10 Minutes of Terror
“They wanted to be confirmed in something by you. By your face, by your terror of them.”
There’s a running joke between the faculty and students on my campus:
The boulevard leading to the college is a training facility for police stops.
Training for both the police officers conducting the stops and for the people of color they pull over. The rule is you drive like a turtle, your hands at ten and two o’clock, and you stay casual, whatever that means. But people of color already know this unwritten rule. I’m not saying anything new here. I’ve driven the boulevard countless times over the years as a student on my way to the college, and most recently as a faculty member on my way to work. I’ve been lucky not to be pulled over, until today.
I stopped at the intersection.
A sheriff coming from the right side of the intersecting street made a left and stared intently at me, and my car. We made eye contact, or a better way to describe it would be face-to-face contact. He was wearing pitch-black wrap-around sunglasses, and a ball cap pulled down low. After he drove past I looked in my rear and side view mirrors and watched him continue down the road. I drove on, my mind running through possible scenarios:
Will he make a U-turn and come at me full speed?
Is he calling in other cars to cut me off up ahead?
Should I speed up and put as much distance between us as possible?
I played it casual and kept driving at a slower-than-usual speed, but inevitably all those videos ran through my head. You know the ones I’m talking about.
I fell into a daydream of myself starring in an episode of the American theater of death porn, the destruction of the black body.
Then I saw the sheriff’s jeep behind the car directly behind me. I had to focus. I went into my glove compartment and pulled out the cheap vinyl pouch with my registration and insurance card in it. I also pulled out my driver’s license and placed all of it in the visor in front of me.
The sheriff switched lanes but didn’t pass me. He stayed in my blind spot. The car behind me turned down a side street and the sheriff got behind me. At this point, I figured he was running my plates. He stayed there for a while. To be precise, he stayed there through two traffic lights two blocks apart. He switched lanes and again stayed in my blind spot. Another car got behind me and after a few minutes he cut that car off, got in close behind me, flashed his lights, and pulled me over.
“Took you long enough,” I thought.
This is how terror works.
Everyday moments become loaded with the fear of being maimed or killed, or the fear of losing a loved one. The flood of cell phone videos depicting police violence, much like the news stories of ISIS attacks in Europe and mass shootings in America, keep us in a state of fear. This fear is multiplied exponentially into something else when the state, presumably charged with our safety, does nothing. And as these events accumulate and the world’s citizens receive no justice and no resolution, we are all left adrift in terror. We begin to distrust police, politicians, and the whole system.
I think of this passage from George Orwell’s 1984:
“But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Critics of police reform, those people James Baldwin called “the vast heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority,” dismiss what I’m about to say. They can argue it all day if they want to, but the truth is that for a person of color, looking in the side view mirror as a police officer approaches their car is terror only other people of color can understand.
I watched the sheriff approach my car, his hand on his gun, and I watched him watch me watch him.
I thought about power, but mostly I was thankful my children weren’t with me.
I am convinced that the terror the state wants us to feel, that the law enforcement officers who summarily execute black people and POC in this country want us to feel, that the Klan and all of their affiliates (many of whom have infiltrated state and law enforcement agencies) want us to feel, is the same terror they harbor of Us inside the nebulous psyche of whiteness.
These are the moments when Zora Neale Hurston’s words, restated in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, haunt most:
“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
I lowered my window and said nothing. I waited for the sheriff to speak. He raised his hand and pointed to my inspection sticker. “I thought your sticker was a rejection tag from inspection,” he said. “I see now it’s orange and expires in 2018. You’re ok. You can go.” And I said thank you. Never mind that my inspection sticker is yellow. He was courteous, he walked back to his jeep, and he drove off. Maybe you think this is the part where I say, “You see, not all cops are bad,” or some other comforting nonsense.
All I kept thinking was that I sat in that car alone and nobody knew I was there. That if he shot me dead there would be no witness.
In the hands of the state, people of color are in the void. I had to place all of my trust and my very life in the hands of this armed agent of the state. Meanwhile, there is irrefutable evidence in the world proving that if he wanted to kill me, he could have, and the state would do nothing about it.
The most unforgivable aspect of police violence is the wall of silence. Think of the second officer in the dash cam video of Philando Castile’s murder. How he stood right next to Castile’s window and didn’t feel the need to pull his gun, but stood by as his partner turned belligerent and fired round after round into Castile’s car. Or the officer, who stood by and watched as his partner dragged Anthony Promvongsa from his car, punched and kneed him, threw him to the floor, and continued to pummel him.
Think about the countless videos of officers murdering, maiming, or beating POC and shouting, “Stop resisting. Stop resisting.” Notice their partners standing meekly as officers around them brutalize an unconscious black body unable to resist. Think of Dave Grossman, a police trainer who has become a kind of celebrity, who on camera “tells his students that the sex they have after they kill another human being will be the best sex of their lives,” as Radley Balko notes in his review of the documentary ‘Do Not Resist’ in The Washington Post. All of these terrifying thoughts, these facts of American life, ran through my mind during a simple traffic stop.
I could go on, but you already know. We already know. Say their names. You know them by heart the same way I do. The only conclusion a sane and logical person can come to is that the state wants us to feel this terror at all times. With each passing day, it feels like there are more people on the side of this madness than there are people who would see it end.
I got pulled over today and I didn’t die.