“Happens All the Time”: What I Do When I’m Stopped By Police -The Toast

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I was in Tennessee the first time I was pulled over. I was 16, on my way home from Wednesday night church class, and I was late for Smallville, but I tried not to rush the five-minute drive — as a new driver and a well-behaved Catholic kid, I was a worrier, terrified of doing anything wrong.

When I saw the lights, then heard the siren, at first I thought they couldn’t be for me. I pulled off from the empty road, and the cop turned in behind me. When he arrived at my window, I handed him my license and registration. “Didn’t look like your lights were on,” he said. It was almost a question.

“They’re on,” I just managed to mumble. I nervously picked at my fingernails as I waited, picturing the disappointment on my parents’ faces. When he came back, he handed over my documents and said, “Drive safe now.”

After he walked off, I sat there for a minute, wondering why he had stopped me. Then I worried about the protocol — was it rude if I left first? Was he waiting for me to go? Could he pull me over again? There had been nothing in my driving course about what black people should do when they’re stopped by the police and haven’t done anything wrong.

I didn’t receive a ticket or a warning, so I slowly drove through a few side streets until I couldn’t see his lights anymore and then made my way back home, panicking, wondering what I would say to my parents. He must have stopped me for a reason, I thought. I felt guilty, ashamed, and because I couldn’t quite figure out why, I never told my parents what had happened.

There had been nothing in my driving course about what black people should do when they’re stopped by the police and haven’t done anything wrong.

Years later, back in Tennessee, I noticed the excess of Confederate flags — in windows, on t-shirts, hanging from rearview mirrors. To people who flaunt this symbol, my fears must seem ridiculous. But I know my body is not safe. Each day there’s another story about a kid killed by the police, or a protester beaten in the street, or an innocent man cuffed and harassed. There are not enough walls or sidewalks or t-shirts on which to write all their names.

So I find myself playing a sick game of worst-case scenario, in which the wrong clothing or the wrong tone or simply being where someone else feels you shouldn’t be can cost you your life. My fears used to ebb and flow just under the surface, but now I feel as if I must always have my guard up. My worries are all the things that go through your mind when you realize you’ve always had a target on your back.

Now it’s an election season. My least favorite time of any year, when people’s worst behavior starts to come out under the guise of finally “having their say,” of “taking back America.” In a lot of ways, I’ve stopped arguing with these people. I know they can hurt me much more than I could ever hurt them.

As I drove through town with my mom, past where I was first pulled over as a teenager, this change inspired her to awkwardly caution me. She never did so over all those months she spent screeching at me, gripping the passenger seat as she taught me to drive. Now she reminded me to always signal, be polite, don’t speed.

“Because you never know what people might do,” she said. “Happens all the time.”

In Queens, on my way to the train, I swipe my Metrocard at the turnstile. I go through, just like I have a million times before. I’m halfway up the stairs when I hear someone yell, “Hey!”

My stomach drops at the sight of the cop staring at me. Tight belt, shiny badge, radio and holster. He’s about my height, with short, dark brown hair. He has that stance: one hand on the squared, boxy hip, elbow out, the other hand gesturing for me to come down the stairs.

I pause and walk down towards him. I’ve been taught to do as I’m told. Another cop walks over as the first one says, “We need to see your Metrocard.”

I hand it over. “What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Where’s your green Metrocard?”

“I don’t have one.”

“MA’AM. Your green card! Where is it?”

I glance at the other cop, blond, who’s about the same size. He’s all poker face. I’m getting nothing from him.

“This is the only card I have,” I say. I’m pointing at it, but I’m really pointing at him, because he is in possession of the $43.65 left on my card and I’ll be damned if I’m not getting that back.

The two cops are standing a little too close to me, and they exchange a look. It’s early September, hot and sticky, but I shiver before I suddenly find that I’m sweating.

The first cop waves my $43.65 at me. He says, “I’m gonna make sure this is really yours.”

How? The card isn’t registered to me. It’s not registered to anyone. I paid for it, but I have no proof.

As the first cop stalks off, I look at the blond cop, confused. I should keep my mouth shut, but I need some answers. “What just happened?”

“Just wait…one second,” he says. He tries to keep me calm as his partner walks away. He doesn’t say it, but his job as second banana is to babysit me until his asshole partner comes back with my card. His explanation is that someone set off the sensor, but there was a delay, so it may or may not have been me.

He looks at me and then shifts impatiently. This is when I realize the gleam on my skin, the glow one of my friends recently noticed because I finally found a great prescription skin cream, is helping me. So are my bright little stud earrings, the mascara, my tank top and flippy skirt. My chillness in this aggravating situation is why this is all going to resolve itself. And all the time, the devil on my shoulder — who is, in my mind, a small white man — says dismissively: “You should’ve kept walking.”

Really? I picture myself on the stairs. Someone calls out to me, and I shrug it off and continue on my path. Then I’m “resisting,” right? Then they can run after me. What if they “accidentally” push me? What if I fall and crack my carefully reconstructed jaw on the steps? Then what happens to me?

Later I tell the story of the two cops and the Metrocard to some of my friends. One of them says, “I hate cops.” I’m not sure if she means it.

I don’t hate cops. Maybe it’s all of those legal shows I watch. I have a preoccupation with fairness. I love duty and order, organization and the adherence to rules. I appreciate the fact that some people are willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of others. Still, I avoid cops in person. They stress me out.

“You seem calm about this,” another friend says.

“Happens all the time,” I say, parroting my mother.

“How often has it happened to you?”

“Like, fifteen times? I’m not sure.”

My friends, who are white, all stare. So I sigh and tell them of other times in Pittsburgh, when I was in grad school. On one occasion, a few of us were on our way back from a club when our designated driver pulled off into a parking lot and said, “Hold on” as we protested. Within minutes, two of them were dumpster-diving as another person and I watched and paced, upset without being able to say exactly why. I was always taught to be polite, smart, balanced, and polite, smart, balanced black girls do not climb into dumpsters. Then I noticed a patrolman in a neon vest walking down the long, gentrifying street of shops and gyms towards us. A few different scenarios ran through my mind. I had a flash of an unfortunate photo of me on the news the next day with a caption: Black woman found stealing in upscale Pittsburgh neighborhood.

“Nope, let’s go!” I said. I’d learned a few years before to control the bass in my voice when I wanted to get my point across. My friends looked stunned as they peered over the edge of the dumpster, because they couldn’t sense my panic. “NOW,” I said to them. “Or I’m driving this damn car myself.”

A couple months later, on a bolder day, I was stopped on my way to brunch. It was a bright, sunny morning, and I was early for once, so I cruised down Forbes with the rest of the awful Sunday drivers. When the cop walked up to my window, I smiled sweetly and said, “Can I help you?”

Flustered, he said, “You ran a red light back there.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head, still smiling.

“The light –”

“Was green,” I said.

“Have a nice day, ma’am,” he said.

I wasted no time in driving off. This was ballsy of me, and has never happened since. I’m not sure if it was the time of day or the sunshine that gave me such nerve — to tell a police officer the truth and wait for their reaction. I was taught to behave myself, to keep my head down, to never question authority. I still wonder what could have happened if I had been stopped by someone else, on a different day.

Back in Queens, I’m waiting with the blond cop when a train arrives on the other track. I’m fiddling with the clasp on my wallet, still sweating nervously as people come through the turnstile, eyeing me. My instinct is to keep my arms down at my sides and to stay on my feet.

The first cop returns and hands over my card without looking at me. “Card scanned at 6:12,” he says. I know for sure it wasn’t me who set off the sensor, and now they know it, too.

“You’re free to go,” Blond Cop says. I open my mouth to say something, but stop myself. Being stopped by two cops on foot causes a proximity problem — I’d never been stopped on foot before. When I was pulled over in my car, the sheer volume of metal offered some semblance of protection, of separation. Here, I feel overexposed. My brothers’ voices are in my head now; I can practically see them standing in front of me, shaking their heads, saying, “Be smart.”

I set my jaw, narrow my eyes, and glare at the two cops. It’s all I’ve got. They watch as I turn and walk up the stairs. By the time I get to the top, I’m dizzy, and tiny stars dot my vision.

I sit and put a hand on my clavicle, on the weighty indentation where I can feel my heartbeat begin to slow. I take in some air and wait for everything to feel normal again. I cry. Only for a minute. Then I say to myself, “You’re alright.” A woman over on the opposite platform is watching me and I’m embarrassed to be seen crying in public, then angry at my embarrassment. “It’s fine,” I whisper. “Everything’s fine.”

But it’s not fine. My rule-abiding politeness, my inner drive to keep the peace, my outwardly even temper, none of these things will necessarily save me. I won’t get to hide behind my Master’s degree in a mugshot. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m mean or upset or a problem, so I usually keep my unpopular opinions inside, and then I brood quietly afterwards. But all the not-talking has made me absolutely miserable. Why didn’t I say something? I always wonder.

I don’t want to constantly think of the worst-case scenario, and I don’t want to always have these stories. The responsibility of taking ownership of them is crushing me.

I’ve been telling these stories a lot lately — a series of slights that make up the fissures and bonds in a person’s character. I tell the stories so other people have a better idea of where I’m coming from; so they have a response when white voices chorus, “I don’t get it” or “What’s the big deal” or “Why is everyone so angry?” I also tell the stories for myself, to make better sense of them, to contemplate the world around me and how my life has changed. But I don’t want to constantly think of the worst-case scenario, and I don’t want to always have these stories. The responsibility of taking ownership of them is crushing me.

Injustice happens every day. Maybe it’s because it’s on the news more often now, because of Black Lives Matter, because people are engaged and interested, but whatever the reasons I feel like my stories — the ugly ones, the ones I’m not sure anyone wants to hear — are fighting their way out of me. Merely telling the stories has never been enough. It has not stopped my nightmares of attempting to wash hundreds of tiny pebbles from my mouth; of bruised and broken black men and women lining the streets while white people stand around and talk about what they did to deserve it; of the removal of lynching from our textbooks, old men erasing a hanging body from history so only a mob of half-disinterested faces remain, staring up at a coiled, empty noose. I wake up from these nightmares gasping for air.

When I need to get a memory out of me, when I need to get over something, I get it on a page; I write it all out because I am ashamed of stopping, ashamed for obeying, and ashamed for thinking I must have done something wrong. But mostly, I write because I’m upset with myself for all the things I did not say, for every time I could have spoken up but stayed silent instead. I need to get it out, not only to help myself, but because this happens to others all the time.

So up on the train platform, I grab my phone and start typing through my rage. I wipe my eyes, straighten my spine. And I pull it together, just as the next train arrives.

Katrina Otuonye is a writer and editor based in Nashville, TN. Her work has appeared in a range of publications, including The Feminist Wire, Atticus Review, Crab Orchard Review and Litro Magazine.

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