In 1968, at 28 years old, I was driving a country road in Massachusetts when I heard a siren blare behind me. Never thinking it could be for me—a white woman who'd never been pulled over—I tuned it out. Suddenly I saw flashing lights but ignored them, too. If anything, I drove slightly faster.
Eventually a blue police car drew parallel and careened in front of me at an angle, forcing me to stop. An angry cop strode to my window. "License and registration please."
"What's the matter?"
"Your tail light is out. I wanted to tell you. But you started speeding. " He looked incredulous.
"Okay, just a minute." I fumbled in my purse and the glove compartment, while trying to answer my three-year old daughter asking , "Why did we stop?" Finally I found the crumpled documents and handed them over.
"This license is expired."
"Really, are you sure?"
"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."
"Oh, I didn't know. I'll take care of it right away. I'm sorry."
"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 don't want to leave them here."
"Where do you live?"
I pointed. "Our house is at the end of the road. About three or four miles. It's too far for me to walk with my daughter…" who was crying now, "and three bags of groceries."
"Come on, get out. I'll drive you home. Then you'll have to have someone come to get the car and your husband, are you married…?" I nodded. "Drive you to DMV for the test."
"And get that tail light fixed, too. It's dangerous not to have it at night."
The white cop drove my daughter, groceries, and me up our bumpy dirt road and dropped us off. He didn't give me a ticket for the broken tail light, the expired license, or speeding. What a kind man, I thought, unaware how differently the incident could have ended for a woman of color.
Even though I was married to an African American man I didn't yet understand systemic racism, or the protection my white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes afforded me. I thought racism simply meant bigoted whites screaming, barring schoolhouse doors, and hosing Black people. I didn't know then that police stops are racial check points and I, with a presumption of innocence even when I was guilty, would always past the test. While soon my visibly African American children would not, even when they were actually innocent.
Since then I've learned a lot.
In July, 2015, 28-year old Sandra Bland was stopped in Waller County, Texas. State Trooper Brian Encinia ticketed her for changing lanes without a turn signal, yanked her from her car, threw her on the ground, and put her in a cell where three days later she died.
Horrified when I read of her death, I remembered my own traffic stop at exactly her age. The contrast was stark, especially when my offenses were so egregious while Bland only changed lanes, quickly, because trooper Encinia had followed so closely she assumed he was speeding to an emergency. She didn't know this trooper's habitual trick: follow a "suspect" until s/he makes a tiny error, issue a minor ticket, and use the stop as an excuse to search the car in hopes of finding something criminal.
Had I been her when that policeman stopped me long ago, he might not have been so kind. Maybe he would have arrested me—viciously--for my violations. He might have taken my three-year-old daughter to Family Protective Services. I could have been viewed as a criminal unfit to raise a child. Instead I was treated in a caring, humane manner, despite my lapses in judgment and knowledge.
Since that day fifty-two years ago, I've seen how racism is so baked into policing that every attempt at reforms I've championed—civilian review commissions, promises by new mayors and governors—fails. The police unions, insisting on immunity for their crimes, are too strong. It's time to abolish these militarized clubs and start anew.
Human ingenuity is so vast. If we allow ourselves to imagine fresh ways of creating public safety--as many activists are doing—we can find significantly better options and be part of a world that works for everyone.