Today I got what many in the black community call a “DWB.” Driving While Black is the act of getting behind the wheel while excessively pigmented, leading to a much higher chance of being stopped, ticketed, searched, and arrested than white people. An officer doesn't even need a reason to arrest you if you're driving while black.
Today I was not only Driving While Black, I was driving with my two brothers, therefore increasing the overall blackness in my car. I was relaxed and happy, beginning a mini-road trip with my siblings. I guess that's why I let my guard down.
I'm a notoriously careful driver. I'm the person insisting on following the "one car-length for every 10 mph" rule and keeping my speed to the 4-mph cushion around the speed limit, no matter how frustrated other cars (or my impatient passengers) get. But today, as the conversation in the car swirled around, I let go a little and decided to drive with the flow of traffic. When traffic suddenly slowed, I noticed that there was a cop on the other side of the highway. I felt a pit in my stomach as I begged my atheist gods to let me pass.
But as the cop started up his engine, I knew what was coming.
I was one car in the middle of about a dozen cars who were all going the same speed, but I knew this cop was coming for me. When you’re black and you're in among a bunch of cars all going the same speed and a cop decides to pull one of you over, you know it’s going to be you. My youngest brother, Basil, who is here visiting from Nigeria, was very confused as to what was going on.
"We’re being pulled over by the cops," my brother Aham explained. "Stay calm."
I looked at him while we waited nervously for the cop to walk up to us. He looked at the cop with his hands spread out on his lap, in full view of the officer. Keep your hands where they can see them. Don't look like you're hiding anything. No sudden moves.
The officer arrived at the passenger window and I simply said, “Hello.” Seem friendly. Don't appear afraid. Don't say anything not prompted by the officer.
I was afraid the officer was going to ask, "Do you know why I pulled you over?" because there have been times when I have been caught off guard by the absolutely ridiculous reasons cops have given me for pulling me over. It's hard to be treated so ridiculously and not act upset. Luckily, he didn't ask for me to read his mind, he just launched right into it: "You were going over the speed limit. License and registration?"
I said, “Okay, let me get my wallet out of my purse.” No sudden movements, make sure the officer knows what you are doing. Announce your intentions. I pulled out my ID and handed it to the officer.
"Aham, can you get my registration?" I asked. Aham looked at me with absolute terror. If you make any move that a cop doesn't understand or misinterprets, well, that can be deadly. "Aham, it's in the glove compartment," I added.
Aham looked at the officer and said, "I'm going to get the registration out of the glove compartment now."
He said this slowly, waiting for the nod from the officer before opening the glove compartment. Under no circumstances should you look like you are reaching for anything.
The officer went back to his motorcycle to check my credentials.
"I'm going to fight this one, I think," I said to my brother. "I was driving right in the flow of traffic. How come we're the ones being pulled over?"
Aham's response was quick and stern: "Just be quiet and let's get out of this."
I wanted to ask the cop why so badly. I wanted to know why we had been chosen. But I remembered in the past when Aham had been pulled over and had asked the officer why, and the officer had leaned toward him and intoned, "Are we going to have a problem here?" and Aham had replied, "No, I’m just wondering why you pulled me over, I have the right—" and the cop interrupted him, "I said: Are we going to have a problem here?"
My brother knows what handcuffs feel like. Don’t ask questions. Don’t do anything that would make it seem like you are challenging the officer’s authority.
I took a picture of the cop as he was writing the ticket. I posted it to Twitter, letting friends know I got a DWB. I wanted there to be some sort of record, just in case. I thought of Sandra Bland, whose insistence on asking why got her yanked out of her car and sent to jail, where three days later she was found hanging in her cell.
Don't ask questions. Don’t do anything else that would make it seem like you are challenging the officer's authority.
The cop came back and handed me the ticket. I kept my mouth shut. Five miles over the speed limit. $100.
I got out alive and unharmed. My brothers got out alive and unharmed. The best we could hope for in that situation.
We continued with our drive. When I later checked Twitter, I noticed that a few people had replied to my tweet with comments like, “How do you know that you were pulled over because you were black?”
My answer to that is: I don't.
I was the one driver pulled over out of a group of drivers travelling at the same speed. Maybe it had absolutely nothing to do with my race. Maybe the cop couldn’t even see us until we were on the side of the road. Maybe it’s just plain old bad luck and I’m thinking bad thoughts about a good cop.
But I’ll never know. Because I can’t ask. Not unless I want to risk angering a cop. Not unless I want to risk being pulled out of a car, having a taser pointed at me, having my head slammed into the ground, being left in a jail cell for three days, all without an explanation of my arrest.
And that's what really hurts. I can't even ask why.