When I was a teenager, just learning how to drive, I got pulled over by a cop. My mom was in the passenger seat and I had just paused at a stop sign instead of coming to a complete stop. Within seconds lights flashed in my rear view mirror and that well known sound swirled in my ear.
As I pulled to the side of the road I immediately started to cry. The cop, a white man, walked up to my window and when he saw my tears began to comfort and encourage me. He told me that I had run a stop sign but that I wasn't in trouble and didn't need to cry. He said that he had a teenager daughter at home and that he when he saw me, he thought of her and that he wants both of us to be safe drivers.
He didn't give me a ticket or a warning but he did give me a hug through the window. That was the only time I had ever been pulled over, until recently.
I was driving home from having brunch with Patrick's mom, about a month or so ago, when a cop pulled up behind me and turned on his lights.
I pulled over to the side of the road, rolled down my window and put my hands in plain sight on the steering wheel. The officer introduced himself and attempted to make small talk. He told me that I was going over the speed limit but if everything came back clear he would let me go on my way.
With one hand on my window and the other on his gun, he asked for my license and registration. I told him that my license was in my purse, under my seat and asked for permission to reach down and grab it, he said "Yes, of course." I then told him that my registration was in my glove box and asked for permission to reach across the seat to get it, he again said "Of course."
I've only been pulled over twice in my life and both times the officer was extremely kind but despite his kindness the second time I struggled to shake my fear. I remember being hyper sensitive of my hand placement before the officer even got to my window and making a conscious decision to not cry, to not be afraid and to not be a statistic.
You see, I knew that when he ran my information that nothing would come back and that I had nothing to hide. Even with all of this in mind, the memories and images from months and months of videos and articles of people who look like me, being shot and killed by people like him, had me a little shook.
Growing up my friends and my brothers and I made a lot of jokes, in very poor taste, about slavery and racism. We made jokes about driving while black and black people being picked on by cops. We could joke about these things because it was something that was never on the back of our heels or knocking on our front door.
We don't make those kinds of jokes anymore.
African Americans make up only 13 percent of the US population, yet account for 24 percent of those that are fatally shot by police. That means that African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to get killed in an interaction with a police officer than White Americans. According to the Washington Post, in 2015 of all of the unarmed people shot and killed by police, African American men made up 40% of that number even though they only make up 6% of our countries population.
After I got pulled over by the cop I told a few of my friends the story and as some laughed at my response and how I reacted I was reminded that I was the only person of color in the group. The more we talked, the more they understood my reaction and emotions but I couldn't undo the realization of how heavily our perspectives have shaped our views on the world.
When I see and read about people of color being shot and killed for petty crimes or committing no crime at all, I see myself. I don’t just see a black man or a little black boy, I see my brothers and my nephews…I see family.
When the cop finished checking my information and told me that I was all clear to go, I just sat there for a few moments. I imagined what it’s like to have a seemingly simple stop escalate for one reason or another, to the point where someone leaves in a body bag. I thought of Philando Castile and Sandra Bland, I thought about Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and how I wished they could have gone home.
I thought about all of the men and women who serve as police officers in this country and how everything that they do is now under a microscope. I thought about fear and prejudice and preconceived notions and how all of those things culminate.
I just sat there, with sweaty palms and a racing heart, thinking.
Despite all of the things I’ve read and seen I still believe in people. I still believe in police officers and I believe that African Americans are more than just something to be oppressed in our society. May my experience of kindness and thoughtfulness from an officer become the norm. May our men stop being feared and officers stop being hated.
May driving while black, stop being a death sentence and go back to simply being a description of my daily commute.