Traffic Stops Are Tricky for a Black Man
by Christopher C. Thompson | 16 April 2021 |
“To be a Negro in this country, and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time.” —James Baldwin
On Thanksgiving Day 2019, I spent the majority of the day on the road. I left home fairly early with my wife, my son, and my nephew. We got on the road and drove eight hours to my hometown, Beaufort, South Carolina. We were in town for a funeral scheduled for the next day. I drove my nephew to his father’s house and we sat down for a late Thanksgiving meal. After we ate, we talked for a few minutes, but then determined to take the fifteen-minute drive across town to my mom’s house where we’d sleep for the night and get ready for the emotionally taxing day to follow on Friday.
On our way home we saw the sight that every Black man in America constantly fears: police lights in your rearview mirror. There’s a wave of unsettling emotions that happen to every Black man (and every Black or Latino person in general) when those blue lights start flashing. There’s a deep-rooted fear that this will not work out in our favor. Let me first say this: I’ve received warnings before, and once or twice when I had committed multiple infractions. Nevertheless, those experiences are the exception, not the rule. And on Thanksgiving night in 2019, I was not about to have a positive experience.
Officer Wampler approached the vehicle and said that I had failed to signal a lane change. But it was all the other questions that were becoming annoying and frustrating. Where are you coming from? Where are you going? He was asking question after question, but then he started repeating the questions. And now this is becoming very frustrating. But it’s the additional question that he threw in. Have you had anything to drink? Now I wish I could say that I’ve never taken a drink, but that’s not the case. Nevertheless, I haven’t tasted alcohol in easily twenty years.
“No. I haven’t had anything to drink.”
“Has anyone in the car had anything to drink?”
The only people in the car are my wife, my son and I. The two of them have never even tasted alcohol.
“No sir. No one here has been drinking.”
He went back to his car, and so I held both of my hands outside of the car window so he could see I had nothing to hide. I’m afraid because it’s obvious that he’s making this into much more than it needs to be. Finally, he came back to the car and said that he smelled alcohol coming from the car, and so I needed to step out of the car. He then proceeded to conduct a full pat down and weapons check and a field sobriety test; which I obviously passed…because…I had nothing to drink.
I was angry beyond words. I had tried my best to keep my cool and chill because with the dishonesty of this officer, I was very much mindful that this stop could’ve ended much differently. I was simply trying to answer in a way that would ensure my family and I made it to my mom’s house safely.
I filed a report. Some time later, another law enforcement official called me as a part of an investigation that stemmed from my complaint. A few weeks later I received a letter via email that the investigation was “inconclusive.” I wasn’t surprised. But I was still upset that my holiday evening could be so easily disrupted with impunity. I was upset that this man could wrongfully accuse me of drinking and driving, and there be no recourse and no consequences. But thank God, I made it home. My family made it home safe.
Not everyone makes it home
Indeed, the police were seeking to serve a warrant. However, if you have a misdemeanor and you’re unarmed, your traffic stop shouldn’t result in a death sentence. It’s unconscionable that a 26-year police veteran doesn’t know the difference between her gun and her taser. Worse yet, having been trained in high-stress, life or death scenarios, it’s shameful and unforgivable when the professionals that have been selected to manage those situations are still ill-equipped to navigate them when the need arises.
Let’s also be very clear here that context matters. This is Minneapolis, Minnesota. The very city that made us think deeply about police violence again just under one year ago. This is the very city where George Floyd’s life was taken by Derek Chauvin. In fact, the site where Amy Porter murdered Daunte Wright is a little more than a twenty-minute drive from the spot where Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.
The entire country, possibly the entire world, is intently watching the trial of Derek Chauvin. We are all waiting, hoping that justice will be served. We can’t grieve. We can’t celebrate justice. We have to start the process all over again. This time for Daunte Wright. Unarmed Black men should not die from police encounters. Black men should not die for passing counterfeit $20 bills. Black men should not die for trying to evade arrest. This is why Black people fear police. Police have never worked for us. The police work on us and against us. For a Black man, your day can shift dramatically when you see those blue lights in your rearview mirror.
Years ago, just days before the second Obama inauguration, I drove my wife to meet her mom. They were driving from Texas. We were driving from Ohio. We were to meet at the halfway point. When we met up with them, it was late. I figured I’d drive to my sister’s house to sleep for the night because it happened to be about 45 minutes away. These are dark stretches of highway in rural Tennessee.
Here are the facts. There was a car behind me for a considerable amount of time. This car was driving erratically and threatening. Pulling up close. Then pulling up beside. Slowing down. Pulling up really close. Slowing down. Weird stuff. I was very afraid. It was too dark to tell that it was a police car. In the midst of the threatening behavior, I attempted to pass a truck so as to not be trapped between the truck and this crazy driver. That’s when he hit the lights. Now I know for sure that this guy is a KKK member who was just baiting me all along. I was pursuing doctoral studies at the time, which is why I couldn’t attend the inauguration. I had intensives the following week. I needed to be in class. But on this particular night, I didn’t look like a pastor with doctoral training. I was a young Black man, wearing a black hoodie, and a black hat, driving a rental car. You can guess what I looked like.
When he hit the lights, I thought to myself, “There is no way I’m letting this crazy KKK cop pull me over on this dark highway. My family will never hear from me again. Let me find a well-lit area.” Thank God there was an exit just ahead. I put on my hazard lights and drove really slowly. I should have turned right for the gas station on the right. I opted for the one on the left. It was really bright there. Just as I reached the gas station, the police officer busted this Dukes of Hazzard maneuver to box me in, jumped out of his car with his hand on his gun, dragged me out of the car, put the cuffs on, put me in the back of his car and proceeded to search my vehicle.
When all he found were theology textbooks, a Bible, and a few copies of the book I had recently published, he apologized profusely, took off the cuffs and tried to explain. Apparently, driving really slowly with your hazards on means you have something to hide, but for us, we’re actually just trying to survive. I was terribly rattled, but not really harmed.
Caron Nazario was harmed
He’s a ranking officer in the U.S. Army, and he was in uniform. He was simply trying to reach a well-lit area because he feared what could happen to him if he pulled over in the dark. They pepper-sprayed a ranking officer in uniform, while he had both hands outside of the car window. They dragged him out of his car and forced him to the ground. After they realized that they made a mistake, the apology and explanation ensued.
The question is, why don’t they make rash decisions to harm mass shooters? Why are the Dylan Roofs, Kyle Rittenhouses, and Robert Aaron Longs of the world safely apprehended, but if you pass a counterfeit $20, you can end up dead? You could kill numerous people as a white man, and they’ll pull into the drive-through, and buy you a burger. But if you have a misdemeanor warrant as a Black man, you could die on the spot. You could shoot unarmed protestors and the police will wave as you walk by as a white man, but as a Black man, you could get pepper-sprayed just because the police can’t see the temporary tags on your brand-new SUV.
In his book Negrophobia, law professor Jody David Armour explores the “Black Tax” and various elements of stereotypes that are at play when police engage with Black people (and then subsequently enter them into the criminal justice system). Malcolm Gladwell explores this issue albeit from a less formal perspective in Talking to Strangers. In her book Untamed, Glennon Doyle tells the story of how her father (in a watershed moment during a community meeting) expressed that racism is a network of lies that they have been told and that they learned to believe. Doyle contends that racism is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, and that we will not overcome it until we recognize that the air is toxic.
Action against racism
She closes that chapter with a call to action:
Hidden racism is destroying and ending lives…The fact that the programmed poison of racism was pumped into us may not be our fault, but getting it out…is our responsibility.
Solomon said there’s “a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:7-8). Racist structures have existed in this country ever since the colonizers started displacing the natives. When will it be time to start tearing those down and mending relationships? The church has been mostly silent on these issues for an awfully long time. When will it be time to speak up and speak out loudly against injustice? We’ve seen many years of war. When do we get to the peace? We’ve seen the hate. When do we get to the love?
I’m terribly afraid that there aren’t enough antiracists in Adventism. We have an excess of people who believe that racism exists. They just don’t believe it exists inside of them. They believe that racism should end. They just won’t lift a finger to fight against it.
It appears that this is always somebody else’s problem. Not ours.
I‘m even more afraid that the next time I’m stopped by the police that it’ll be my problem—again.
What if I’m not so lucky next time? Because when you’re a Black man, traffic stops are tricky.
Christopher C. Thompson writes about culture and communication at thinkinwrite.com. He’s the author of several books and an adjunct professor at Oakwood University in Alabama. When not writing, he’s jogging or binge-watching Designated Survivor. He’s married to Tracy, who teaches at Oakwood University.