The first time I was in a car that was pulled over by the police I was 15 and with 4 or 5 boys (I just know there were one too many people for seat belts). They were my age or older. We had all had some beer. Some of the guys had smoked pot. (Pot was never my thing; I’m too much of a control freak). I was really scared. Terrified actually. I can still remember the sheer panic I felt thinking of the trouble I was going get in, not with the police, but with my mom. I was asked to blow in the breathalyzer test. I did. Something registered but it was low. Lower than the boys I was with. We were taken to the police station. We gave our information. I was asked why I was in a town so far away from where I lived. I was asked why was I hanging out with these boys in the first place. I was told I was not being charged with anything. My mom was called. She came to pick me up. I was ashamed. I was scared. I was remorseful. And I was grateful that I hadn’t been charged.
The first time I was pulled over for a speeding ticket my stomach dropped. I was shaky. I was also terrified…again of getting in trouble and having to tell my mom. Now that I’m adult speeding tickets are not scary. They are inconvenient. They are procedural. They negate the gain of speeding in the first place. I am not terrified. I don’t have to inform a parent. And I’ve learned by now that they are no big deal. A ticket is just a fine. I only have to part ways with money that I would have rather kept for myself.
When I was in labor with my daughter we got pulled over by a police officer on the way to the hospital. Apparently my husband, in his haste, did a rolling stop at a stop sign on a deserted street. It was in the middle of the night and near South Street in Philadelphia – a prime place for drunk drivers. I was annoyed and impatient. I urged my husband to just step out of the car and tell the officer that I was in labored. He declined and waited patiently for the officer to approach. I remember thinking, with extreme aggravation, “What the hell do you think is going to happen? He’s not going to shoot you for stepping out of the car. Just explain the situation so we can GO!” I verbalized some version of these statements repeatedly to him as he just sat there waiting. As the officer approached, my husband said, “I know this is going to sound like a cliché but my wife is in labor and we are on the way to the hospital.” He had barely finished his sentence before the officer quickly urged him along “GO!” There was no taking of information or explaining while we were stopped. There was no more conversation at all. We quickly zipped back out onto the street, said "that'll be a great story someday", and made it to the hospital in what turned out to be plenty of time.
When my husband got a speeding ticket on the way home from the pumpkin patch last fall. I laughed. I laughed harder because our kids thought it was cool. I laughed even harder because the police officer gave us stickers in the shape of police badges to give to the kids. Seriously. Stickers. My husband was not amused. But he was also not scared. Neither was I. It was the highlight of my kids’ day.
All of these stories have been on my mind this week in the midst of the news storm about the McKinney, TX police officer at the pool party assaulting (excessive force is starting to feel like a worn out phrase) a 14-year-old black girl in a bikini. They have also been on my mind because I’ve been listening to the very excellent podcast Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race with Baratunde Thurston, Raquel Cepeda, and Tanner Colby (check their FB page for links to old episodes and subscribe to get new ones). In one episode Baratunde and Raquel talk about their own encounters with police. They are truly frightening. Frightening on account of the routine degradation that they experience. They talk about random stops, harassment, bogus reasoning, and kids watching their parents being beaten by police. Raquel also was pulled over in labor on the way to the hospital. She was harassed and given a hard time and barely made it to the hospital in time. It remains one of the worst experiences of her life. The contrast to my own experience is just too painful.
These personal accounts and the unedited video of McKinney leave me awed by the weight of this ever-deepening reality:
I have never been afraid for my safety at the hands of police in this country. I have never been spoken to disrespectfully by a police officer. I have never felt targeted, just unlucky. I have never felt that there was a bogus reason for being pulled over. I have never been in an enforcement situation where I felt that I was being taken advantaged. I have never been harassed. I’ve never been considered suspicious. I’ve never been worried about what my children will see and hear during an encounter between the police and me. I’ve never been at the mercy of someone else in power for doing nothing wrong. I’ve never been humiliated, brutalized or subjugated.
The only small glimpse I have into the fear of inexplicable injustice at the hands of police or government officials is when I’ve traveled outside of this country. Only then I have been theoretically scared for my safety, fearful about injustice, and worried about corruption. It was always a lurking seemingly-irrational-but-easily-ignored fear that something could happen that I didn’t understand, that I couldn’t navigate or “fix”, that could spiral out of control, that would be patently unfair, that I could pay or lawyer my way out of. I have never experienced this latent fear or concern in my own country.
This isn’t entirely new thinking. I notice the race of every person in every car that I see pulled over on the street. I think about profiling each time I see the face of a darker skin person sitting in that car, which is often. I think about how I am not that target and so therefore I get to go on my merry way. I think about the privilege I have in just being able to afford my fines and be done with the infraction.
But the events of the last week have encouraged me to recall my specific past encounters and consider how I would have been treated differently if I were a person of color and what the outcome may have been. Raquel illuminated one alternative for me with her narrative. Because I was doing something wrong in each of my encounters with police, I’ve always thought about them primarily through the lens of the infraction and not through the perspective of who I am. But actually the whole experience is always about both: what you were doing (or not doing) and who you are.
In each of these instances my white skin, blonde hair, well-maintained nice car, address, accent and English provide me with a safe, just, and often courteous experience. Every day they assure me that I will be treated humanely. That I will be given a chance to explain. That I what I say will likely be taken at face value and I will be given the benefit of the doubt. That the encounter will likely not be escalated. That I will not be shot for no reason. That I will not be tackled and pinned down to the ground for no reason. That I will not be handcuffed for no reason. Searched for no reason. Beaten in front of my kids for no reason. Stripped and have a body cavity search for no reason (the charge raised against the McKinney officer several years ago). I will be treated with dignity and I will live. And as an added bonus my kids will get stickers.
A side editorial note:
As inconsequential as all of my experiences with police have been, I had a realization while writing this. The first encounter I describe actually kicked off a pretty transformative chain of events, that actually has a lot of bearing on why I’m even writing this today. It’s a whole other story but the gist is this:
That night caused me to reevaluate my behavior and in doing so I took a big step back from a particular group of school friends (not the people in the car) because I believed I was being irresponsible. This shift led to a year of bullying, which led me to leaving the school, which led me to go to a new school at which I experienced and witnessed a level of overt racism that I was completely unaccustomed to and disturbed by, which directly led me to study racial identity theory in college, which led me to my graduate school, which helped me understand my whiteness and racism in a whole new way, which in 1,000 other steps led me to where I am today. Life is weird.