About two years ago, I experienced police intimidation firsthand. Prior to that date, I had only been pulled over by a cop once and didn’t actually get a ticket because he didn’t have his speed gun out to know how fast I was going. (#Blessed.) I had been in the car once before when my husband got a speeding ticket, but it happened in Macon, Georgia, a city with a significant black population, and the cop was black too. These things make a difference. The cop was brusque, but not threatening.
This time was different. We were road tripping our way back from Austin, Texas for a friend’s birthday. We had reached the area between Austin and Houston where the highway dwindles down to two lanes on each side, and we passed more cows and horses than other cars. Gerald was speeding, and so we weren’t surprised when we got pulled over by the state trooper. But the events that unfolded will haunt me forever.
ST: “License and registration, please.”
G: “Sure, officer. I need to get them out of my glove compartment, is that okay?”
ST: “I don’t know why you’re asking me.”
G: “I just want to make sure you know what I’m doing, officer.” (gets out license and registration) “May I ask why I’m getting pulled over?”
ST: “Sir, get out of the car.”
G: “Sure, I just want to know why I’m being pulled over.”
At this point, things escalated. The cop went from zero to raging maniac instantaneously, he was yelling so loudly and intensely that he was damn near frothing at the mouth. “GET OUT OF THE FUCKING CAR RIGHT GODDAMN NOW!” Gerald opened the door and before he could get one foot on the ground, the cop put him in a bear hug and hauled him out onto the ground. “YOU’RE RESISTING ARREST! STOP RESISTING!” In a flash, he had handcuffed Gerald, frog marched him to the squad car and slammed him face down onto its hood.
All I could do was scream silently, inside.
At this point, the state trooper’s buddy had pulled up to the scene. He put Gerald in the back of the squad car and the “arresting” officer (I put that in quotes because you’ll notice the conspicuous absence of Miranda rights recitation) came back to talk to me. Now that he had established dominance he was calm, confident, in charge of himself again. He grinned at me jovially, putting all his pearly whites on display and smacking on a piece of chewing gum like it was the only sustenance given to a starving man.
He turned on his good ol’ boy charm, asking me how I was doing, if I was in trouble, if Gerald was on drugs and that was why Gerald was so “agitated”. “If he would just act reasonably like you, this could have all been avoided,” he declared. The words stung, given the fact that at no point had Gerald raised his voice or pulled a punch–he merely had the audacity to exercise his Constitutional rights and ask the officer why he was being detained. Meanwhile, my so called reasonableness was me doing my best impression of a docile house slave in attempt to get us both out of the situation alive and uninjured. After some time of back and forth–it felt like an eternity, but the clock showed just 45 minutes–they let Gerald go and wrote a ticket for speeding, something which could have been done without ever having him out of the car.
I’ll be the first to admit that this account is an approximation of what happened. I was so afraid for my husband’s life that I couldn’t think straight. You can argue all you want about how we should have handled the situation. But there’s the law, and then there’s real life. When you’re on an unpopulated road in the middle of nowhere, facing down a power tripping cop with a gun, you do what you have to do to survive. In that moment, I was more concerned about not watching my husband bleed out on the side of the road than I was recording the incident and getting the officer’s name and badge number. So once again, the bad apple gets away with it. But I wake up next to my husband, whole and well, every day so I have no regrets about how I handled the situation.
The coda to this story is a conversation I had a few weeks ago at the hair salon. Much like barbershops, beauty salons are a place for all types of conversations. One of the other clients in the shop that day was a black, female police officer. She was talking about her job and of course that led the dialogue back to police brutality. I shared a brief version of the story above and was met with unbridled skepticism. She interrogated me about the details, damn near accused me of lying, and told me that we should have just complied without questioning because “Miranda rights are just what they show on television. Nobody really does it in real life.”
I understand that being a police officer is a hard job. They deal with people in crisis situations and people are rarely happy to see you–at best, you arrived just in time to stop something horrible from happening to them. Usually, the police show up after something terrible has occurred, or to tell people that they’re doing something wrong. But it’s also a job that they knowingly chose. And because police officers literally hold the power of life and death, it’s their responsibility to be better than the average person. More empathetic. More thoughtful. More careful. A barista who’s having a bad day can’t do anything worse than screw up your coffee order. A cop who’s having a bad day can kill you. Yes, they put their lives on the line. But it’s a hazard of the profession that they chose. Given these unique circumstances of the job, I don’t feel bad for cops who complain about their public image problem. They’re worried about popularity. We civilians are afraid for our lives.