It was late one night in October. I was driving home from a very long day at work, so close to my home that I would have been able to walk the rest of way. Suddenly I saw a flashing red light in my rearview mirror and the quick sound of a siren. At first I wondered if I was simply in the way of a sheriff on his way to a crime scene. It took me several seconds before I realized that he wanted me to stop. I had little idea why he was doing so but I complied and pulled close to the curb and turned off my engine while I waited for him to come to my window.
By this time my heart was pounding in my ears. I was nervous and scared. I had no idea why I was suddenly the object of concern because I felt that I had been driving very carefully. It was the first time that I had ever taken that particular route to my home and so I was being particularly cautious. That I was being asked to stop was quite concerning and confusing.
The officer came to my window bearing a flashlight that he immediately aimed into my eyes, blinding me. I was only able to see him as a shadow. Had I ever been asked to identify him I would have been unable to do so. My senses were only aware of the sound of his voice and the outline of a dark figure. At that moment I was genuinely frightened and I began to shake. There was something sinister about the whole affair. I was a woman alone at night with nobody else around. I had been rendered helpless to even describe my inquisitor. Nothing about my situation felt right.
The first word’s out of the sheriff’s mouth were, “Tell me what you did wrong!”
I stared into the spotlight aimed at my face and babbled something about not really having any idea of what my infraction had been.
“Did you not realize that as soon as you went through the light back there that the speed limit decreased by ten miles per hour? You were speeding through a thirty mile per hour zone!”
He made my ignorance sound so ominous. I was only able to stutter that I was fairly new to the neighborhood and very tired from a long day at work. I told him that I was very sorry for not being more observant. I silently wished that he would just give me my ticket and go away so that I might find refuge in the safety of my home. Unfortunately he was not yet finished with me.
“What is your job?” he inquired.
I told him that I was a teacher.
He laughed and insinuated that I was lying about working so late. “What could you have possibly been doing that would keep you at school until after nine o’clock at night?” he sneered.
At this point I was on the verge of tears but I managed to keep my composure intact. I explained that my Algebra students had a test the following day and that many of them were nervous and had asked me to stay after school to help them study. We had worked hard and had even forgotten about the time. One student then mentioned the need to type a paper and print it out. I had graded papers while she finished her work. Then I had driven her home because her mother informed her that nobody would be able to come pick her up. All in all it had made for a very long day.
There was a long silent pause after I finished my story. The light still blazed on me as though I were in a room being grilled as a murder suspect. The officer took a deep breath and then admitted that my story sounded strange but he believed me. He congratulated me on being a dedicated teacher and then reminded me to be more careful when driving, especially at night. He announced that he had decided to only give me a warning but that he would be on the lookout for me in the future. He wished me a good night, went back to his car, and drove off into the night.
It took me a couple of minutes to regain my composure enough to drive the couple of blocks to my home. I was still as nervous as a cat and felt nauseous. It had not been the prospect of a traffic ticket that had worried me as much as the fact that I had been so alone in that encounter. It was very dark and I was at a grave disadvantage. I understood that I had to comply with the officer’s demands but a part of me worried that doing so might end up being more lethal than fighting back. My internal radar was operating at full tilt. I had felt like a trapped animal with danger lurking. My instincts had told me that something was amiss in the way that the stop had been handled. I can still get a clinch in my chest just thinking about it.
I realize that the officer was totally within his rights that night. I had indeed been going forty in a thirty mile per hour zone. Ignorance was not a legitimate excuse, nor was being exhausted. The officer himself was no doubt just as worried about approaching my car in the dark as I was in having him present. His is a dangerous job, one that I would never want to have. Nonetheless, even though I thought of myself as an innocent with nothing to hide, a certain level of fear arose in me. The experience was indeed traumatic. I understood that I had to maintain my composure and demonstrate respect for the officer but I don’t know how I might have reacted had the episode escalated beyond the questioning that ensued.
I used to worry a great deal about my mother when she drove around, particularly when I knew that she was in a manic phase of her illness. She became quite combative during those times. She often detailed ugly encounters that she had with people in stores and on the road. Once she even engaged in arguing with a police officer. She had no medical alert bracelet that might tell someone that she had bipolar disorder. There was no way for a stranger to know that she was mouthy but harmless. I wondered how many times someone mistook her argumentative manner as a threat. I doubt that they would have understood that her boasting was little more than a protective shield because inside her head she was frightened to the point of paranoia. Her rambling rumblings were her way of beating back the demons. Luckily we were eventually able to take away her car and keep her relatively safe but for years my brothers and I had wondered if one day we might have to bail her out of a very dangerous situation.
I have been thinking about these things in light of the Sandra Bland case in Waller County. The whole affair sickens me because in my judgement it need not have happened. The police officer who stopped Ms. Bland for failure to use a proper turn signal may have been completely within his rights but he handled the situation so very badly. He insists that he was only going to give her a warning but instead of informing her of that he walked into murky waters when he wanted to know why she was so upset. None of us will ever know why Sandra was so angry. We can’t read her mind even with a recording. She may have been frightened as I was on that dark night. She may have lacked a bit of control over her anger just as my mother sometimes did. Whatever the case she was openly honest about how agitated she was. The officer should have handed her the warning and left it at that. Instead he chose to carry the situation to the next level. He may have been perfectly legal in everything that he did but he was not fair and he showed very bad judgement. It is little wonder that Ms. Bland became more and more wary of him.
As I watch the video of this incredibleencounter I actually feel a tightness in my chest and an urge to cry out. I want to hug Ms. Bland and get her to calm down. I want to remind the officer to take a deep breath, a time out for just long enough to bring the tension down. I’ve seen situations like this in schools where a small infraction from a student escalates into an all out brawl. Often times it is in the teacher’s approach to management that the problem occurs. When I was in the classroom me and my fellow teachers watched out for one another and interceded whenever we saw an incident spiraling out of control. What happened with Sandra Bland has all of the earmarks of two people who went too far. Since the officer was the one with the power it was incumbent upon him to keep things sane.
I try to imagine how different things might have been had he told her in a kind tone that he was sorry that her day had turned out so badly because of the traffic stop. He might have nicely explained that he had only wanted her to understand the necessity of driving safely. He could have welcomed her to Texas, handed her the warning, and then gone on his way. When she became combative he should have calmed her fears. Instead he lost his own control and shouted that he was going to light her up. At that point all of the real and imagined fears that she held must have risen up in her consciousness. She was a black woman, alone in a southern town with an angry cop threatening her. I cannot even begin to imagine how scared she must have been. I believe that she thought at that point that she was fighting for her life.
It’s easy for all of us to saythat Sandra Bland would have been fine had she meekly followed all of the police officer’s directives. It is certainly the advice that I would give to anyone. That being said I also understand the natural tendency to defend oneself when faced with the unexpected. If a police officer would escalate a simple traffic stop to the level that he did, how was Sandra to know that she could trust him? The situation was so out of control that both parties needed an intervention. Unfortunately there was no one to help.
I think that it is important for all of us to teach our young to comply with police officers with as much composure and politeness as they can muster. The time for fighting injustice is not when alone in a car or on the street. Those things may be accomplished later in a court of law. While it may seem noble to stand up for one’s perceived rights doing so in the heat of an incident is dangerous and as we have seen leads to unimaginable consequences. It’s a shame that it has to be the citizen who maintains a steady demeanor but it seems to be the way it is. I suppose that the nature of police work makes officers suspicious and overly alert to out of the ordinary behaviors.
I cry for Sandra Bland’s family. They have lost a beautiful young woman who had been outstanding for most of her young life. She had run track, been a cheerleader, marched with the band, and maintained A’s in her high school classes. She had attended Prairie View A&M where she earned a degree and enjoyed time in a sorority. Sandra should have been starting a new adventure at her alma mater. She had been quite excited about the possibilities. Nobody might have prepared her for what ultimately happened. As she herself told a friend while in jail with no one to post her five thousand dollar bail, “There are no words!”