Kind of Red

April 9, 2012

Probable Cause

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 1:15 pm

Editor’s Note: The Trayvon Martin incident has sparked intense national debates regarding the association of African American men and violence, gun violence more generally, racial profiling, etc.  What follows is a personal account of racial profiling I experienced on or about December 22, 2002.  It has been one of many for me, and seemed appropriate to share during the course of these debates, particularly considering how several public figures have recently come forward with racial profiling stories of their own.

“Yes, I am going to yell at you!”  The officer’s words shot from his lips, pierced the brisk night air, and struck my cheek.  I turned the other in an effort to better look him in the eye.  The muscles in my jaw clenched, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as my anger kindled.  For a brief moment, his words were indistinguishable, muddled sounds that sent my brain scurrying to unearth an answer to my mind’s persistent question of, “Why?”  “Why am I outside in the cold while this badge-wielding simpleton berates me?   “Why did he pull me over in the first place?”  Why is he still yelling, but more importantly, why is there nothing I can do about it?”  Failing to provide a viable explanation I sought solace elsewhere, for as Morrison once wrote, “Since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.”

At 2:33am, on the morning of December 15, 2002, my car cruised down Connelly Street in South West Atlanta, as it caressed each corner and curve of the long, narrow, winding road, traveling onward to our destination.  Laughter echoed throughout the car as three friends and myself recalled the events of the previous day.  We were returning to campus from a recording session at a nearby studio.  Unbeknownst to us all, a police car pulled directly behind me and followed us for roughly a mile and a half (the officer later told me how long he followed me).  As his bright lights’ red glare burst through the air, laughter that once pervaded the car dissipated as shock quickly adorned the faces of all four of us.  I obediently pulled my car over, as the lights summoned me to do, and parked in a nearby parking lot.  As the officer approached the car, I assured my friends all was well, and that the matter would resolve itself quickly, having no inclination of what lay ahead.

        “What seems to be the problem officer?” I asked somewhat jokingly.

“I’ll tell you as soon as you get out of the car!” he yelled.

Stunned, I asked, “Why do I need to get out of my car?”

“I’ll tell you as soon as you get out of the car! “ he screamed in response.

“Hold on, let me get my license and registr-,” I began, but before I could complete my sentence he erupted, this time clearly agitated.

“Never tell an officer of the law to ‘hold on,’ when he gives you an order!  One more time and I’ll have you arrested for obstruction of justice!” he roared.

“I’ll be back,” I told my friends, not overly confident of my assertion.

I climbed out of the car, adhering to the officer’s command and followed him over to his squad car.  My mind juggled thousands of thoughts in an effort to make sense of the situation, but to no avail.  I was a bit frazzled, but anger seemed to predominate any discernable emotions.

“What is the problem officer?” I asked again, this time with the absence of my previous humor and a clear sense of frustration.

“Do you know how fast you were going?” he asked sternly.

“45,” I replied irritated he implied I drove any faster.  Clearly, my response was not the desired one, for he erupted again, this time more livid than before.

“You were not going 45, do you know how fast you were going?” he shouted repeating his previous question.

“45,” I replied.

“You were not going ‘45,’ ‘45’ is the speed limit! Do you think I would pull you over for no reason?  I would not pull you over for no reason!”

Though his outbursts were rhetorical in nature, I almost felt the need to respond and notify him that, in fact, he did pull me over for no reason.  I restrained myself, however, knowing such was not the time, nor the place for my commentary.

“Have you ever been shot before?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Have you ever been stabbed with a straight-edged blade,” he asked while gesturing at my abdomen.

“No, I can’t say that I have.”

“I haven’t either and I don’t want to experience that!  Every time I pull someone over I run that risk, so I would not pull you over for no reason!”

He roared sentence after sentence of his superfluous soliloquy, elevating his tone, repeatedly, as though the increased volume better conveyed the significance of his speech.  In that regard his assumption failed, and his raised voice and incensed yelling only allowed for the periodic spraying of my face with his saliva, rinsing away all dignity I sought to retain as each drop splashed onto the concrete.  It was around this time that his words became mere muddled sounds and my anger kindled.

“Officer, officer,” I said beckoning, for his attention. “You do not have to yell at me, I am not hard of hearing,” I continued.  It was then he yelled his response, “Yes I am going to yell at you!”

“When you speed you put innocent lives in danger, you could kill or maim some child, and it’s my job to protect them,” he screamed, continuing his rant.  He then administered a sobriety test, yelling when deeming it necessary.  When the test concluded and unequivocally determined I was sober, he asked me where I kept my vehicle registration.

“In my car,” I replied, and pointed in the direction of my car.  His eyes crawled down my extended index finger, following it in the direction of my car.  For a moment, he paused, as if some startling revelation troubled him beyond words.  I turned to observe what arrested his attention.   I chuckled as I became cognizant of what apprehended it.  His eyes were fixated on the “got Jesus?” emblem on my license plate, which the glare from his headlights made perfectly visible even from our considerable distance from my car.  Clearly disoriented, the officer’s demeanor vacillated between staggering shock and burgeoning befuddlement.  He quickly gathered his composure as he sought to explain I drove faster than he cared for (never indicating a particular speed) and told me, “In the future you should pay closer attention to the speed limit, I don’t mind you going 5 miles over the speed limit, but after that, you are driving too fast.”  He then walked me over to my car and notified me he would excuse my “excessive” speed that morning, “…And let you go this time…” Waving to each of my three friends and then to myself, he wished us a “Merry Christmas,” and sent us on our way.  I suppose on that night, I had yet another reason to thank God for Jesus.

Unfortunately, my experience with racial profiling did not end with a trip to the White House.

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