My heart is still pounding. This morning, en route to my parents’ house from the rehab facility where my father is convalescing, I suddenly became aware of a police car behind me. I had noticed the car earlier, but it had pulled someone else over, so I had driven on by in some relief, until I realized that it was now coming for me.
I might have known that the police would be out in force. It is move-in weekend for the returning college students, and traffic was already getting heavy quite early in the day. I admit I was preoccupied, in the midst of calculations as to whether I would have time to stop at the copy shop located dangerously close to the university, prepare a master for copying on my first day of classes, and get back to my mother before her caregiver had to leave. But although I was mindful enough to be respectful to the point of obsequiousness (a lesson learned long ago), although this particular cop was decent and I managed to defuse the situation, it started out charged, escalated rapidly, and came as close to a violent encounter as I would ever want to get.
Here’s how it unfolded, and how it very nearly unraveled: I knew the stretch of road well, because it has been a construction zone for the past hot, dry month, and the road was still stripped down to the dirt, choking passing motorists with billowing clouds of dust. (Why is it that they always seem to time these construction projects to coincide with the return of students in the fall, rather than scheduling them over the summer, when our area is depopulated?) When I saw the blue lights flashing in my rear-view mirror, I knew that I was in a heavy traffic zone and a turning lane to boot, that there was no shoulder or emergency lane, and that it was not a very safe place to stop. Still, after a little hesitation I pulled over as far as I thought I could, switched on my emergency flashers, and rolled down my window to seek guidance from the police officer as to where to go. No joy—he didn’t oblige. So I cracked open the driver’s door to let him know that I needed help; apparently that was a big mistake.
Already overloaded with the flashing lights, my senses were now blasted by a bullhorn, which warned me to stay inside the vehicle. I re-closed the door hastily, and now the officer stepped out and approached me. He told me that Massachusetts law required me to stay in the vehicle if I was pulled over, and to keep my hands on the wheel lest he worry that I had a gun. I had been rummaging in my parents’ glove compartment for their registration, so my hands had had to leave the wheel. His state of high anxiety immediately set up a matching state in me, as I searched my handbag frantically for my driver’s license, and he told me that the car’s registration, which he had already run through the state database, was associated with an expired license. I explained my situation, that it was my parents’ car and that my mother no longer drove.
To be fair, the tension now began ratcheting down as quickly as it had escalated, and he gave me a lecture, returned to his vehicle to check my driving record, and came back to let me off with a warning. I turned off the main road immediately, kicking myself for not having trusted my original instinct to take the back way home.
When I got home I looked up the Massachusetts drivers’ manual, the section entitled General Guidelines if You are Stopped By a Police Officer (pp. 111-112). It warns that: “[p]olice officers have reason to be worried about their safety during traffic enforcement. Each year in the United States, a number of police officers are killed and thousands more are assaulted.” Apparently “[d]uring 2013 alone, 2 police officers were killed and 4,335 others were assaulted during traffic pursuits and stops.” Two police officers were killed! I don’t have figures for 2013, but according to the open-source reporting project, Killed by Police, one hundred and sixty-eight people were killed by U.S. law-enforcement officers in attempted traffic or street stops in 2015, or 14% of the 1199 people killed (Reuters, Jan 2, 2016).
“[T]o help reduce the levels of anxiety. . .during a traffic stop” the Massachusetts driver’s manual lists thirteen things you should do. It does not say, by the way, that these things are required by law, just things that could make the police officer less anxious (and therefore, by implication, less likely to shoot you). By the way, I did all but one of them: “Stay in the vehicle (both you and your passengers). Only get out if you are instructed to by the officer.” It’s interesting that if the officer orders one to get out, one is required by law to comply; however, it is not a law, but a guideline, that one should stay in the car unless instructed otherwise. Still, if one wishes to minimize one’s chance of getting killed, it is a damn good idea.
I’m a 60+ year-old female college professor with no history of violence, in a rural part of the state that has virtually no history of violence. Still, just cracking open the car door rapidly escalated the police officer’s anxiety to levels of volatility that we could both feel in our guts; and that, if I had inadvertently made one more false move, might have driven the situation right over the top and out of control. My breathing is quickening again just thinking of that.
What nearly happened to me this morning was a wake-up call. It could happen to anyone at any time, but it happens to black people, and people of color in general, at a dramatically higher rate in proportion to their numbers in the population. If you don’t think so, take a look at The Counted, a website maintained by the British newspaper, The Guardian, that also documents people killed by police in the United States: 730 to date in 2016 alone, 112 of whom were completely unarmed. Of those 730, 365 were classified as white, 180 black, 122 Hispanic/Latino, 15 Asian/Pacific Islander, and 13 Native American. That’s 5.49 per million Native Americans and 4.51 per million Blacks in comparison with 1.84 per million Whites killed by police this year so far.
I’ve been aware of these disproportionately higher numbers for some time, and they amply document the problem, but after today I will no longer be able to go out in the car just enjoying a lovely day. For sure, everyone’s mind should be on the road at all times, but in addition to that alert attentiveness, there will be a dull anxious ache in my stomach as I negotiate the nation’s roadways. While we are all advised to modify our behavior so as to placate the anxious—and armed—police force, my experience today gave me just a taste of the visceral fear that Blacks in the United States must live with at all times.