*One evening last month, Oklahoma City, Fourth of July weekend. I left my family’s home and was driving back to my hotel downtown when in the distance I noticed on the other side of the street and headed in the opposite direction, a police cruiser.
Like most black men born and raised in America, early in life I developed a sixth sense for law enforcement vehicles while driving. Police cars, motorcycles, “unmarked” vehicles, bicycles, hell, helicopters—I can spot ‘em all a mile away.
Mind you, I’ve never been in trouble with the law. It’s just that law enforcement in this country has a long and dark history of harassment of people of color, the poor and women. If you fit into one of those categories, you learn not to give police ANY reason to stop you, because during that potentially volatile process, even if you fully cooperate, depending on the cop, anything can happen.
Hence, when I’m driving and a cop appears to take interest in me, I know what to do: absolutely nothing. I’ve learned how to project “nothing” well.
I suddenly develop an interest in the knobs on the car stereo; I yawn, as in “I’m so not bothered by your presence that I’m sleepy.” Whatever I do, I don’t let on that I notice them checking me out.
On that evening in July, I didn’t do any of the above. No reason to—by the time the lone officer reached the point where he could look across the dividing line and see me, he glimpsed a citizen moseying along at a lawful speed, buckled in, going about his business.
Or so I thought. In my rearview mirror I was unnerved by the sight of the cruiser making a quick and anxious u-turn. Fuck.
As he strategically fell back, I could see his right arm moving from his body to his on-board computer, no doubt checking the plate of my rented silver Mustang.
About the Mustang: I didn’t want it. The young man behind the rental counter at Will Rogers World Airport said it was all he had in a mid-size at that moment. Seeking anything with four doors, I inquired whether something else might be available soon. The kid answered with a look that begged, “Who turns down a Mustang?” I relented.
I mention this because perhaps the officer tailing me was trained to follow cars considered “fast” or of a certain model. Or paint color. Could have been the Colorado plates—cars belonging to national rental companies might have plates from any of the 50 states, as customers sometimes drive the rentals cross country, turning the car in at the outlet of their destination. All that aside, I knew chances were good the cop was following me because I am black.
Immediately, I went into step two of driving while under observation by a cop: I sat up straight. Placed my hands at ten and two on the steering wheel. Then I went through a mental check list.
Anything considered questionable or illegal on my person or in the car? No. Check. Buckled up? Check (if I hadn’t been, it was too late now; movement makes observing police suspicious). Driver’s license? Check. Cash money on me? Check. Somebody to call if by some chance I am arrested? Check.
I thought of what I’d say to the officer. No “Why am I being stopped” or “What’s this all about,” etc. Simply acknowledge (“Hello, officer”) and listen.
I considered all these things in less than a minute. Like I said, I am a black man born and raised in America….
Having gone through my list, I turned my full attention to the cruiser in my rear view mirror. He’d tracked me for several blocks but hadn’t made a move. Nervousness morphed into anger. Motherfucka, light me up already. Nothing.
Then I noticed where I was—a mute, stark industrial area of downtown Oklahoma City. Nobody on the streets or in the buildings. A no-witness zone. If he stops me here, he and any officers he summoned to the scene could do whatever and no one would be the wiser.
My Los Angeles driver’s license is not going to help, I said to myself. I know how they feel about the Lakers in this town. But then, that’s how most cities feel about the Lakers….
I was busying my mind with all this, when I looked into my rear view mirror to see…nothing. The police car was gone. In the seconds that I pondered my location and fate, the Mustang’s plates must have checked out and the cop couldn’t be bothered. I didn’t even have the pleasure of seeing him turn away.
Still, I didn’t calm down until I reached the valet post at the Skirvin Hotel.
I respect law enforcement. They have a job that is beyond tough. I speak to officers in restaurants. If I ever have to call the police, I want them to come. The mere sight of a policeman or his vehicle doesn’t immediately strike fear in my heart. I am a 58 year-old, law-abiding American citizen. I shouldn’t have anything to fear.
However, I know that some people shouldn’t be cops (for the record, some of the black cops are harder on people of color than the white ones). All my life—and especially of late—I’ve heard certain people say, “If you’re not breaking the law, you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Bullshit. Some members of law enforcement live to abuse their power. Get stopped and anything can happen.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]