. Two, they were still sports cards.”
All grown up, Gabriel instantly thought of those cards while out walking with his son one afternoon. His son was seven at the time and they saw an officer at the end of the block.
“We were coming from the library, and I was already feeling like SuperDad that day,” Gabriel says, his face filled with animation. “I decide to go for the bonus round and score my son a pack of cards.”
Gabriel’s grand plan fizzled on two counts: his son was afraid to speak to the police officer and the neighborhood cops didn’t carry trading cards anymore.
“It was such a small but such an enormous thing,” Gabriel said, his face serious now. “I knew the officers in my neighborhood and they knew me. Simple, but it went a long way. I wanted to see what I could do to help bring it back.”
Gabriel started with a string of phone calls to various precincts and district headquarters. Once he reignited their interest, he contacted national distributors for sports cards and secured boxes and boxes of cards for baseball, football and basketball. Once he began placing cards into the hands of beat officers, Gabriel imagined other possibilities.
“I approached Summerfest about hosting an all-star game between police officers and teenagers. This summer was our third year,” he said. “Our motto is ‘let’s meet on the playground and not the battleground.’ ”
I ask about his son, who’s 14 now, and what he thinks about the work Gabriel is doing.
“He loves it.” Gabriel says. “Especially helping with the games. Plus, he can see there’s no reason to be afraid of police if you haven’t done anything wrong.”
I raise an eyebrow. Gabriel raises his hands in mock surrender.
“Yes, I’ve had my issues with the police,” he said. “Arrested in front of my own house for not having my ID on me, handcuffed in an alley another time because I looked like a robbery suspect. Yes, I’ve been through the drill. But the police force isn’t made of up of boogey men. There are more good humans who happen to be cops than bad ones who got the job. It’s all about building dialogue.”
I give him a slow nod. “So how does all this bring you to the hotel today?”
“See that man over there?” he says, pointing his chin toward the lobby lounge where two tall and distinguished looking black men were looking over menus. “He was the community relations officer who first helped me with this. He’s retired from the force now, but he still checks up on me from time to time.”
In fact, he’d told Gabriel about a tribute event to honor NBA legend and Bucks icon, Oscar Robertson. Gabriel’s eyes light up as he rattles all the names he hopes to see passing through the lobby. I can easily see the little kid in him, stacking his favorite cards in a pencil box for safekeeping.
“You’re just a big kid,” I say teasing.
“Of course I am,” he replies. “Of course I am.”