Almost every moment in life has its own power equation.
I was recently pulled over by a cop, between Second and Third Avenue on Bell in Downtown Seattle–the third car in a minute. The cop approached and greeted me with a scratchy, “Good afternoon.” Seriously good afternoon? I handed him my license, nodding, “Hello.” As he looked at my license, I glanced at his chest for a name or badge number.
“I’ll need your registration.”
“May I ask what I did?” My voice intentionally calm.
“You went through a stop sign.”
Did not, I thought but didn’t say it.
“My registration is in the backseat. Can I get it?”
I dug around the backseat with my ass in the air searching the seat pockets until I found it with the owner’s manual for my car.
I was pulled over by a motorcycle cop 18 years ago. I was 37, nine months pregnant, driving a Volvo wagon down Broadway to work at Seattle Central Community College. In my side mirror, I watched the cop dismount his motorcycle and walk to my window, his arms hanging forward like a thuggish bear.
“Do you know what a yellow light means?” He shouted, red faced and sweaty.
“Look and proceed with care if it’s clear.” My big belly was pushed into the steering wheel. I was scared. Another angry asshole with a gun.
“You are to stop if you are not already in the intersection.” He blasted. “Your license and registration.”
I didn’t move for a second. I glanced at his chest. I wanted a badge number or name. My hands trembled as I opened my wallet. He took my paperwork, stepped away, and got on the radio. I wondered why motorcycles are called hogs, and police are called pigs, and pigs are never called cops?
When he returned, he said, “You ran a red light. What do you think I should do?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
“Did you hear me?” Now I was supposed to play the part of his bad child?
“I don’t know what you should do.” I said softly but was thinking give me a fucking ticket, so I can get out of here.
He kept looking at me.
Finally, he said, “I’m letting you go with a verbal warning, this time.” He pushed my license and registration at me.
“Thank you.” I didn’t try to sound grateful, just not provocative.
At work I ran to my office and called the police. The operator said that with no name, license, or badge number, he couldn’t be identified. I ended the conversation with, “Just another angry asshole with a gun. This one in uniform.” That was 1998.
Years later, as I waited for the officer to process all three of us stop-sign offenders, I wasn’t scared. Was it the end-of-the month quotas? I grabbed my notebook and jotted down the license plates, makes, models, and colors of the two cars in front of me–Ford Escape/dark gray/license #, Prius/Black/license #. I turned in my seat to look at the right and left sides of the intersection behind me. Nothing. I watched the intersection for a minute before turning forward again. I continued watching the street in my mirror. In ten minutes three more cars had blown through the intersection.
When the cop came back, I said, “I don’t see the stop sign.” My tone curious, not threatening. I shaved away any snark. He looked to the intersection and pointed overhead.
“Hanging from the wire.”
I still didn’t see it.
“The Department of Transportation called us to enforce the stop. Metros been complaining. It’s dangerous to have people running it.”
“You’ve got a good record. I’m giving you a warning.” He handed me a pink warning slip with my ID.
“Thank you.” I paused, “As I’ve been waiting, I saw three cars run the intersection. Six cars total, in less than 10 minutes.” I offered my data, a small woman in my mid-fifties with messy curly hair.
Just then, another car ran the stop sign. The cop stepped forward and signaled the driver over.
“I think it’s a signage problem.” I offered.
“Possibly. I suggest you call DOT and let them know.”
As I drove off, I looked at the man in the black Prius who was still waiting. He was black. American, African, Fijian, South American, Haitian…? Did he get a warning or a ticket? I wanted to ask him, but instead I nodded as I passed. I didn’t want to provoke the cop. Surely the driver couldn’t ask the questions that I asked or have the conversation I had.
I know white privilege, and have known it well before #blacklivesmatter. Almost every moment in life has its own power equation. Not saying that all cops or (even) most cops are jacked-up on bigotry or anger, but certainly some are. I’m trying to find the Prius driver to ask what happened. I also called the DOT.
Biases, suffering, prejudice, sexism, racism are based in fear and scarcity. I am not a bystander. That’s not who I am.
Photo: Getty Images