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."
"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.
"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.