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Have you ever had to tell your Mom Happy Birthday from the back of a police vehicle, well this week a year ago ushered me into a new awareness.
I’d been living in Louisiana for the past two years and you can bet every holiday I was clicking my heels together three times. Home is where the heart is and you can bet there’s no place like it.
Last year, I had the privilege of co-coaching and ultimately inheriting my school’s cheerleading team. Though I had plans to drive home immediately after school let out for Thanksgiving break, when they asked to cheer at an off-season playoff game, I couldn’t disappoint.
That cold Saturday morning (my Mother’s birthday), instead of packing and heading on my 6 hour drive to North Mississippi, I was making my way to a middle school football game.
Let’s just say, I got a late start. I like to “surprise” my family when I come home, so often I tell them I’m leaving the day after I actually leave. Their look of surprise is priceless and grandma likes to fuss about me driving at night. Well, this time, they learned I was in town when they had to pick up my car, because I was indeed being arrested.
I was less than 30 minutes from home, about 11:00 pm, I elected to pass two slowly moving vehicles. I made sure I was in a passing zone and I went for it. As soon as I did, I saw the familiar flashing lights behind me. Immediately I called my cousin to let him know my whereabouts and situation. As I looked for a place to pull over all I saw was an extremely narrow highway with no shoulder and extreme darkness. I was traveling alone and this isn’t the best area to be black, female and alone in the dark.
Actual picture from the same highway in Mississippi. There is no shoulder and no lights.
Let me give you just a bit of the history of this area. It has a large population of “Klan” members, “skin heads” and “white supremacists”. They pass out flyers for recruitment and are often on the news for their antics. Not only that but a couple years prior, there was an officer impersonator in this very area pulling people over and killing them.
With this foreknowledge I elected to do what I always had been told was a perfectly legal thing, drive slowly until you reach a well-lit, populated area. I hung up with my cousin and called dispatch. By this time, the officer was growing more impatient, as he had now turned on his siren and began speaking to me over the intercom.
“Yes, there’s an officer behind me, can you let him know I am going to pull over. I’m looking for a safe place.”
She relayed the message and I could hear him telling her to tell me to pull over now.
“Tell him, I’m alone and it’s dark and I’ll be pulling over when we reach a lit, populated area.”
Ten minutes later, still on the phone with dispatch, we reached the only lit and populated area within a 15 mile radius. I stopped. The officer aggressively approached me with a drawn handgun. This was when I realized how “serious” the matter had become.
He couldn’t tell me how fast I was driving, only that I was speeding. At this point my uncle had called his friend, a deputy, and asked if he could help. This white officer began arresting me, after I had explained to him my intention. There were two other black officers, my uncle’s friend looked at me as if his hands were tied. The other, proceeded to tell me how wrong I was for driving until we reached the store.
“Have I done something wrong?” I asked.
“No” he replied.
“Are you upset?” I asked the officer as he was apparently in his feelings. (An idiom that means his was highly annoyed or irritated.)
“Yes, I am.” Was his reply.
He was highly annoyed that I didn’t pull over faster.
“If I were your daughter, would you have wanted me to pull over?” I asked.
He replied in the affirmative. This uncultured, uneducated, oblivious officer was arresting me for failure to stop, though I did stop. I do believe if he had a black daughter, he wouldn’t have wanted her to stop in a dark, secluded area, especially knowing what could possibly take place.
My Mom came and I gave her my keys. As she was standing beside the backseat of the deputy pick-up, I wanted to say, “Happy birthday Mom” but couldn’t bring myself to say it.
On the way to the county jail the officer informs me that his Aunt went to Jackson State (an HBCU) and that the Judge would likely throw out the “failure to stop” ticket.
Once I arrived at the jail, I was stripped of my clothes, asked to squat and cough. This process was dehumanizing to say the least. The other women officers there, black and white, both said they would’ve done the same and they proceeded to tell me, “he is a good one”. They were trying to say he isn’t racist. This is a thing in this area, as many of the elected officials are rumored to be Klansmen.
Ultimately he charged me with reckless driving, I think largely because he had no idea how fast I was driving and failure to stop. My Mom and my Niece bailed me out around 3:00 am and we went home.
I sought council and was advised to take research with me to court and that the ticket would be thrown out. I had transcripts from the dispatch showing that I called and remained on the phone with dispatch throughout the duration of the stop, I had articles detailing killings in the area by an officer impersonator and information advising citizens to stop in safe areas.
Ultimately the white judge was unable to understand my fear of stopping and the charges stood. I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do. I had faith in the judicial system and was more than disappointed. The consequence was two misdemeanors and a $1000+ in fines.
I know my situation could have been worse. I know of many other instances where women were raped, violated, injured or killed. These public servants have sworn to protect and serve, and my question is:
- Who/what are you protecting?
- Who are you serving?
I know not all officers and not all judges are the same, but indeed many of them are, too many.
I asked myself many times, should you have just stopped? Were you just trying to be difficult?
Regardless of the answer to those questions, a black person has great reason to fear civil servants who display the ability to deescalate armed and ferocious white men, but tend to immediately shoot unarmed black men.
Only when our communities gain awareness and connection, only when a white man can look at a black man and see his brother, only when a white person seeks to understand, learn of and is immersed in the black experience will progress be made.
It is our similarities and not our differences that remind us of our humanity and that is what the elite fears.