7 Minute Read –
“Come on, Tewa, let’s go… LET’S GO!” I said to hype myself up, frantically pulling raisin bread out of the toaster oven and grabbing an apple from the fridge. It was 6:15 AM and I was leaving the house JUST ON TIME to beat traffic on the way to work that morning. Every moment counted. If I left before 6:30 AM, it would only take 30 minutes to get to the hospital; if I left a moment after that, it could take much longer. Once the school buses hit the road, it was a wrap… getting stuck behind one of those guys could easily double my commute time.
I threw my food into a bag and ran out the door, immediately greeted by a harsh, blinding white light. SNOW?!!! UGHHHH NOT TODAY!!! If I had not been in a rush, I would have admitted it was quite a pristine sight: the fresh white snow made everything look as though it was covered in cotton candy. Unfortunately for me, that included my driveway and car.
It took about 30 seconds to run back into the house and grab my snow boots, before returning to the winter wonderland outdoors. I proceeded to shovel around my tires and brush snow off my car before finally driving away. I breathed a sigh of relief when I made it out of my neighborhood and onto the main road. The whole snow ordeal had only taken about 8 minutes, so I managed to beat the school buses. Barring any further complications, I would make it to work on time after all.
The roads had been cleared and salted earlier in the morning, so the ride was smooth… relaxing even. I laughed as Yvonne Orgi and Luvvie Ajayi’s playful podcast sounded through my car speakers, and enjoyed the view of the white-topped tree branches as I whizzed towards the hospital. There were lots of cars on the road, but not enough traffic to slow anyone down, for which I was grateful.
As I neared my destination, I found myself stuck in the right-sided turning lane when I still needed to go straight. I turned on my left turning signal, trying to get into the left lane so I wouldn’t have to turn right at the intersection. None of the drivers would let me in, and we were nearing the crossroads. CRAP, I’m stuck in the wrong lane! I guess I could just turn right and have the GPS redirect me… Stealing a glance at the clock, I realized that any further delays would make me late. The cars in front of me in the turning lane seemed to have the same dilemma, and I watched as many of them decided to go straight through the intersection anyway. As I got to the intersection, I looked both ways and decided it would be safe to follow them, so I went straight through the right-turning lane as well. OK good, still on track.
Thirty seconds later, I heard them: police sirens blasted loudly behind me, and an officer made eye contact with me in my rearview mirror. Fear immediately seized my heart as I realized what was happening. I was being pulled over.
I immediately pulled my car over to the right shoulder, turned off the podcast, wound my driver’s side window down just enough to pass papers through the window, put my car in park, and put my hands on the steering wheel. CRAP. CRAP. CRAP. Where did he even COME from?! I watched through my mirror as the officer got out of his car and walked towards mine. He was slender, tall and white, with dark brown hair in a buzz cut, and serious brown eyes. He approached my window cautiously, peering suspiciously into the car.
“Ma’am,” he began, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Hello, Officer,” I replied, trying to shove the nervousness out of my voice. “I’m sorry… no, I don’t.” Of course I knew it must have had to do with going straight through the intersection instead of turning right, but I didn’t want to admit to anything just yet.
“You went straight in that turning lane back there,” he pointed to the intersection, as he looked closely at me. “What are you doing around here?”
Is it the bright blue color of my scrubs that gives it away, genius? What kind of question is that?! I glanced down at my hospital ID that sat in full view on my chest, the letters D-O-C-T-O-R in large, bright red letters hanging below my photo. “I work as a physician at the hospital,” I replied.
“Mmmhmm.” He looked closer at my ID badge. “Can I get your license, registration, and insurance?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “I’m going to reach over into the glove compartment to get everything,” I finished, looking at him for approval before moving.
He nodded. Once I handed my paperwork to him through the window, he walked back to his car and I took a deep breath for the first time in minutes. Looking at the clock, I decided to text my co-resident to tell her I would be late. I then sent up a quick prayer that the ticket wouldn’t be too expensive, and that the encounter would be over soon.
A few long moments later, he walked back over to me and handed my papers and a yellow slip through the window. “Alright, here’s the deal. I’m just going to give you a written warning this time because you don’t have anything in the system. But, just know you are lucky.”
He paused and looked at me. I remained silent, waiting for him to explain.
“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood today. Things could have gone very differently.” I stared at him blankly. What the f*ck does that mean?? “I just gave you a written warning this time, but I could have easily had you arrested. You should just be glad I’m in a good mood. This could have gone differently. Very differently.”
Anger started to bubble up from my depths of my gut as I fought back the words I truly wanted to say. What do you MEAN things could have gone differently? WHAT DOES YOUR MOOD HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING? Things could have gone differently like HOW? HOW, SIR? You could have ARRESTED ME? Or WORSE? For a TRAFFIC VIOLATION?! NO THE F*CK YOU COULDN’T HAVE!!!
But instead I swallowed hard, and put on my sweetest on-demand smile. “Thank you so much, Officer. I really appreciate it.”
“You might not get this lucky again, so follow the law. Drive safe,” he said as he slapped twice on the roof of my car, before walking away.
I drove the 5 additional minutes it took me to get to the parking lot at work and just sat in my car, shaking with emotion. Anger at the cop for bullying me FOR NO REASON (*cough* well, I guess I am black AF huh *cough*). Disgust with myself for smiling sweetly at him when I wanted to curse him out. Gratefulness that I was safe and didn’t have to pay a ticket. And then fear.
This is not a story of a shooting… or a lynching… or a knee on a neck.
It is a story of fear.
Ask just about any one of your black friends, and they’ll tell you… There is an inadvertent terror that grips you when red, white, and blue lights flash behind your car… and a subsequent pant of relief when you realize the police aren’t after you.
The fear of what could have happened. What if I wasn’t a physician? What if I was a man? What if I didn’t smile and make my voice high pitched and “pleasant”? What if I didn’t have the energy or social skills to hold my thoughts back? What if he was in a bad mood? What if my “luck” wasn’t so good? What if?
I am reminded of my position as a physician. What if I were to treat my patients based on my mood? I’m happy today, so you get good care! I’m pissed today so… ehh… I’ll just prescribe you that medication with the worst side effects. What if I treated patients based on my assumptions about them based on how they looked? (Note: I’m aware that unfortunately lots of doctors actually do this. I’ve seen it. We are working on fixing that system too) I’m just illustrating how absurd it was for the officer to mention his mood at all. But I digress.
Someone might read this story and say: “But… nothing happened! In fact, he let you go without even giving you a ticket! You’re afraid for NO REASON! Racism didn’t have a part to play in this story; stop seeing racism where it doesn’t exist!”
I would tell this person that they are wrong. That I disagree wholeheartedly.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I concede that point to them. Let’s assume that the police’s threat had nothing to do with race… that he just said what he said, and I’m unnecessarily afraid. I would ask that person if they had any understanding of the root of my fear. They might point to the media, say it overhypes police brutality to fit a “narrative”. I would say… ok, fair, for the sake of argument we can ignore the data that confirms that black people are brutalized and jailed by police at numbers far out of proportion to their population in this country [see references below]. But fine. Let’s say it’s all hype.
In that case, then, shouldn’t a system whose explicit role is to protect and serve do all that they can to reduce the public perception that leads to such widespread and pervasive fear? The fear itself makes Black people less safe. Someone who is afraid is more likely to make a “wrong move”… more likely to resist arrest due to concern for their life… and of course resisting arrest may just give that policeman license to shoot because he was afraid.
I saw the following quote on a picture of a protest sign floating around the internet: “We live in a world where trained cops can panic and act on impulse but untrained civilians must remain calm with a gun in their face.” That’s how this goes.
After sitting in my car for a while, my heart rate eventually came down. My hands stopped shaking. I looked at myself in the rearview mirror, and told myself I was ok. I had to be; I had patients to see. “Come on, Tewa, let’s go,” I said to hype myself up for the second time that morning. I walked into work with a smile on my face… as though everything was OK.
Until next time,