instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

BLOG

WHY DEFUND THE POLICE (Story #3)

Sandra Bland at 28

 

In 1968, when I was twenty-eight years old, I suddenly heard a siren blare behind me. On my country road in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, it was a strange sound. Glancing in the rear view mirror, I saw a police car flashing red lights. Never imagining it had anything to do with me—a white, mostly law-abiding woman—I sped up. So did the screaming vehicle behind me. I continued to speed, trying to get out of its way.

 

Finally the patrol car drew parallel and then careened before me at an angle, forcing me to put my foot on the brake, hard. A cop strode to my window, looking grim. "License and registration please."

 

"What's the matter?"

 

"Your tail light is out. I wanted to tell you. But you started speeding," he sputtered.

 

"Okay, just a minute." I fumbled in my purse and tore through the glove compartment, trying to ignore my three-year old daughter in the seat beside me, whimpering, "Ma, why did we stop?"

 

I handed over the crumpled documents.

 

"This license is expired."

 

"Really?"

 

"And it's from New York. Where do you live?"

 

"We moved here last year."

 

"When you move you have to get a new license, from this state. And your old one is expired, anyway."

 

"Okay, I'll take care of it soon. I didn't know."

 

"Ma'am, I can't let you drive without a license."

 

"Well, I do have a license. You have it in your hand." I tried to be reasonable.

 

"It's not a valid license. You can't drive without one. You'll have to leave your car here."

 

"How will I get home? I could hitchhike, but we have three bags of groceries." I gestured behind me. "I don't want to leave them here."

 

"Where do you live?"

 

"Up at the top of the hill." I pointed. "Our house is at the end of the road. The last one. It's about three miles. Maybe four. It's too far for me to walk with my daughter…" who was loudly crying, "and three bags of groceries."

 

"Come on, get out. I'll drive you home. Then someone with a valid license will have to come get the car. And your husband, are you married…?" I nodded. "…can drive you to DMV for the test."

 

"The test? I already have a license from New York. It can't be harder to drive here," I argued.

 

"The test," he repeated, red-faced.

 

"Thanks."

 

"And get that tail light fixed, too. It's dangerous not to have it at night."

 

The white cop proceeded to silently drive my daughter, my groceries, and me up our bumpy dirt road and drop us off. He gave me no ticket for the tail light violation, driving with an expired license, or speeding when he chased me. What a kind man, I thought, never considering how differently the incident might have played out had I been a woman of color. Even though I was married to a Black man and we had biracial children, I didn't yet understand systemic racism. I thought racism only meant bigoted white people screaming ugly profanities and barring schoolhouse doors.

 

But in the last fifty years I've learned a lot. Literature has helped. In 1978 Audre Lorde published "Power," her poem about New York City undercover cop Thomas Shea's execution of 10-year-old Clifford Glover. Officer Shea and his partner, both in street clothes, stopped Clifford and his father, who, believing they were being robbed, ran. So Shea shot them. At his murder trial, when he said, "I didn't see the size or nothing else, only the color," my education progressed. After Shea's acquittal I joined demonstrations ("riots," the press called them) and from then on was alert to the startling police brutality toward people of color.

 

On July 10, 2015, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was stopped in Waller County, Texas for changing lanes without using a turn signal. The State Trooper had been closely following—trying to catch her up in some small driving error--and she assumed he was speeding to an emergency so tried to hurry out of his way. But he pulled her over, yanked her from her car, slammed her to the ground, handcuffed her face down, and threw her into a jail cell where three days later she died.

 

When I read of her tragic ordeal I became painfully aware of my own past traffic stop and the starkly different outcomes. Had I been a Black woman when that white cop stopped me in West Tisbury at exactly Sandra Bland's age, perhaps he wouldn't have been so kind. Maybe he would have pulled me from my car and hurled me to the ground the way Brian Encinia flung Sandra Bland. Maybe he would have arrested me for multiple violations. Perhaps he would have taken my three-year-old daughter to Family Protective Services. After all, her mother would have been a reckless criminal, unfit to raise a child. Instead I was treated in a caring, humane manner. As all human beings should be, especially when we make mistakes.

 

Over these years since my own traffic stop I have watched hundreds of attempts, by many well-meaning city councils, at police reform. For a long time I believed the civilian review boards they created would make a significant difference. Now police people would have outside oversight. Surely they would no longer be able to act violently with impunity.

 

Yet police unions, with their successful insistence on qualified immunity, have sabotaged all efforts at reform. The racism that originated policing—to catch "runaway" human beings held in bondage—has been too deeply baked into the system to shake.

 

It's past time to abolish these militarized entities and start anew, with public response teams that focus on safety. Once they're created for that purpose, all our inhabitants will be able to utilize their services. In order to realize that vision, I have to echo the demand: Defund Police.  It's past time we imagined new forms of public safety in a world that works for everyone.

 

Be the first to comment

WHY DEFUND THE POLICE (Story #2)

Audre Lorde

 

In 1978 I discovered Audre Lorde through her startling poem "Power" in the Village Voice. I taped it inside my desk drawer, where my eyes lingered on it daily. It felt like a gut punch, but I couldn't stop reading it. Read More 

1 Comments
Post a comment

WHY DEFUND THE POLICE? (A STORY)

Photo: Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune

On my drive into Berkeley's Tilden Park recently, I saw a white man of about sixty—twenty years my junior—standing by a black car. I paused to see if he needed help. He made a small hand gesture, which I took as a "go on" wave so I continued. But fifty feet later, troubled, I decided the gesture had been ambiguous. Brought up by parents who always stopped for strangers, I flashed my blinkers and reversed.

 

Rolling down my window, I asked, "Are you okay?" Read More 

Be the first to comment

ADVICE TO ASPIRING WRITERS

So many people yearn for the inspired self-expression that writing provides. If putting pen to paper is the creative mode that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning, bursting with ideas,  Read More 

1 Comments
Post a comment

The First Sentence

“The opening sentence should be like an arrow shot from a bow: it will shoot through the entire text.” The late biographer Henry Mayer, a generous man, once gave me this advice. I’d approached him after a reading for his biography of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and when I asked him a question he offered to meet me for coffee.
 Read More 

2 Comments
Post a comment

Writing Feeds My Soul

Writing, for me, is pure: totally involving, pleasurable, existing only for itself, not the end product. In the same way I cherish hiking a trail in the woods early morning, eager to see cottontail rabbits leaping into the brush, or the joy I get pulling weeds in my flower garden--where the aromas of leaves and fresh dirt fill my nostrils--writing is an activity that fully absorbs me. When I finish, I'm flushed with pleasure. Read More 

3 Comments
Post a comment

HOW MANY TIMES DO YOU NEED TO REVISE YOUR MANUSCRIPT?

She's revising!

I am the queen of revision. Every one of the five books I've published has taken years. I write, revise, and revise some more. Whenever I finish a draft I think, "That's it!" But alas,  Read More 

4 Comments
Post a comment

WHAT DID YOU SEE IN THE DEMOCRATIC DEBATE?

How can we ever know that what we think we saw is what really happened? I've been fascinated by this question ever since I saw Rashomon: a film where four witnesses describe a murder, but each tells a conflicting version. Maybe one or more are lying, or maybe they simply saw divergent—competing—"truth" because of their different perspectives.

 

This came to mind when I saw today's shocking New York Times page one headline about yesterday's Read More 

4 Comments
Post a comment

The Courage to Write

Millicent Fawcett, British writer and major activist for women's suffrage

“It is always a thrilling risk to say exactly what you mean, to express exactly what you see,” wrote the marvelous author Patricia Hampl. Each sentence we write boldly asserts, This is my viewpoint and I believe it worthy of utterance.

That takes courage, especially for women constantly defined as “other,” with its implication  Read More 

4 Comments
Post a comment

HAMILTON, Its Power--and Its Blind Spot

In front of the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco

I'm a Motown baby. I loved the musical Ain't Too Proud about the Temptations. The familiar beat, the Detroit community where they grew up— it all inspired me. A group of teenagers teamed with a dynamo producer, Berry Gordy, mined the music of African American life and circulated it all over the country. I never thought I could like another kind of show more. Read More 

9 Comments
Post a comment