It was at this moment that I knew that I was probably going to die. I am not being dramatic when I say this. I was not going to get into a police car. I was not going to present myself to some victim. I was not going let someone tell the cops that I was not guilty when I already told them that I had nothing to do with any robbery. I was not going to let them take me anywhere because if they did, the chance I was going to be accused of something I did not do rose exponentially. I knew this in my heart. I was not going anywhere with these cops and I was not going to let some white woman decide whether or not I was a criminal, especially after I told them that I was not a criminal. This meant that I was going to resist arrest. This meant that I was not going to let the police put their hands on me.
I imagined sitting in the back of a police car while a white woman decides if I am a criminal or not. If I looked guilty being detained by the cops imagine how vile I become sitting in a cruiser? I knew I could not let that happen to me. I knew if that were to happen, I would be dead.
Nothing I am, nothing I do, nothing I have means anything because I fit the description.
Here's my story about being stopped by the police.
It was Father's Day in San Diego, 2002. After attending the UCSD graduation ceremony of my dear friend Annie, I drove myself and another good friend, Greta, to meet Annie's family for brunch. We started at a restaurant on Inner Marine Drive, right by Mission Bay. It was crowded and had a buffet-only menu that day, not what Annie's dad was looking for, so we piled into a few cars to relocate to a different restaurant on the Bay. We all shared a lovely meal. Then Greta and I got a ride with Annie's family back to my little black Cabriolet, which was still parked down the street at the other restaurant. Greta and I got in my car and we headed home.
It was when I was just about to drive by the restaurant where we actually ate lunch that I noticed a police car behind me. I did what I normally do - check to make sure I'm not speeding and pull into the right lane to let the officer pass. The cop car pulled into my lane, following close behind me. I tried not to feel paranoid but a few moments later lights flashed. I was pulled over.
It was actually two officers who came up to my window - one a woman with curly brown hair, the other a tall slender man. Both white.
I got the impression that the female officer was in training, being guided by the more laid-back and weathered, slightly bemused male officer.
Ms. Officer asked for my license and informed me that my registration sticker was expired. I apologized and said I would take care of it soon.
She then asked for my insurance. I realized that I hadn't put the most recent insurance card in my glove compartment. I assured her it was up to date, just missing from my car.
She asked where we were coming from. I said the name of the restaurant where we had eaten - the restaurant that we were just about to drive past. I laughed awkwardly and then launched into a bumbling explanation of how we had parked at one restaurant and then carpooled to another, and that's why it looked like we were coming from someplace else.
She paused, then asked, "Ma'am, have you been drinking?"
I had not been drinking. Thank goodness I'd said no to that mimosa at lunch. But I probably looked a little bit drunk. The graduation earlier that day had been two full hours in Southern California summer sun. It was an emotional event for me (like most events usually are) so I had "crying eyes". And when I feel put on the spot, I get embarrassed. My face turns blotchy and red. I stumble over words. I over-explain.
In sum, I was acting suspicious.
At this point Ms. Officer looked at my passenger side mirror console and asked, "What happened to your mirror?"
I leaned over and pulled the cracked glass panel from my glove compartment, holding it up for the officers to see.
I'm pretty sure the cops exchanged a look at this point, practically rolling their eyes.
I stammered that I was going to get it fixed but I didn't think that it was illegal to drive without a passenger side mirror. They informed me that it is illegal if you have a tinted rear windshield, like my car had. So I took the mirror and clicked it back onto the base. Problem solved.
Ms. Officer went back to her car for awhile while Mr. Officer leaned against my car and tried to hide his amusement. They didn't know what to make of me.
When Ms. Officer returned, with an air of exasperation, she handed me a fix-it ticket and a warning.
Greta and I were a little shaky, but after laughing about my tendency to get into minor mishaps we headed for home.
For years I've sat on this story and rolled it around in my head. It has come to be a touchstone for a time in my life when I was a little scatter-brained, a little disorganized, when I often found myself in situations that were uncomfortable but turned out all right in the end.
Recently this story has evolved into something else for me. It's one of many stories about my white privilege.
Had I been a black woman rather than a white woman driving that day, how might the scene have played out differently?
Acting foggy and suspicious. Said I was coming from one place but obviously coming from another. Car in disrepair. No current registration. No proof of insurance.
Would that police officer have taken my word, or would she have asked me to step out of the car?
And had she asked me to step out of my car, would I have remained calm or might I have freaked out a little bit?
And if I had gotten agitated, maybe said some angry words, would she have felt compelled to respond to me with force?
So, I gotta tell you, at this point in the thought experiment I slow down and think, "... and then what?"
And then I might have been detained that day?
I might have been shot?
I might have been killed?
It feels ridiculous to write those words. Why? Because I am white.
Things like that just don't happen to white women like me.
But things like that happen to black people every day.
Children are being shot and killed by officers who adamantly defend their decision-making, their in-the-moment profiling, their perception of threat and their use of self-defense, over much less than the situation I had created for myself in all my scattered, irresponsible glory.
I got a slap on the wrist and a fix-it ticket. Every time I have ever been pulled over, in fact, I have gotten a warning.
The other day I was trying to get the kids to IKEA and also coordinate buying furniture from someone on Craigslist - yeah, it was a furniture day - and Craigslist lady called while I was driving so I broke the law and my own safety rules and answered my phone in my hand. A minute later I heard the "bloop! bloop!" of a police car to my right. I glanced over and a plain clothes officer was miming, "Get off the phone!" I grimaced and mouthed, "Sorry!!!" I put down my phone and the officer drove away.
I fit the other description. Not a threat. Give her a warning.
If I had been "driving while black" that day, I'm sure I would have gotten a ticket. So I took the $50 that the county didn't charge me and donated it to the CureViolence Fund. This is the organization that houses CeaseFire Illinois and the folks profiled in The Interrupters, a documentary you need to see. Instead of just checking my privilege, I need to try to pay it forward.
I fit the description of someone who is innocuous, someone who plays a minor and inconsequential role in this power system, someone who is happy to benefit from the oppression of others. But I don't need to accept that role any more than my black brothers and sisters need to accept their given roles of the threat or the thug. It's time we white folks helped re-cast this crazy drama we're all stuck in. Lives depend on it.