Sixteen years ago, I got my driver’s license. I bounced and hopped my way into the house where my dad was waiting for me, expecting him to geek out right along with me. This was a big deal. Free-dommmm!

But I got the responsible parent reaction instead. Womp womp. There were rules for his cars: Don’t bring them home on E, keep them clean, obey the speed limit, pay your own tickets, and, by God, don’t be riding no boys around in them. And then I got a speech I wasn’t expecting about getting pulled over by cops.

It was said as a given that it would happen, even if I followed all the traffic rules. I knew what they were: Answer “Yes, sir” or “Yes, officer.” Keep your hands on the 10 and 2. Comply with requests. Don’t talk back. Ask to reach for your license and registration. No sudden movements. I just didn’t think they applied to me.

Driving While Brown, that baffling phenomenon of black and Latino men getting pulled over by cops simply for being behind the wheel of the vehicle, only applies to guys, right? The stories I’ve heard of DWB usually come from folk who look about like BET news anchor TJ Holmes — not in the fineness factor per se, but in that they come from people who are black and male. Not like, you know me — black and female.

But I was 16 in PG County, Maryland, a region of suburbia where local tales of racist cops rivaled those of the more nationally notorious LAPD and NYPD. Things were bad when my parents arrived there in the mid ’70s, but in 1978, the year before I was born, they went from bad to #$%storm worse.

A 15-year-old kid, Terrence Johnson, and his older brother were either arrested for driving a car without lights or they were pulled over on suspicion that they had broken into a laundry room coin box and taken in for questioning.  Either way, the brothers were taken to a local police station, separated, and two cops interrogated Terrence. And now, only God knows what really happened next.

Terrence said the officers began beating him and he thought he was going to die. Somehow he ripped an officer’s gun from its holster and let loose. Both cops were killed. Terrence was convicted of manslaughter.

He was paroled the year I got my license.

My dad, Mississippi bred in the pre-Civil Rights era, hadn’t forgotten whatever happened to him there, or what had happened to Terrence in Maryland. He would rather be safe than sorry, so “Bay” (that would be me) got a rundown of the rules. And I listened like I didn’t already know them just to keep the peace — and, more importantly, get the keys so I could somewhere, anywhere now that I had a silence.

Turns out that speech came in handy. Before I turned 22 and moved to New York without my car because really, you don’t need one, I was pulled over six times. Three of those were completely my fault. My bestie and I were trying to set a new record for driving from Atlanta to D.C. post-Spring Break. We would have made it in just under eight hours — it’s usually 10 — if she hadn’t been clocked in my car going 106mph in a 65 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia.

Two years later, I got pulled over in Ashburn, Virginia — I should have known better. Virginia is notorious for traffic cops — doing 93 in a 65, trying to make it to the Redskins practice field for my first assignment for ESPN the Magazine.

That other time, I was driving home fast because, hell, it was 75 degrees with a breeze, I had a sunroof, a new stereo system, and there was no one else on the road. The cop pulled me over for speeding and let me off with a warning and a ticket for not having my registration.

The other three were clear cases of Driving While Black. One night, I was driving my mother’s luxury truck from D.C. to Maryland after leaving the club with my then-boyfriend’s sister. I was sober because I didn’t have a fake ID. The black cop who pulled us over said I was “going a little fast.” (I wasn’t.) And he didn’t give me a ticket, or even run my license. Just moved the flashlight around the car and told us to have a good night. Um. OK.

Around the same time, I was driving the vintage convertible my dad bought brand new to impress my mom before I was born. I was leaving Tyson’s Corner II, the shopping equivalent of Phipps Plaza in ATL, or Bal Harbor in Miami, and missed my exit for 95. I went a couple of lights down to where it was legal to make a U-turn and did. Siren.

Siren. White cop. He didn’t offer any explanation for why I’d been pulled over. I didn’t grill him, per Dad’s orders. But he wanted to know whose car I’m driving. “My father’s,” I answered.

He asked for all the usual stuff, and I sat in the car while he ran my info and plates. When he returned, he said, “Who is [Dad’s first and last name]?  That would be the name of the person whose name was the tags and registration, the man who gave me my surname, which was right there on the state-issued license the cop was holding. I wanted to say, “Duh, mother@#$%^*, that’s my daddy!” but I suppressed the urge and said, “[Dad’s full name] is my father.”

“Does he know you have his car?” the cop asked.  I assured him my father did.

The cop gave me a lingering once over and handed me back my stuff. He double patted the roof of my car and walked off. WTF? I waited until he pulled from behind me to move the car and headed back to the correct exit.

The sixth time scared the crap out of me. I was leaving my boyfriend’s house at 2 a.m.. He wanted to follow me home to make sure I got back safely. I told him he was being ridiculous; I lived less than 10 minutes away. There were dark, two-lane back roads, but I’d ridden on them my whole life, could drive them with my eyes closed if it wasn’t for those deer. He rolled his eyes and relented.

I pulled out of his sub-division, made a left onto the main road. Flipped on my high beams. I was listening to some love song, easing my way down the road, when the beams from a vehicle behind me lit up my car. Then I heard the sirens.

There were few lights on the road. The next one was a bit away. I put on my hazards to acknowledge the officer, turned the radio off, and kept going to the light.

“Why didn’t you pull over when you saw me?” the officer demanded after I’d stopped my car and lowered the window.

White cop. I explained that I didn’t think it was safe to pull over in the dark. He grunted and demanded my license.

He looked at it, looked at me, looked back at it. “This isn’t you. Whose license did you steal?”

I clenched the 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, double-checked to make sure the bass was out of my voice. “That’s me, officer.”

He shined the light directly in my face and I squinted. “Why’s your hair all done up like that?” It was an accusation more than a question. My hair was straight that day. In my license it was natural and big and four shades of blonde. I didn’t know how to respond, so I said, “Huh?”

He demanded my registration. I sat in the car while he ran my info. It was so quiet I could hear the buzz of the street light above me.

When he came back, he shined the light in my face again. I wished I had called home to tell my parents where I was. There were no cars passing on the road at that time of night. If something happened to me, it will be hours before anyone realized it.

“How do you get home from here?” the cop asked.

I wasn’t expecting the question.  “Um ….  “

“If this was your license, you’d know how to get to the address. It’s not far.”

I rattled off directions. A right two lights down, up the hill, a left into the subdivision.

He wanted to know what my parents did for a living. I made note of his badge number when I answered. He asked if the car was my father’s and if he knew I was driving it. He asked me to recite my address, asked if when he drives by my house tomorrow if the car will be in the driveway. I said, “Yes, officer,” even though I was driving one of the cars that gets parked in the garage.  He told me it better be there or he would ring the doorbell.  He gave me the same once over that the cop by Tyson’s II did, returned my stuff, and told me to have a good night.

I didn’t wait for him to leave, I just pulled off to get away from him and wished the speed limit was higher so I could get home faster.

Have you ever been pulled over for Driving While Black?

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. ABIB is available for download and in paperback. Follow her on Twitter at @abelleinbk.

44 Comments

  1. I’m a new driver (just got my license a month ago at 21, woot) was pulled over once because I drove on the wrong side of the street really late at night. That was a pretty legitimate reason to be pulled over, and I am a careful driver in general. I live in a pretty racially diverse area, although when I’m driving somewhere unfamiliar and known for being “leery” of black folk, I am super nervous I’ll get pulled over just for being brown.

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  2. I was driving across Mississippi into Alabama (already a bad start) from Texas when I saw 2 state troopers on the side of the road. I actually thought to myself “there’s no way they’re gonna pull me over” only because I had heard stories of DWB through the South. Lo and behold one of the state troopers pulls out from the median and starts the lights and siren behind me. I pull over and he ask me to step out of the car. The request put me on alert because 1) I had never been asked to step out of the car before 2) there was no obvious reason to pull me over to begin with and 3)he was white and I was in Mississippi.
    He then asked me where I was going, if that was my car(rental), why I was going there, etc. Unfortunately, I was nervous and he noticed it and took it as I was hiding something. Also to my detriment I smile when nervous( I guess he thought that meant I was lying. Told me to wait outside of the car while he ran my info and then proceeded to ask if I had any drugs in the car. I know I had a quizzical look on my face, and also the nervous smile when I answered no of course not. He then said he was going to give me one more chance to answer truthfully because if he found drugs I was going to go under the jail. I said no. 15 minutes later 6 cop cars pull up behind him and an hour later he and another officer are literally pulling apart the rental car searching for drugs. OF COURSE they didn’t find anything and he then walks over to me and tells me that I was driving a little to close to the car in front of me but he will let me off with a warning. I was so astonished that all I could say was thank you officer, get back in my car, and pull off as fast as the speed limit allowed. As soon as I found the nearest rest stop I pulled over and screamed out my anger and confusion over what had just happened.

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  3. Dinizulu

    I never got the driving while black speech. None of my parents drive but, growing up in America in the 60’s and 70’s, I got the living while black in America drilling.
    I’ve had a few DWB incidents but, one stands out in my memory, the first and as a passenger.
    I was on my way home, with a couple of fellow students from Talladega College in AL on our way to Atlanta on Christmas break, 1974. I’m not sure where we were, somewhere in between Talladega and Atlanta on some AL two lane. When we passed an AL state trooper headed in the opposite direction. As the trooper passed us, I saw his brake lights go on from the side view mirror of the car I was riding. I asked the driver if he saw the trooper’s brake lights and he said he did and to just be cool. Mind you it was broad daylight, we weren’t speeding, there was a considerable amount of traffic on the road for that time of day and year and seat belts were not yet mandatory. But, it didn’t take long, about a mile or less, before we saw the trooper’s car again, two cars behind us, weaving back and forth across the center dividing lines trying to pass them to get behind us. Again, our driver told us to just be cool and we were. All I could think of was what was this Harlem son doing in George Wallace’s Alabama. Eventually, the trooper turned on lights and siren to get around the traffic in front of him and once behind us he pulled us over. From the cruiser’s public address, the trooper told, “…the occupants of the car to put your hands on the dashboard” and the driver to put his hands up on the interior roof of the car. All three of us were in the front seat as all of our trunks and bags were in the back. The trooper then approached our car on the passenger side, gun drawn. No one in the car spoke, we didn’t question why, what we did wrong or made any sudden moves. We followed directions as ordered. We all “overstood” this was a potential life threatening situation. All I could remember was Malcolm X’s admonishment to, “…live, if at all possible but, if you have to give your life make sure it be even steven”. So, my immediate thought and plan was to survive this encounter by every means necessary. The trooper, gun still drawn, tried to open the passenger side door, yanking on the handle repeatedly to no avail until he noticed what I already knew, the door was locked. This made him look kind of Barney Fife-ish and the look in my eyes must have said as much. Because, when our eyes met he got red in the face and angrily told me to unlock the door. I followed his instructions by deliberately removing my right hand from the dash and tracing my thumb and index finger slowly up and across the window seal and door frame down to the door lock, popped it and with thumb and index finger retraced my movement back the the dash board. My movements must have mesmerized the officer, when I looked back in his eyes he flinched almost as if he had been startled, He got redder, if at all possible, snatched the door open, told the other passenger and I to get out of the car, go to the back of the vehicle, put our hands on the trunk and spread eagle. He told our drive to remain seated with his hands up on the roof of the car. He then holstered his weapon and proceeded to pat us down. He emptied our pockets, took our ID and wallets. He then got the driver out, directed him to the back of the vehicle and proceeded to pat him down, even removed his applejack and ran his fingers through the brother’s natural like he might have been hiding a weapon or contraband in his ‘fro. He put all three of us in the back of the patrol car, asked us where we coming from, where we were going and then called dispatch to get the description of bank robber suspects out of Selma. I heard dispatch reply with a different make model and color of car we were driving, heading in a totally different direction than we were driving. He wrote down our information and remarked to me how well known and influential my last name was in the area. He let us go and we drove on. We spoke about it only after we were back on the road and back on our way to Atlanta. I never forget it.

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  4. hookemhorns

    once for “speeding.” ( i had cruise control on set to the speed limit, and it just so happened to be a brand new car). another time i was driving my dad’s truck and i was pulled over because the “tent was too dark.”(the cop tested it, saw it was indeed legal, and then proceeded to give me a written warning) the other two times, totally my fault.

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  5. Missy

    ha — I’ve been driving for nearly 24 years. I was pulled over when I was 18 1/2 years old in Royal Oak Township, MI, right outside of Detroit. I was returning from a shopping trip during which I purchased toiletries that I needed to take with me to college; I was to start my sophomore year the very next day. I took a short cut from the main road through the side streets (all urban, for sure) to get to 8 Mile Rd. When I was less than 1/4 mile from 8 Mile, this jerk turns on his lights and pulls me over — he had followed me from the main road. It was about 3pm on a Saturday in late August. I was driving my mom’s car, a late model Volvo, and the “p” (for September) was partially ripped from the corner of her registration tag, but you could still tell it was “SEP” for “September.” This jerk (g-rated comment) didn’t ask me for ANY registration, license, or other form of ID. He, a tall and blonde white cop, just asked me “whose car is this?” and “you don’t look like you should be driving a car like this.” I had shorts, a t-shirt, and a white baseball cap on. After I told him that the car was my mother’s, he let me drive on south and cross 8 Mile.
    All of the things my parents told me — drive the speed limit (which I was doing — I think I was a few miles under), keep your hands visibly on the wheel, don’t reach for your purse if it is under the seat, ask to reach for your purse and tell the cop where you are reaching–kicked in instinctively. This was 1990. And I was scared. So scared that I failed to get the jerk’s badge number.
    A-hole.

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