Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Time I Was the Victim of Racial Profiling

I was at the light on Fulton and Boundary when I saw the police car facing me on the opposite side of the street. I was talking to my father, no doubt using my hands, because I’m Hispanic and that’s what I do. The light changed and I continued down Fulton. Right about the time I was in front of Moody Park, the site of the famous riot of the 1970s, I saw the lights flash behind me. I was perplexed. What had I done? I wondered.

The young police officer came up to my window. I couldn’t tell if he was Hispanic or White. He could have been a White guy with dark hair or a light skinned Hispanic, or maybe half and half. He didn’t look any older than 25. He asked me for my driver’s license and my insurance. I told him that the driver’s license was in my purse and that my insurance card was in my glove compartment. I reached for both and handed them to him.

As I reached across my father’s lap for these I noticed that his partner had also gotten off the car and was standing next to my car on the passenger side looking in at my 90 year old father.

I asked him puzzled what I had done wrong. First he told me that he’d stopped me because the light was out on my license plate. Second he told me that the reason he had noticed me and decided to follow me was because I had flipped him off at the light back there.

I was dumbfounded now. I realized that he was the police car that I had seen just earlier at the light facing me. So he had made a U turn and had followed me because he thought I had flipped him off.

I was at a loss for words but I told him, “I’m not the kind of person who would flip you off,” and not knowing what else to say at that moment to plead my case I added, “I’m a very educated person.”

“Oh are you?” he asked in a mocking tone as he walked away with my driver’s license and insurance.

I turned to my father and told him what the policeman had said to me. My father was just as puzzled and surprised by the whole thing.
The policeman returned and handed me my information and I told him I had no idea what I may have done to make him think I was flipping him off. I explained that I speak with my hands and that maybe that’s what had happened back there. He told me to get my light fixed and he didn’t give me a ticket, but he left me with a really sad and uneasy feeling.

I’ve seen so many stories about people being stopped by the police and about racial profiling. I was a Hispanic woman driving in Northside. There are many types of people in my neighborhood. Sadly, there are the types of people who would flip off a cop, but there are people like that everywhere, not just here.

When I told my ex-husband about the incident he could not stop laughing. First of all because he knows I’m not the type of person to flip off the police. He thinks I’m one of the biggest nerds he knows. The other reason he laughed so hard was because of the type of car that I drive. I drive a little Honda Fit. Hardly a loud car and not the kind that usually attracts the attention of the police. I have stickers on the back of my car supporting my daughter’s lacrosse team and school. He asked me if I had been playing my NPR too loud.

When my ex pointed out all these obvious things it made me realize even more how ridiculous all this had been and it made me wonder about the policeman’s judgment.

But in addition to how ridiculous it all was it also scared me. I had never before in my life felt fear when being stopped by the police. Yes sure I felt nervous like everyone else does, and I hoped they wouldn’t give me a ticket, but there was something different about it this time. I hadn’t done something that I knew was wrong, like running a stop sign or not coming to a complete stop at a light. This time I was being accused of something I absolutely did not do. I was also scared by the way his partner had also felt the need to get out of the car for back-up. I didn’t know what they were going to do if they really felt like I had insulted them.

I couldn’t help but wonder how they had felt when they saw that I was a middle-aged, over-weight lacrosse mom, in a Honda Fit with a 90 year old wearing a tie riding shot gun. Did his partner laugh at him or did they still feel justified in their stop?

There was also a weird irony that he stopped me right in front of Moody Park, the historic site where thousands mostly Hispanics protested the light sentencing received by police for the beating death of Joe Campos Torres.

In that moment, on that day, I felt that I understood how people feel when they are singled out and stopped by the police. I couldn’t help but wonder if all he had seen was a Hispanic woman in a poor neighborhood and that he had assumed that I was the type of person who would shoot the finger at him.

What had he expected when he stopped me? I’ll never know the answer to any of these questions. I just know that in that moment I felt like this person who is supposed to make me feel protected and safe, saw me, thought he saw me do something I didn’t do, and then made assumptions about the kind of person I was and about my character. And that is not a cool feeling.