Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"To Serve and Protect"... and Profile

I've mentioned before that I drove to Maryland on business about three weeks, ago. The way it worked out, I decided to drive from Tallahassee to Georgia, take care of some medical issues over the course of a week, then continue to Maryland.

I drove to Maryland on a Wednesday, worked on Thursday, then drove back to Georgia on Friday.

In yesterday's post, I mentioned having been pulled over by the Carolina police, while I was on my way back to Georgia. Although I'd fallen behind schedule, I did a pretty good job of sticking with my "no speeding" policy.* Sadly, that didn't stop an officer on I-85 from pulling up behind me, then on left, then behind me, then on my right, then behind me, for about five or ten miles, then flashing his lights and pulling me over.

My offense? The little lights that illuminate the license plate weren't lit. Of course, the sun was still up, so I'm sure he had no problem reading my tag. It was just a convenient excuse to pull me over, since my headlights were on but the tag lights weren't. My tail lights were fine, by the way.

Anyway, he pulls me over, walks up to my vehicle, and sticks his head in the passenger side window asking me about where I'm from and where I'm going. He asks where I work, suggesting that I work on or with computers, since I had two laptops in the front seat. Then, of course, I felt the need to justify my presence on the highway and explain why I own so many computers... because, by then, I already felt like a criminal, despite having done nothing illegal.

The vehicle registration had been held up but I presented my license and proof of insurance, so he seemed satisfied that the vehicle wasn't stolen or whatever.

He then asked if I'd step out of the vehicle and follow him to the back. As I did, I noticed there were two or three additional police vehicles lined up behind me. He showed me that my tag lights weren't on and then handed me a written warning which required no action on my part.

I thought that was the end of it and I could continue on my journey, but then he said, "Well, unfortunately, you're on a route that's known for transporting drugs between D.C. and Atlanta. We would like your permission to search your vehicle."

Now, this is a request, which suggests that I am free to decline. However, there are a bunch of people around me with badges, guns, and the authority to make my life very inconvenient, so, from my perspective, it was a request, punctuated with a threat. So, I consented.

If I had it to do over, again, I would have declined, because that decision affected my travel time and my health. Instead, I submitted to the request to search my vehicle and my person, raising my arms and being pat-down in front of scores of drivers - a Black man looking like a suspect from the tv show, COPS. After all, I figured, I was in South Carolina so I probably wouldn't have THAT much further to drive.

"Do you have any weapons in the vehicle?"

"Any illegal drugs or large amounts of cash?"
"I'm about the squarest guy you could've pulled over. I've got a ton of Benadryl in there, a buck in my pocket, and a buck in my wallet. So, no."**

As the sun set, I stood outside of my vehicle next to I-85, wearing a tank top and sporting a wicked cough that was getting worse, by the second. The winds and cooling temperatures made my existing cough so bad that ever time I tried to speak, I coughed about a dozen or so times.

The Black cop they assigned to stand by me while they searched every nook and cranny of my vehicle, luggage, and other possessions, asked me about my life - where I lived, where I worked, my allergies, etc. I don't know if he was trying to be kind or milk me for information, but, against the darkening sky and bright headlights of the police cruisers, his grinning silhouette was like something out of a minstrel act. His questions were friendly in a situation where I felt I had no friends. It's like he was somehow meant to be relatable but came off as somewhat offensive.

Reacting to my horrible coughing fits, the Black cop asked if I wanted to have a seat. Thinking he was talking about my vehicle, I declined, saying that I didn't want to impede or appear to be trying to impede progress. I wanted to do whatever would make this situation come to an end as quickly as possible.

After more questions from the officer and more coughing from me, he asked, again. "Are you sure you don't want to have a seat?"

"Well, I might have to take you up on that offer, this time," I said. After all, that cough wasn't getting any better out there on that cool, windy interstate.

I looked at the officer, though, and noticed that he'd turned toward his cruiser. "Oh, you're talking about getting in the back of the police car," I asked with a frown on my face. "No thanks."

That pissed me off because it was like an invitation from the spider to the fly. Hell, they pulled me over acting like my light problem was something substantive, when really it wasn't.*** They just wanted to get me in their clutches. He acted like he was just showing me the unilluminated area, when he was really preparing to search my vehicle. Who knows what would've happened once I was in the back of the police car.

And, besides all that, I'll be damned if I wanted to be made to feel any more like a criminal by being seated in the part of the police car you can't open the doors from the inside. I've been in that situation, before, when someone was searching the truck I owned during my freshmen year in college. They weren't in any rush to let me back out, even when it'd been established that I hadn't stolen that vehicle, either!

Finally, they finished and, trying to view this as one of the inconveniences that law-abiding citizens have to suffer, sometimes, in order to keep us all safe, I responded with humor. "Pretty boring, huh?"

"Nah. It's kinda interesting seeing stuff from people's lives."

Maybe he meant nothing by it, but something about that answer combined with the lack of contrition on his part that left a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe this is how they get through an unpleasant job, but it felt like a violation of my privacy. The fact that they found nothing wrong and didn't bother to apologize for the inconvenience didn't help.

I called my loved-ones to let them know that and why I'd be even later, then I pulled back onto what was now a very dark road. I'd guess that the whole episode took about an hour.

Not long after that, I realized that I wasn't in South Carolina, yet. I hadn't made it out of North Carolina and, ultimately, I wouldn't make it home until about 1am, the next morning.

After the shitty directions I got for leaving Maryland, getting lost and taking forever to find my way back, then getting pulled over by these "servers and protectors" and continuing on my journey, I spent about 20 hours on the road.

When I finally got to my parents' exit, in Georgia, I stopped at a local Wal-Mart for some drugs because what I thought were allergy symptoms were really the effects of a "bug" I caught from the people at the Maryland office, during a training I never wanted to go to. I only agreed because of a combination of pressure from management plus the potential to make it work out in my favor - the opportunity to gain access to more in-network medical providers, for instance.

I spent the next week sick as a dog with a temperature that got as high as 102.x. After the first couple of days, I saw a doctor who said that I probably caught it from my Maryland co-workers and then exascerbated the sickness and symptoms by standing on the side of the freeway while my vehicle was searched.


I welcome your questions, comments, and criticism.

* - It's both a safety concern and a financial one. Damned if I'm trying to give up two or three hundred dollars to my local county or PODUNK County, USA.
** - It was true. I only had about $15 on me when I went through the toll area I'd been told about by the co-workers who gave me directions to avoid D.C. traffic on my way out of Maryland. They failed to mention, though, that the toll was at least twelve dollars.
*** - Of course, this is assuming that one of the cops didn't unscrew the lights, himself.


Anonymous said...

As much as the "Black Adam" in me wants to say you should have told them to take a flying leap with that search, I know that you and I don't have the power of "Aten", so faced with being surrounded by enemies with guns, you did the right thing...

Angie said...

West I'm sorry about the whole damn thing. See what I mean about the racial thing. That was clearly profiling. How many times can you go through that kind of thing before you are suspicious of all white people (and those brown people that are trying to fit in with them - the Black policeman.)?

I'm glad you walked away unscathed. (If we don't count near pneumonia.)

Thanks for putting me on blast yesterday. ; )

Anonymous said...

...my mouth is too slick...
I would have let them search but I know that somewhere in the course of that hour...I'dda said something that would have pissed someone off. I'm good for a couple of "what-the-fuck-eva dude"...

...however, I've been pulled over 5 times for either driving drunk, speeding or running a light... but got away with just warnings... something about a 36C that makes dudes in uniforms a little more agreeable.

hope your feeling better West...


West said...

Thanks, DJBA.

You're welcome, Angie.

Blah, that's the scary on so many levels. Thanks for the well-wishes!

Liz Dwyer said...

I've been down and out with the flu this week and so I haven't been by to visit you. Oh, this makes me boiling mad. And, there's nothing you could have done about it. If you complained or protested, you end up in the back seat of the squad car, if you're lucky. If you're not so lucky, you end up with a billy club upside your head or a bullet in your backside. I'm so sorry this happened to you. You will hopefully be physically healed in a couple of weeks, but surely the mental wounds from such immoral and unjust treatment are grievous and slow-healing.