Monday, August 18, 2014

The Difference In a Traffic Stop

When I about a month post-partum from having given birth to Piper, I went out for a brief foray to grade papers at the school where I taught. I was leaving that year, and wanted to make sure I left on a good note. On my way home, frantic with worry over my wee baby who didn't yet take a bottle, I was going a little fast. Okay I was going about ten miles over the speed limit which anyone who lives in Charlotte can verify is no big thing. I was pulled over very close to home. The officer who approached my car did so initially with his hand positioned over his gun. This was not surprising considering I was driving an older model Honda Accord in slightly ritzy neighborhood. Once he saw me though, he took his hand off and sauntered over with a smile on his face. He asked if I knew why I had been pulled over and I said "I know, I know I was driving too fast."

"Why the hurry?" He inquired as I finished gathering all the information he needed including my expired Maine licence.

"I just had a baby," I explained looking back toward the backseat where three car seats sat jammed together. "I had to go to my job and grade some papers and I'm worried about her."

The officer looked over my stuff and I saw his eyebrows raise over the license which had expired last year. "I'll be right back." he said, moving back to his car. I waited sick with worry over not just Piper but over a ticket that I knew we couldn't afford, and over the possibility that I was going to be arrested for driving on an expired license.

When the officer returned after what seemed like a half hour but was more like ten minutes, he handed me my stuff with a smile. "I'm going to let you go with a warning on the speeding. But I am going to write you up for the license so that you'll go get a new one. If you get it done in the next month there won't be a fine. You have to go to the courthouse and show that you got your license updated."

After assuring me that I could drive home, I thanked him profusely and went on my way, thinking that the CMPD were actually pretty decent.

But then my husband got pulled over by the same department. My husband who always obeys the traffic rules. My husband who frankly drives like a little old lady. He was pulled over in a "rough" neighborhood on his way to school/work. There were cars passing him the whole time even though he was already going about 7 over the speed limit. He was the one pulled over though, and it will become apparent why. The officer who approached him never took his hand off his gun. He harassed my husband for twenty minutes with questions like "When's your birthday?" "What's your address?" after he had already had his license in his hand. He even went to his car to run the license, and returned it asking the same question. It was clear that he was fishing to see if my husband was undocumented. He snorted with disbelief when my husband explained that he was on his way to teach a Spanish class at UNCC. And in the end, not only was my husband too late to teach his class, he was given a ticket despite his clean record. A ticket so horrendous that he had to go to driving school with a bunch of drunk drivers to get the points removed.

And this is not an isolated incident. Horacio was stopped on his bike for passing a stop sign, something that I notice at least 97% of the bikers in Athens doing (and not motorcycle bikers, bike bikers). He was asked if he was "blind" and given a lecture. He was stopped for supposedly running a stop sign when driving the van even though he was stopped TWO blocks away from the said stop sign (the cop visibly following him). When H had to open the door since the window was broken, he put his hands up, and when the cop, hand on gun of course, pulled up beside him, he was scared as he gestured to the broken window that he was going to be shot.

I hear again and again how if you're compliant you'll be safe. If you are an upstanding citizen you'll be protected. And I look at my husband who is a brilliant PhD student, a teacher of many years, an amazing father, and I wonder why he wasn't protected. Why he was harassed whereas I was let go. And it's not just me who has been let go. We watched a police officer give a breathalyzer test to the preppy albeit slightly scruffy young man who had just hit our parked car so hard that the car was blocking our neighbors driveway. We watched at that young man pretended it was his gum that made the alcohol content too high. We watched as the cop refused to let him drive home. And then when we picked up the accident report we learned that the cop hadn't even charged him with drinking and driving. In addition, we never got any money for the car he destroyed because the kid was driving without insurance. H often asks, "I wondered how things would have gone down if I had been the one who hit the car."

The fact of the matter is that if you are a person of color in this country you are in danger. It does not matter if you comply. If you are upstanding citizen (and please don't give me this bullshit about speeding being against the law), if you're educated, if you're documented, etc. I don't give a shit if Brown really did steal some cigars (which it isn't clear if he did and it is clear that the officer who shot him dead did not even know about the shoplifting incident). I don't care if Brown smoked some pot in his life. I'll admit to shoplifting as a teenager. Hell most of my Wild and Wet nail polish collection was shoplifted from the local Woolworth's. My brother stole all the time, and was even brought home by the police a time or two. I have a few white friends who smoke weed and somehow I don't think most of us are going to get down with shooting pot smokers. In this country if you are a person of color, you are in danger just for being a person of color. When you are not allowed to break the law and face the same consquences as your white counterparts that is racism. You are in danger. Maybe not more danger than someone with a mental or intellectual disability but certainly in as much danger. There is an assumption that if you are different, that if you act in a way that is different, in away that does not immediately acquiesce to obedience than you are fair game.

I am not in a place to write as eloquently as I'd like on this issue but there are several very good bits of writing out there. David Perry, in particular, has written a truly excellent piece on the cult of compliance. I can not recommend it highly enough.

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