My father told me that when the cops pull me over, I have to keep my hands on the wheel. It was in 1988. That’s when I got my license and a beige Mustang 4 cylinder.
I remember skipping school in that car. Driving to Ridley Creek State Park and doing power slides on the wet leaves in the empty parking lots. In that car I had my first accident, the result of a high speed chase carrying a girl that I knew from high school. We were running from the boyfriend that she said beat her. She said he carried a gun in his little Mitsubishi. I didn’t want to find out.
I was a horrible driver. Now, I watch out for guys like 16 year old me. But back then I was an isolated kid, trying to figure it out in the suburbs where the only people who looked like me had known each other since birth. Everywhere but in my beige Mustang, I was the odd man out.
My father was more worried about the cops in our little town.
This is what he told me.
Shut off the engine and put the key on the dash board.
Wind down the window.
Keep you hands on the wheel. I could leave no doubt in an officer’s eyes that I was safe. That was important. I wasn’t to go rummaging through the glove compartment looking for the documentation. I wasn’t to put my hands between the seats, even if I dropped something. Not until the cop was there by my window, to bear witness.
Keep your mouth shut.
Don’t do anything until they ask you to. And when you finally do it, do it slow.
And keep your cool. No matter what.
Those were his rules for dealing with the cops. For the most part, those are the rules that I still follow. No sudden moves. Keep your cool. Don’t give them a reason.
But lately, I’ve lost some of my patience. I can remember a time in Springfield Pa, miles from Philadelphia. A police officer in oncoming traffic turned around, fell in behind me and lit up his lights.
He pulled me over because my tag had expired days before. The question was, how did he know? PA tags are on the rear bumper. And if he didn’t know that my tag had expired, then why did he make a U turn in rush hour traffic right after he saw me?
He was white. Tall and chiseled, like he a propaganda poster.
More recently I was pulled over in Philadelphia for a broken muffler. It was about 10am on a Saturday. My step son sat next to me, wearing his capoeira uniform. We were on our way to his class. This time I knew why I was being pulled over. I wasn’t prepared for him to lean into my little Honda and ask, “You smoking weed?”
This was my work car. On my way to work I smoked cigars. It was how I got my head right, before the chaos of my old job.
In the ash tray was an inch of ash and a half smoked Ashton VSG. The cop took this all in, and then asked me if I was smoking weed. In front of my step son. And I know I had promised to keep my cool, but I asked, “You kidding me?!”
He told me that he had been a narcotics cop for 20 years. He told me that he knew weed when he smelled it. I pointed at the ash tray and said, “Those are cigars. And I don’t smoke anything in front of my son, so you can stop all of this right now. Give me the ticket, or whatever you’re going to do, but stop this bullshit.”
And he gave me a ticket. And then he towed the car, leaving my son and I on the side of the road. There was no more mention of narcotics, but my car was impounded because of an insurance card issue that I had resolved months before. And before it was over, I paid more than $1,000 to get it back.
That cop, by the way, was Black. He had gray hair and stood over six foot tall. I remember asking him if he had kids. He nodded. And I asked him how he would feel if someone accused him of smoking narcotics in front of them. He walked back to the squad car.
I don’t think about this much. It only gets me upset. But when I found out about the the man who was shot in Charlotte North Carolina last Saturday, I thought about every time I’ve ever been pulled over, including that tall cop in Philly.
Jonathan Farrell was 24 years old. He hadn’t been pulled over. He’d crashed his Toyota Camry and was looking for help. He knocked on the door of the closest house.
The woman of the house didn’t help. Instead she called the cops, and said she was being burglarized. For that, there is blood on her hands.
Before the night ended, Farrell was dead, and a Charlotte police officer was being charged with voluntary manslaughter.
What was Farrell supposed to do? I want to know, just in case I wreck my car one day. Or run out of gas, or simply need to ask for directions. What is the right way to approach a white stranger now?
Farrell was a big dude. That shouldn’t make a difference. He had no control over his body size, but he fit squarely into that image of scary Black man. So did Trayvon Martin. So do almost all other Black men, myself included. Come to think of it, this is one of the rare situations where size really doesn’t matter. When it comes to Black men, people can always find a reason to be suspicious; even if it’s bull.
When I learned how to deal with the police from my father in 1988, I thought it would become obsolete, like the class I was taking in BASIC computer language. I knew that police stops could get ugly, very quickly. But I thought that things were getting better.
So how do I update my list of police commandments? First off, I have to expand it. It’s no longer just about the Police. We also have to run the gauntlet of suspicious bystanders. I now have to somehow look less threatening. Shall I hunch my shoulders? Walk with a limp like Kaiser Soze?
Is there a right way to knock on a door in a fashion that is non-burgalery? How should one dress for rain without looking suspicious. Hoodies are obviously out? Are umbrellas okay? If Trayvon had dressed like Paddington bear, in a bright yellow raincoat, would he be alive today?
Or do I just have to live every moment of every day as if there is a State Trooper in my blind spot. Hands always visible, speaking in measured tones. Moving in slow motion, whether I’m dealing with the police or buying a ticket at the movie theater. And above all, keeping my cool – whether I just almost died in a car accident, or I’m being followed by some dude who I don’t know, who claims to be neighborhood watch.
I’ve written about this before. In fact, I would love to stop writing about it.
I wrote a post about Trayvon Martin a while ago.