If the Police Don't Kill Me, a Lifetime of Preparing for Them to Just Might

Even perfection might not be enough.
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(Photo: iStockPhoto)

(Photo: iStockPhoto)

Editor's NoteA version of this story first appeared on PSmag.com on August 15, 2015, with the headline "Slow Poison." This edited version was published in our November/December 2015 print issue.

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I was driving north up the coast of California, back to my home in the Bay Area. It was 12 days after Sandra Bland was pulled over and arrested by a police officer in Waller County after failing to signal a lane change. Nine days after she was found dead in her jail cell, a plastic bag wrapped around her neck.

I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a police SUV behind me, lights flashing in silence.

The tactics I use to avoid being arrested or killed by the police have been instilled too deeply in me for me to forget. It is a carefully calibrated etiquette that feels like a delicate dance, based on the centuries of received wisdom passed down by the parents of black children in America. Answer questions quickly, but not so quickly that you come off as snippy. If you have to move, move deliberately, but not so slowly that you look reluctant to obey or are stalling for time.

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“Do you know why I stopped you?” the officer asked. He didn’t give me time to answer, only perfunctorily pausing before answering his own question: “I stopped you because you made an unsafe lane change.” “I did?” I responded inquisitively. This tone was carefully chosen to sound pacifying and non-confrontational. He laughed, “You don’t remember almost getting in a head-on collision when you passed a semi?”

No such thing had occurred. We were on the shoulder of a four-lane freeway with guardrails and a grove in the median separating the southbound and northbound lanes. He caught my glance. “Not right now,” he said, “10 minutes ago on the two-lane highway. You don’t remember?”

It occurred to me how little was under my control. I politely told him that I did not remember, an unforced note of bemusement in my voice. He responded by describing my unsafe pass in detail, describing how the semi had been forced to hit the brakes hard to let me back in, describing the truck’s size, color, and the company whose name it bore, at one point even standing and craning his neck at the road to see if he could point out its approach. After each detail he paused and waited for me to acknowledge that this incident had, in fact, happened.

He eventually stopped trying to convince me, and walked back to his patrol car. When he returned, he told me it was possible he’d gotten the wrong car, that maybe the actual culprit had escaped. He had been mandated to catch drunk drivers, and as I didn’t appear to be drunk and hadn’t been driving erratically when he caught up with me, I was free to go.

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Half an hour later, I stopped for gas in a small town I’d once known. As I began to fill my car, I realized that several years before I had been to the park across the street. The woman who was not yet then my wife had driven me there one evening while we were in college. We sat there in the car talking as dusk fell, under the strange shadows made by sunset and streetlights through tree branches.

I remember that my head was against the passenger window when the police officer tapped on it. I remember squinting at the flashlight he shone in our faces, the hot brightness like an interrogation room’s naked bulb. I remember the officer asking to see our identification, looking past me to ask her if she was OK. If she was OK, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car underneath the street lights of a public park in a residential neighborhood at 9 p.m. If there was anything wrong, because she was sitting there, blond haired and blue-eyed, with a black man in her passenger seat. I remember sitting in an angry and humiliated silence after the officer had left us alone again.

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The fullness of racism’s cruel bounty is not found in the bodies of the dead alone, but also in the spirits of the living. Most of us will not be killed by police officers. White supremacy will not kill us so directly, so flagrantly. Instead it dogs our steps, wages niggling wars on our peace itself. Its power is in the daily theft of our joy, our dignity, our sanity. It is in the way we always have to weigh and calculate, how we can never assume good intentions and honest mistakes. Because it is always there, in swirling eddies around our ankles, waiting to drag us under.

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