I’ll start this by stating that I’ve never really felt comfortable with the police. Maybe it’s my upbringing, but I’ve rarely found them helpful or interested in my well-being. Far from “serving and protecting”, I’ve always had the feeling that they’re here to give me tickets, take my money and potentially put me in jail, possibly for no good reason at all, and that I might get my ass kicked along the way if I’m not careful.
However any positive feelings I’ve had about the police have further eroded since a few months ago when a friend, who happens to be a black man who grew up in the 9th ward, moved into the vacant room in my apartment.
I try to understand the way black folk experience things; in the part of the west coast I grew up in, they’re just weren’t that many black people around. And while I have a basic intellectually understanding of the issues of racial profiling and the profoundly unequal way that police tend to treat black people, all that is very different from actual experience.
Because for the second time last night, I was harassed by police in my neighborhood, on the way to the store, for a DWI (Driving While Integrated). For those not familiar with DWI, it is a relative of DWB (Driving While Black), which is also related to WWB (Walking While Black).
Here’s how it works. I am driving on Broad, and notice that a car with a little rectangular row of lights on top is behind us (My older brother served jail time in California. I always notice the police). My housemate, let’s just call him Big J, he and I are on our way to pick up food, paper plates and a garbage can for a party that we’re having. We decide to head up to Rouse’s, so we turn on Bienville. The little row of rectangular lights follows us.
Do not look in the rear view mirror. Drive slowly. Relax.
As we head up Bienville, Big J notices an old friend who works at a tattoo parlor across the street. He is about to jump out, when I inform him that the police are behind us. No sudden moves. Let’s just pull over some place where we can legally park and get out.
So we turn on Jeff Davis (proper use of turn signal). The police are still behind us. Now it is clear that we are being followed. My mind races. My truck is as legal as it’s ever been. I just fixed the turn signal flasher unit, and all the lights work. I have no warrants. My registration is up to date. Why is this happening?
We find a parking spot and big J jumps out. Immediately the spotlight comes out (readers should take the tip that the quickest way to identify undercover cop cars is the big, round black spotlight on the driver’s side). Big J freezes in its glare. An order is barked for me to get out as well.
This cop is not fucking around. He orders Big J to put his hands on the hood of the squad car. For me, it’s hands at your sides. The officer wants to know if we have ID. I reach in my pocket to get my ID, the officer barks something again about keeping my hands out of my pockets and it’s hands on the hood for me as well.
Our fine NOPD officer informs me that this is about a hit and run a few blocks away, and that our vehicle matches the description. This must be because there are so many beat up ’85 ford pickups on the road. I wonder: if this is for a hit and run, why are we being treated like we might pull a gun on him at any moment? He runs our licenses.
In the glare of the flashing lights, I see anger wash over Big J’s face, which quickly changes into a mask of contained fury. I’m a little more calm, but then again I have yet to visit the inside of OPP, like a fair number of my friends here. Looking at Big J, I realize that this is far from the first time this has happened. The rage, and the control to bury it, appear to be familiar reflexes.
I’m also remembering that we were pulled over not two weeks ago after getting a new lock for the front door from Home Depot. The officers’ excuse then was a bad turn signal, but they admitted that they had already run my plates before this happened. Cops approached both doors, and ran both our licenses. I had never before seen a passenger get his ID during for a traffic violation.
I get it. I live in the ‘hood. But this seems a little excessive. I think our real crime here is violating the Separate Car Act, like Homer Plessy did in 1896. We were Driving While Integrated. After all, what good reason would a white man and a black man have to be driving around the ‘hood?
I get it. Except that we live here, and that we are friends.
After the licenses come back clean, the cop lets us go unceremoniously.
Driving back from Rouse’s, Big J is silent. This gives me time to think. Will we be stopped again on the way home? How many more times we will get pulled over on shopping trips? Exactly how many times in his life has Big J been stopped by the police? What does it do to the psyche of a young black man to continually be harassed by the police? How many of those in OPP are there for any actual crime? What exactly did Adolph Grimes do, or not do, to get shot in the back so many times by the NOPD?
And how long will Big J stay in New Orleans, before he decides he can’t live like this any more?