A few days ago, I was stopped by the Chicago police, while black, I mean while driving down the street. Their behavior during a routine traffic stop was so rude and disrespectful that it was quite traumatizing. Here is my story which I believe highlights at least three major problems within our society today. On this particular morning, I purchased a new (used) car and before leaving the DMV I attempted to put my new license plates on the car, rear and front. However, the screws I brought with me were fine for the front plates but the screws didn’t fit the rear plate holes so I could not attach the rear license plate. Hence, being the good citizen that I am, and having heard terrible rumors about the conduct of police during traffic stops, I put my rear license plate in the front window for all to see. (As there was no means to put it in the rear window of the minivan.) I put my front sticker in the front window and I was totally legal, or so I thought.
Well, on my way home, I had to detour to pick up my daughter Eva, (an honorary MTS food tester). As I passed the police station at 71st & Cottage Grove, a cop car just pulling out of the station turned on their flashing lights for me to stop. I pull over to park just across from the police station. The two policemen park behind me, get out of their car and immediately draw their guns. I am alone in my car. When I saw them draw their weapons I had a flashback to Sandra Bland. So I froze and sat very still in the car. One cop approached me on the passenger side and went to the front of the car and looked to see if I had a front plate and sticker. His gun was in his hand but pointed towards the ground. The other cop however, approached me on my driver’s side, with his gun in hand, pointed upward. Then he stood behind my door so I would have to turn around to talk to him. Before I could say anything, he said in a very nasty condescending voice; “you know why we stopped you right?” I turn to try to look at him standing behind my door, but all I can see is his gun. I picked up my license plate sitting in the front window and responded, “Yes you didn’t see my rear license plate. It’s here.” He replies, again in a very nasty aggressive tone, “well it’s not doing you any good up there.” I begin to explain to him that I had just left the DMV and the screws didn’t fit, so I placed the plate in the window. He ignores my response and asks for my license, insurance and registration. I then ask him if I can show him my receipt from the DMV with the date and time stamp. As he fidgets with his gun, he replies; “I don’t care. You can if you want to.” Meanwhile, the other cop is still standing in front of my car with his gun in hand. And it was at that moment that I remembered my life was probably in great danger with these two and so I decided it was best for me to comply by giving him my license and registration. Now it was just by coincidence that I had placed the registration and insurance in a storage bin on top of the dashboard. By putting it on top of the dashboard I would avoid having to reach for it in the low glove compartment. And thus avoid another accidental shooting by a nervous cop. (This lifesaving strategy I learned from a woman on Facebook who had recently been stopped by the police.) I then explained to the cop that my documents were in the compartment on top of the dashboard and that I was going to reach for them. He did not respond. I gave him the documents and he returned to his car to check my identity. The other cop remained on guard in front of my car. When the cop returned from his car, he did not have his gun drawn. However, the other policeman was still standing watch with his gun in hand. As he returned my documents, he said: “you need to get that plate taken care of.” Then he signaled the other cop and they left without apology or any expression of common courtesy, or human decency.
For me this incident highlights several serious problems within our society.
First, the issue here is not whether or not the cops should have stopped me. I acknowledge that they had the right to stop me because the law requires front and rear license plates. However, in a democracy where the police work to serve and protect the people, the cop should have begun the conversation with; “Hello ma’am my name is Officer Jones and I am stopping you today because your rear license plate is missing.” I should not have to guess why I am being stopped by the police. In reality someone could have stolen my rear plate and I didn’t know it was missing. Sandra Bland was allegedly stopped because her rear turning signal wasn’t on during a turn. How many people regularly check their signal lights to see if they are working, or even check their plates or stickers?? It’s not always a criminal act that precipitates the occurrence of these types of events. To assume that I was a criminal was unsupported by anything I did. As soon as they flashed their lights, I pulled over out of traffic. When I stopped my car, I didn’t move. This incident makes me wonder if it was only the color of my skin that caused them to assume I was a criminal who warranted threatening me with a loaded gun to control my behavior. An older woman driving a minivan is not the typical criminal. So, why were they so rude and disrespectful? And, why did they feel the need to draw their weapons? Today, statistics will support the fact that in most traffic stops, it’s the citizen who ends up dead or injured, not the cop, particularly if you are black or brown!
Secondly, under martial law or a state of emergency it is typical to suspend the civil rights and/or basic freedoms guaranteed under the constitution. Although we have been begging our leaders to declare a state of emergency in our urban communities to thwart the violence, it hasn’t happened. Therefore, the only historic period I can remember when law officers were able to jump off their horses with guns drawn was back during the Wild, Wild West days. It was during this period that a law officer often acted as judge and jury, deciding guilt or innocence right there in the dusty streets of town. I felt like these officers just assumed I was a criminal and that’s how they treated me: like a criminal. The aggressive actions of these officers were unwarranted and only served to escalate an already tense situation. Approaching a person with a loaded gun pointed at them is a very traumatic experience and will typically not foster a positive reaction or response. Their actions pissed me off. I felt disrespected and I felt like a criminal. The feeling is similar to being a victim of domestic violence. Victims of domestic violence feel they have no control over the situation, and there is no way to get control, except through temporary submission. And just like in domestic violence situations, attempting to walk away from the perpetrator could cause you greater harm, or in this instance could have gotten me killed. What if the gun misfired or an accidental shooting occurred. I would be the one dead or maimed, because the gun was pointed at me. Police officers should be required to have some good cause for pulling their weapons and using excessive aggression during a simple traffic stop. After all we were across from the POLICE STATION, which was not the best place for me to start a shootout with cops.
And, finally, where is our humanity and compassion for human life. After sharing this incident with my mother she made an interesting observation. She said when soldiers return from battle they often suffer PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, because they are deeply traumatized by the taking of another human life. But police officers today, who are not on the battlefield, seem anxious to take human life and seem to suffer no traumatic stress from their actions. After the recent shooting of Paul O’Neal by Chicago police, body camera’s show the cops giving each other high five’s, as a dead human being lay at their feet. On another occasion, cops handcuffed a dead and dying victim, showing no remorse or compassion for the senseless killing of human life. How many apologies do we receive from cops after these police shootings? Yet, those of us watching these scenes day after day are traumatized. In another police incident, a black woman was disrespected during a traffic stop. Then physically assaulted by the officer for complaining to his supervisor about being disrespected. Where is our humanity? Has the value of human life been reduced to (less than) the value of a traffic ticket? The actions of the police are only escalating the anger and distrust in the black community, while at the same time fueling the racial hatred of whites. When I posted this experience on Facebook, a white person responded to my post by calling me a ‘coon’ and informed me that coons are required to be home before dark and had I not been on the street after dark this incident would not have occurred. However, I was stopped in broad daylight, at 3:00 in the afternoon. Another dear white friend of mine from grammar school scolded me on FB for being too harsh on the police officers because they were just doing their job. He described how he had been stopped one night by two cops for driving recklessly while under the influence. When I asked if the cops pulled their guns on him, he said no, they just gave him a warning and let him go. Now I ask who was the greater danger/threat to society, a drunk driver or a woman in a minivan with her license plate in the wrong place? He still didn’t get it. Clearly some whites and blacks are living in two different worlds. And, if we are to make any type of difference in this battle for human rights, we must begin to dismantle white privilege, or at least get people to acknowledge that the damaging effects of white privilege continue to keep us divided within our society today.