Hey reader, come take an imaginary ride today with me and “Walt,” both Black males. But we must warn you that we can’tguarantee that you won’t get pulled over with us by the police for, shall I say, “riding with a Black person.” We’ll make every effort not to attract unwanted attention.
Now keep in mind that the experiences I’m about to describe, mine and “Walt’s,” occurred before the recent rash of high profile African American-police encounters, some of which (Philander Castile and Daunte Wright) ended with tragic results.
First my experience.
I’ve been pulled over by the police a number of times over the years, primarily for minor infractions. And I can honestly say that except for obvious signs of nervousness by the officer, not once during any of those stops did I feel the threat of being shot or tased because I was “driving while Black.”
I can also honestly say that that certainty has been somewhat diminished in year 2021 as a result of the recent events we all know about. So these days I’m overly attentive to speed limits, make sure that my driver’s license, insurance ID and registration are within reach, constantly look over my shoulder (or out my rearview mirror) and breathe a sigh of relief when a police car passes me by without pulling me over.
Long story short, that’s my story.
Now before we hear from 47-year-old “Walt,” who holds a bachelor’s degree from prestigious Morehouse College and a master’s degree from the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania, frequent stops by the police are not experienced solely by poor and lower-income Black men. Scores of Black attorneys, professors (remember Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates?)businessmen and other professionals can rattle off stories about being stopped, questioned and sometimes even booked and jailed for being seen as suspects.
Turning now to “Walt’s” story.
“I’ve been stopped close to 50 times since I first got my licenseat 18 although I never received a citation during those times. But there was one time I was stopped that still makes me cringe just thinking about it. My friend and I were about 18 years old and returning from a party in a nearby town. My friend was driving his dad’s old Chevy Caprice.
I remember asking my friend to make a turn into a very wealthy neighborhood because I wanted to show him a large home my parents would often admire during our casual cruises through the area. As soon as we drove by, at the speed limit, a mega mansion, we immediately saw red and blue lights in the rear-view mirror. We stopped and sat quietly until the officer appeared next to my friend’s window.
While that officer signaled my friend to open his window and provide his license and registration, I heard a loud bang on my car door. I looked over and it was another officer who had drawn his nightstick and slammed it extremely hard against the passenger door. Soon after the loud bang, he said to me, “I saw you put that under your seat.” I said, “Officer, we don’t drink, or smoke and we actually live in the next town over. We’re good students and don’t get into trouble.” He said, “I saw you put something under your seat and you’re going to jail tonight.”
Both officers opened the doors and asked us to go to the front of the car, then pushed us against the hood of the car and searched us. Another squad car arrived with a K-9 unit and immediately sent a menacing German shepherd to the front of the vehicle where we were. The dog commenced to sniffing my behind and crotch. It did the same to my friend. The officer holding the dog sent the animal into the car and it sniffed around for 10-15 minutes until finally realizing that we had nothing. One of the officers told us after this happened to “get the (expletive)out of here and stay out of this neighborhood.”
We were both shaken and angry. I cried later that evening when I went to bed because I felt like I could have been killed or thrown in jail. That experience was the worst of it for me, but the many other traffic stops I experienced after that would always evoke a nervous response that was clearly caused by that one stop from hell.”
I suspect that if you are a Black person, by some measure you will probably identify with our “rides” and the alarming vulnerability of how Black men in particular fall prey to uglyencounters with law enforcement.
Writes Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post in his piece, “Being Black in America is exhausting,” “know this; every Black person you know goes through some form of mental calculus before they start their day. And then that calculus is adjusted depending on the locations and circumstances in which we find ourselves at any given time.”
Now some will argue, rightfully, that Black folks are not the only ones who are stopped by the police. But the truth is that being Black is far too often the only reason why they are stopped in the first place. Just ask yourself based on your racial identity, “What are the chances of my getting pulled over by the police for no other reason than because of my race?”
In the end, if you are not one of us – Black that is – we invite you to take a ride with us, or someone who looks like us.
And don’t forget to bring along your smartphone camera, because audios and pictures don’t lie.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, The BlackMarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org