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.