Monday, January 18, 2021

More Work

Suddenly I saw multiple police cars ahead on the left. At first glance it looked as though they were fanning out across the road. Were they shutting down the access to my exit? Was there an accident up ahead? I saw an officer out of his car, waving traffic over to the left. I slowed down and moved over as I pulled to a stop.

Was there some kind of manhunt happening? An escaped convict? Kidnapping? So many thoughts swirled through my head in those first moments. I saw the police officer walk towards my car and I suddenly thought, “Oh! Mask!” and hastily grabbed and put mine on.

“Good afternoon ma’am, you’ve been pulled over for speeding.” 

My brain moved directly into mortification. Of course. 

Exit 94 off Route 70. Labeled as the Security Boulevard Park & Ride. I think of it as the odd stub-end of a road that gets us to Grandma’s house. It feels long and windy and curvy and, while the goal is to move drivers from 65 miles per hour down to acceptable speeds once you enter local traffic, that’s generally not what people do. It’s very easy to speed there. I used to be religious about observing the posted limits but over time I’ve let peer pressure wear me down.

“May I have your driver’s license and registration, please?” 

His voice was calm and polite. Pleasant without being fawning. I pulled out my license and then realized in horror my dilemma.

“Oh, no. It’s expired because of COVID.”

“That’s all right, ma’am. Don’t worry about that,” he reassured me. “Your registration?”

I reached over to open the glove compartment and pulled it out.

“Okay, thank you ma’am. Now I’ll be right back. You just sit tight.”

I sat.

And I thought. 

I thought about how respectful, and calm, and unthreatening this police officer was. I thought about how the color of my skin was affording me a privilege not afforded to Black drivers under the same circumstances. Not once in this entire exchange had I worried for my safety. It didn’t matter where my hands were resting on the steering wheel. It didn’t matter how I reached for the car registration in the glove compartment. 

I was not going to be threatened or harassed. My car was not going to be searched on some predetermined pretext. I was not going to be arrested for supposed resistance or defiance. I was not going to die.

I was being treated like a respected human being who was making a mistake. Yes, you were speeding and that’s in violation of the law. No, that does not make you a hardened criminal whose life is now in danger.

The officer returned to my car with my license, registration, and a paper printout. 

“I’m just issuing you a warning. There’s no points on your license. Drive safely, now.”

And I said thank you, and put on my indicator to re-enter traffic.

For the rest of the day the encounter weighed heavily on me. How clearly my whiteness influenced my treatment in that routine traffic stop. Why does our society allow such glaring disparity of treatment based on race? We see it in the big picture of how law enforcement responded to Black Lives Matter protests in DC as opposed to the January 6th insurrection attacks in the same city.

We see it every time a “routine traffic stop” ends up with the driver dead. The driver is black. The police officer is very rarely charged. Even if there is body camera footage it will be interpreted in a way that denies responsibility.

I felt some fear at being pulled over yesterday. But my experience was absolutely nothing compared to what Black drivers go through. Every day there are so many extra rules I don’t have to follow, so many extra fears I don’t have to fear. If we keep allowing this to happen and do not actively work to change it, are we complicit in the injustice meted out upon others?

Today as our nation observes the birthday of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I will be looking at his life and words through the lens of my experience yesterday. It doesn’t feel good. I don’t feel like celebrating. I feel like I have a whole lot more work to do.

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