I was 18 years old when I had my first real encounter with the police.
Driving with my mom in the passenger seat and my baby sister in the back, the police officer’s cruiser was facing north as I was driving west down Dempster Street in Skokie, Illinois. The moment we passed him, my mom knew that he was going to pull me over.
“I bet he saw that I don’t have my front license plate,” my mom said. “That’s exactly why he’s pulling you over.”
For weeks, I repeatedly told my mom that she needed to get one of my uncles to install her license plate to the front of her car so this problem could be avoided, but it always seemed to drift to the back of her mind.
So when I signaled to pull over after seeing those flashing red and blue lights in my rear view mirror, I immediately copped an attitude, which in retrospect, was a very bad idea.
“Hello Officer,” I said ever so coyly.
“License and registration please,” the white male officer said without hesitation. “Young lady, do you know why I pulled you over?” the officer asked.
At this point, my blood began to boil because in my heart of hearts, I was convinced that he really didn’t have sh*t else to do but pull over a car full of black women on a summer day. Immediately, I felt threatened and did what I deemed best – put my guard up on the defense.
“You pulled me over because the front license plate is missing,” I said, ‘tude already on a thousand trillion. “But if it’s really that serious, I can pull it out of the trunk and put it in the mirror.”
I hadn’t realized that I had turned up so quickly, but the cop sensed my attitude immediately and didn’t take to kind to it. I clinched the steering wheel at 10 and 2, but that didn’t prevent my eyes or next from rolling simultaneously with disgust.
“I actually pulled you over for failing to signal, but if you don’t watch your tone, I’ll have to put you under arrest!” he barked at me. It was clear that he and I were NOT getting along.
As the cop walked away to run my license, my mom slapped my arm so hard that I didn’t even bother to flinch because I was so tight.
“Girl, if you don’t stop talking back to that officer!” I could tell that she was not only angry with me, but really surprised and disappointed as to how I was talking back to authority during this routine traffic stop.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I was taught to respect the police, for they were friends of the community who had taken an oath the protect and serve. They visited our schools, patrolled our streets and even stopped by our local parks for a game of pickup basketball. But as I got older and saw countless images of family members, friends and other black people handcuffed in the back of squad cars or treated unfairly by the police, that “friendly and helpful” facade began to fade.
It’s not that I don’t trust the intentions of law enforcement – I know that they are positioned to protect and serve. But I’m unclear as to why they’re always targeting us specifically.
After discovering that my record was clean, the officer returned with my license and registration. “I’m going to let you off with a warning,” he said. “But you really need to work on your attitude.”
Never in my life had I had felt so humiliated, so threatened and helpless all at the same time. In my 18-year-old mind, I had done nothing wrong, but I knew that this encounter would change my perspective on the police for the rest of my life.
Almost ten years later, I look back on that situation and think that in the present day and under different circumstances, I may not have gotten off so easily.
Like me, Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal as she switched lanes in Waller County, Texas just one year ago.
Like me, she knew that she was indeed operating her vehicle lawfully.
Like me, she asked (with what I like to call purposeful curiosity) why she was pulled over.
But unlike me, she was alone, which unfortunately resulted in her being violently snatched out of her car and man-handled by two policemen. She was then arrested but three days later and died in police custody – leaving the world with so many questions as to why police brutality against African Americans has become our society’s commonplace.
To be a black man or woman in this country means to be faced with challenges on a daily basis. From the right to attend predominantly white institutions to getting adequate funding for our brilliant business ideas, we as a people have to constantly jump over hurdle after hurdle to prove that WE ARE ENOUGH. Just because our complexions come in beautiful shades of brown, does not make us less educated, qualified or intelligent. Through her own platform, #SandySpeaks, she shared daily positivity with her followers about the power of using your voice. Sandra knew her rights, and because she was a THREAT to the two policemen who treated her so unjustly, it cost her her life.
These last few days have been a lot to bear emotionally and mentally. I’ve felt a cycle of numbness, heartbreak, helplessness, anger and sadness. But in these instances, it always causes me to reflect. I’ve checked up on loved ones (especially the black men closest to me) and wondered where do we go from here as a nation and as a community.
But even with the current state of race relations in our country, I still remain hopeful. I’m proud AF of my blackness and will never allow anyone’s ignorance to make me think that I don’t belong here. If there’s anything from the tragic loss of black lives like Sandra, Alton, Philando, Trayvon, Michael, Laquan, Rekeia and so many others, it’s that we can no longer be silent about the value of our lives in this country.
Yes, the work will be difficult, tiring and push us beyond our limits, but it’s absolutely necessary. We must lift our voices together, stay alert, support each other and demand justice – not just right now, but for the sake of our future sons and daughters. Change will come gradually, but not if we don’t use the tools and resources at our disposal and our unique voices to challenge the broken system.
We must continue to say the names of the dozens of black lives lost to police brutality, and never forget the lives that they lived.
#BlackLivesMatter – they always have, and they always will.