Back in 1998, I was arrested on the side of a highway for an outstanding warrant having to do with an expired registration. I had gotten the original ticket five years prior, had taken care of the registration, and forgotten about the ticket. One Friday night, I came home from work to a letter informing me of the warrant. I put it in my purse, fully intending to take care of the situation on Monday. The very next day, I cruised through a yellow light, trying to turn onto the highway to get to an appointment with some friends, when a siren burped out a warning.
I was already on the entrance ramp to the highway, so I had to pull over into the emergency lane, where I prepared to comply with the police officer.
Normally, I tell this story for laughs. There is humor in the horror of it. But instead of telling it to you as entertainment, I’d like to paint you a different picture.
I was not a kid who made trouble. I worked as a volunteer in a court program geared toward troubled youth, taught Sunday School, and did my best to follow the law. When I did get pulled over for speeding, or having an expired tag, I complied. I was raised to be polite to police officers, and to believe that they were there to help me. I said thank you for doing your job as I took tickets, and I apologized for inconveniencing them with my 10-miles-over-the-limit recklessness.
That day, I was prepared to do the same thing.
I was in an unfamiliar city, bordering three other small towns, and I wasn’t sure exactly where I was. I’d already gotten lost that morning trying to find the hair salon someone had recommended to me, and this was in the days before GPS could talk you through every mixmaster and beyond. So, when the officer pulled me over, I didn’t know which police department he represented.
He was a young guy. I wouldn’t have made him older than 25, and would have put him closer to 21. The excitement with which he informed me of my impending arrest was frightening. I need to repeat that. The officer was clearly excited that he was going to get to arrest me, and he was so obviously excited about it, it alarmed me.
I had my warrant letter with me, and I tried to show him the postmark on the envelope, and explain that I’d only just gotten the notice, but he told me I needed to stop talking, and I needed to get out of my car with my hands on my head. When I tried to explain again, he put his hand on his pistol and repeated his request for me to stop talking, and get out of the car with my hands on my head.
I don’t know about you, but when someone has a gun in my general proximity, I am nervous.
Not wanting to be a problem, I complied. I got out of my car with my hands on my head and let him frisk me. He turned me around over the back drivers side of my trunk, kicked my feet apart, and bent me onto the hot metal, and he frisked me again. By that time, I was crying because I was embarrassed, I was afraid, and I honestly couldn’t comprehend what was happening.
He pulled my arms behind my back and handcuffed me, then pushed me into the backseat of his cruiser, banging my forehead against the doorframe as he did. Then, he went back to my car and searched it, while I worked to find a way to get myself into an upright position. I’d fallen over in the seat as he slammed the door shut.
If you’ve never been handcuffed, it’s very awkward. I had no idea just how awkward, until I tried to sit in the backseat of a car with my hands bound behind me. It’s nearly impossible to balance. It is also impossible to wipe your nose, which is a problem if you are in the middle of a snot slinging, ugly cry.
The officer came back to the cruiser with my purse, which he put in the front seat, then started off. I didn’t have a seatbelt on, so I fell forward, face first into the grate between the front and back seats of the car. When he slammed on brakes, I fell backwards, bounced off the seat, and went into the floorboard. I spent the next quarter mile trying to get myself back into the seat, while the officer berated me for not having taken care of my ticket sooner, and insisted I quit crying.
I kept asking him where he was taking me, and he wouldn’t tell me. He wouldn’t tell me which city I was in, or which city he represented, and would only say that he was taking me to jail. He kept raising his voice at me to stop crying, and demanded I stop asking him questions. I couldn’t tell where we were going because I was wrapped up in keeping my face off the grate, and trying not to bang my head into the side window again, as I had done when he took a sharp corner.
No one knew where I was. I had no way to reach my friends. I didn’t know where I was going.
When we reached the police station, a female officer took over for my strip search. Yes. I was strip searched over a warrant for an expired tag. This included the officer lifting my breasts to make sure I wasn’t carrying whatever under either one of those, but I guess some humanity kicked in when it came time for my undercarriage because she let me keep my panties on, and just felt over those, with a finger between my butt cheeks that left a wedgie I couldn’t pick because of how I was forced to stand.
It’s the little things.
She wouldn’t tell me which city I was in either, and no one was forthcoming about the next steps. I kept saying to myself that if I was polite and compliant, they would be decent to me. If I showed that I wasn’t going to be a problem, they would treat me like a person.
I was wrong.
By the time I was in a jumpsuit, shower shoes, and in a cell, I’d been there for over an hour. I asked if I could get a cup of water, and the officer told me I could get water out of the back of the toilet in the cell.
I won’t get into all the details because by that time, I had realized that there were no authority figures there who were interested in helping me, or in even being decent to me. I used the pay phone in the cell to call my mother, hysterical by that point, who in turn had to call around and find out which jail I was in because the officers still wouldn’t even tell me which city I was in.
It took another six hours before my mother could get me out, and I could regale you with a whole other set of horrors, but I won’t.
I tell you this story because I was a white, middle class, blonde girl, who worked for a church, who was polite, super compliant, and a non-violent offender with no record, and that’s how white, small town, yokel police officers treated me. And because I have been afraid of cops ever since. And because I haven’t trusted a cop since then. If that’s how they would treat a small, compliant, terrified girl with a traffic warrant, how would they treat someone they saw as a threat?
I never thought much about police brutality before then. I figured if a police officer used force, it was because it was a last resort. It never occurred to me that it might just be a cop’s preferred way of doing things.
Now, when I see the reports of violence, the civil rights violations, the outright murder of private citizens at the hands of police officers, I can’t help but wonder how different my experience would have been as a black male. How much worse would it have been? How much more degrading, how much more painful, how much more abusive? How much more terrifying?
If a young black man’s face had been slammed into the grate between the seats, would the officer have said it was the man trying to headbutt his way through it? Would that have been excuse enough to use force? If a young black man had argued in confusion, like I had, when first told to get out of the car, with how much more aggression would the cop have responded? And that young man would just be expected to eat it. Eat that shit and not say a word–you don’t say a word, or it gets worse.
I think about that with every shooting, and I feel sick.
I feel sick for the mothers who are trying to find their children, calling around police stations. I feel sick for the parents who are trying to get their children out of bad situations, but are being given a run-around because it is a Saturday after 5pm.
I feel sick for the helplessness and the terror–because make no mistake, those emotions are real, and they are horrifying.
I think about what I would do in my mother’s place, and I admire how she held her temper until she had me safely in her car because if my child called me like I had called her, I don’t know how well I would manage that.
And I think about what I would do in the place of the mothers whose children have been murdered by police officers, and told they deserved to die, and told to be quiet and eat that shit, and go sit down because cops are always right. Because I’m afraid I would go set the city on fire.
Baltimore is on my mind. Baltimore is on my heart.
I posted this on Facebook earlier:
You can’t tell people to sit down and be quiet, when you shoot them sitting quietly the same way you shoot them rioting. I believe in peaceful protest, but revolution doesn’t happen, and change doesn’t come just because someone signs a declaration. And if your children, your fathers, your brothers, sisters, mothers and friends were the ones being abused, don’t tell me you would be satisfied telling them to just lie still and let the boot settle on their necks. I don’t condone violence, but I do understand it.
If Freddie Gray were my son, oh, sweet Jesus. What they did to that man. They severed that man’s spinal cord. You think Batman has vigilante issues? The helplessness and horror I would feel as a mother? I would lose my mind. But we expect his family, his friends, his community to sit down and eat that shit because why?
I’ve been abused by the police, with bruises on my forehead to prove it. I know it happens even if you do exactly as you are told. I also know there are good cops out there. Just like I know not every man following me down a dark alley is a rapist. But one bad experience opens a whole new world of fear, and once you’ve looked into that abyss, you can’t unknow the truth that is out there.
I say again, I don’t condone violence, but I do understand it.
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.
Read that article. It’s important.