On my way home yesterday I passed a police car sitting in the center median. Even though I was not going fast, as we all do, I immediately looked at my speedometer and confirmed “whew, I’m not speeding.” But, being brown while driving, I did keep my eye on him and I noticed he pulled out. He followed about a ½ mile back for several minutes. Then I noticed he changed lanes, sped up so that we could see each other in my side mirror and then fell in line behind me. Then the lights came on. I pulled over and thought, hmm my taillight must be out or something but I was already starting to panic, my heart was racing…fight or flight was here.
He came up to the passenger side door and asked for my ID and registration. While I got it out, he was looking around the inside of my car. I handed my ID/registration to him and he kept looking around the car…then his eye fell on my inspection tag in the center of the windshield and he said “did you know your inspection is out of date?” I looked at the sticker and sure enough it expired two days before. Weirdly for a split second I was relieved “ah, that’s all” and then in the next second on higher alert because how the hell had he seen my inspection sticker from the center median while I was doing 70?
Then it all became clear as he held my ID in his hand he asked the words every brown person in the U.S. knows, “Where are you from?”…this was an immigration stop. When I said I was born in Los Angeles, he asked if I had another form of ID. I said no, I didn’t think I needed more than one form of ID to operate a motor vehicle and then the shit hit the fan. He said “can I search your car?” and in that moment I knew, I just knew….if he got me out of the car I wasn’t going home. I was going to end up in a jail cell, detention center (a jail by another name), or worse.
A million thoughts flew through my mind…was there anything in the car that could be deemed a weapon, did I have any prescription drugs that weren’t in the their RX bottle, all the while realizing that it didn’t matter….he could just as easily put something in there if he wanted to. So then I did the mental calculation of how to modulate my voice, just enough so he would know I knew my rights, not so much to piss him off….”well, I think you need probable cause to search my car, and I don’t think I’ve done anything to give you cause, so I’m going to say….no.”
Now as I write you would think that a long time has passed, but this is all happening in the blink of an eye. His assessment of me and his power, my assessment of him and my risk, how far I can push, how far he can take it. It’s all happening with words, body language and an array of non-verbal communication. He never called me a racial slur, never asked if I was in the country illegally, never told me I was not going home tonight….but everything led up to that moment….was I going with him or was I going home. Was he going to be able to tell his buddies he got “one” or was I going home to hug my kids?
After I said no to the search, he asked for my passport. I replied that like most people I didn’t carry my passport with me…but I did have my voter registration card and I pulled it out of my wallet. As I handed it to him I said “as you know, you have to be a citizen to vote.” He took all my papers, walked to his car and I sat waiting as a million thoughts crossed my mind (should I start videoing, who has a copy of my birth certificate, who can I call.) When he returned he handed me the papers, my ticket and asked if I had any questions. I said no and he walked away.
And for him, that was the end. I’m sure he pulled someone else over soon and went about his day. But for me and my family…well it’s something that we’ll be living with for a long time. It’s a trauma my husband and I will have to process with our kids (who will be driving soon and already have been racially profiled by police.) We’ll have to decide if it is worth the risk to name the officer, police department and city/county/state agency. I had to decide if I would even post about it publicly.
And that last part was made easier by my faith. As a Unitarian Universalist we are called on to do the uncomfortable. To be witnesses for our faith. To speak and rage and move forward even when we just want to hide at home or “take a break.”
So what are you doing, how are you moving racial justice forward, where are your spheres of influence and how are you leveraging them for justice?
Because I am lucky…that’s right lucky…because the coin toss of my birth family and education were probably the deciding factors that meant I did get to go home but there are thousands more who don’t and that’s who I’m fighting for.
And I’m not alone. All across the U.S. there are movements to build a new version of our country that fights for justice and takes care of the young, the poor, the elderly, and those in our most marginalized communities. People who affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person. People who can shout #BlackLivesMatter because they know it is nothing less than our mutual liberation that is at stake. Folks who know that to recognize the human rights of others does not diminish themselves but opens them to a greater freedom and liberation than they knew before.
But it is going to take all of us showing up together to get this done…the time for sitting on the sidelines is over.
Join us or get out of the way…we are coming.