Yeah, I know, the title makes it appear that was what was written on a ticket, but I’d like you to decide what happened that day. It has been a struggle for me to articulate my words over the past months and even longer with issues surrounding the constant clash of people of color, specifically black males, and the police. Anger, disgust, horror, and sadness are only words to what is so much deeper, and so much more. There are some, who believe that this is an issue of sides, I don’t believe that. Acknowledging the risk and the service of our police officers, and wanting them safe and cared for is not mutually exclusive for combating what is clearly a pattern of systematic racism. Do I believe police officers, even many who have been involved in the countless incidences over time are racist? Not particularly, though I’m sure there are some who are prejudiced. What is clear, is there is a systematic problem which becomes ingrained in training, in practice, and unfortunately in action. Watching the verdict of Mr. Castile was gut-wrenching, and then seeing Trevor Noah discuss in a clip about how many times he’s been pulled over in the short time living here, believing it was the same for everyone, reminded me of my own experience. So you tell me what happened on that day.
I always joke that when I eventually get ticketed I won’t fight it because it would be long overdue given my NY sense of speed limits as guidelines, but I often forget that I was once pulled over, though I received no ticket. It was during my first year in graduate school (reminder, I’m a social worker), and I was coming home from my internship. The agency was not in an area known for being a great part of town. Which is almost always the universal way of saying it is a highly diverse neighborhood and not one with money. Back in the days of my cool youth (that’s a lie, I was never cool), I drove Viggo, my bright yellow Chevy cavalier sport, 5 speed transmission that I adored. It was my brother’s before I bought it; vivid, and fun, with possibly illegally tinted windows he did himself, and the type of sound system that no matter what, edged with a feel-able bass in your chest. It was often a car that when I poked my 5’4 pale and freckled face out of that gave people a slight double take.
On this day, I was driving home on main street. One lane in both directions. And in rush hour…so I wasn’t driving down main street as much as I was sitting in a direction on main street when I noticed a police car driving the opposite direction…and then u-turn the moment it passed me by. I immediately had one thought when the sirens didn’t go on and he didn’t speed off signaling there was an emergency he was responding to, “I’m in trouble.” Why? I don’t know. I for once wasn’t speeding, I wasn’t doing anything besides waiting to move. And then we started to move, and with the police car behind me I ensured that I was 1mph under the speed limit, blinker 500 feet before the turn onto another road where I also knew there was a school speed limit. We get to two lanes and the cop stays with me. Cars fly by, well over the speed limit even without the school grounds, and the officer stayed with me. We pass by a car broken down in the middle of the passing lane, hazards on, making those drives pull around into oncoming traffic to pass and I keep my escort. This is when I knew I was going to be pulled over.
The moment I indicated my next right and then turned onto the service road was when the flashing lights went on. I pulled over, put my windows down, kept my hands on the wheel and waited. The officer came up to my car, looked in, and didn’t say a word for a tick. He then asked for the usual stuff, I tell him my insurance is in my glove compartment, and with shaking hands take it out, then my license (and also accidentally fling a PBA card at the cop which then fell to the seat…I decided to place it back in the wallet) and hand it over to the officer. He finally asks, “do you know why I pulled you over?” “No sir” I replied. He then says, “In NY you are required to have a license plate on the front and back of your vehicle.” “Yes, sir, I’m aware.” “Well, where is your front license plate?” Now what do I do? How do I not make this sound flippant? “Um, it’s well…there…in the front” and gesture weakly towards my front plate. He tells me to wait, doesn’t check, but walks back to his car to run my information and eventually returns. No warning, no ticket, no apology, just a casual “drive carefully” and I was free to go. And I remember shaking the whole way home, but not sure why. I didn’t do anything wrong, I wasn’t given a ticket, he wasn’t scary or rude. But I was shaking. And then it dawned on me that I drive a loud, obnoxious car, in a not so great part of town. I bleakly joked to my mom that evening that he must have expected someone doing a line of coke on the dashboard and was surprised to just find me. And then over time I realized that while this officer was not looking for a fight with me, he was trained in a system that made him suspect of a certain type of car with a certain type of person. And it’s better to check them out than it was to stop any of the people breaking casual laws, or broken down, on those two streets.
I sadly no longer have Viggo, he served his time well and I cried losing him, and drive an equally obnoxious color car still, but one that’s less edgy as a whole (His name is Hobbes). And in that time, I’ve also realized that I wasn’t pulled over because of an overlooked license plate, but more likely because of the type of driver that one would expect behind the wheel of that car. So yes, I do think there is a system wide problem of who gets pulled over. And I believe the police and troopers are highly trained and excellent at their job, and do wonderful, needed things, and often go above and beyond the call of duty. But unfortunately there is a piece of that training that introduces or reinforces a belief system of racism. And when triggered, can produce atrocities such as those we have borne witness to time and time again for far too long. We can accept that Black Lives Matter as easily as it is accepted that Blue Lives Matter. But we cannot say All Lives Matter if we don’t act as though they do. We can want safety on both ends of the law. And we can sadly admit that the adage of “better judged by 12 than carried by 6” increases the fear of us vs. them and shoot now, ask questions later can still apply. There is no excuse for lives taken unjustly, our laws are not the riddance of due process. Nor is the murder of police officers acceptable under any movement. Lives matter because they are lives, and no man, woman, or child has the right to weigh one soul over another regardless of their history, profession, or characteristic.
I have been driving for over 15 years and pulled over once with no ticket, even a bogus one given. Some call it luck, others might think it’s because I obey the rules fully. But Trevor Noah, and so many other people of color regardless of where they live or what they drive have a very different narrative. So is it luck? What was the cause of me really being pulled over that day? Was it an honest mistake or a case of mistaken Guess Who?