I got pulled over today. It has been a while since this happened to me. I’m shaken. I am a few months into a new job as a diversity person for a little college in the panhandle of West Virginia. It’s not terribly far from our home outside Pittsburgh but it’s far enough to make driving every day quite taxing. It’s bad for my post-thrombotic body, bad for the environment, bad for the family budget and bad for the family life we have built with four young ones of various ages. So, I have spent a bit more time in a little room I have on campus. And gotten a bit more familiar with my neighbors there.
My husband had been pulled over there just a few weeks earlier. We had our 5 year old tag along and felt good about the car ride ahead as it would finally give us some time to just talk and be with each other. I had been spending so much time on the road or working from home doing marathons of Zoom calls that we hadn’t really had the us time we craved. Our relationship is built on pure unfiltered amazing conversation. We talk about any and everything. And we were missing that.
Still, I remind myself that I took this job because it would finally allow me to address issues that in the past were an addition to my work or a sidecar that was often allowed to be attached after a project had been conceived. Diversity, equity and inclusion are like a singing group nowadays. You see them painted alongside each other in various ways. They have greatest hits and you probably notice that one of them is the lead singer but underneath those impeccable harmonies are two unique and clear voices. They are not the same and they are not interchangeable. And equity is the one who tends to get the least attractive outfit. But equity is my favorite. So, taking a job where people would pay me to talk about it and be honest about where we need to do better, yup – dream.
Driving along we started to chat again. I don’t remember what it was we were talking about but I remember that the Trump flags and foul language on them no longer seemed to matter to me. I tried to look beyond them and see that there were human beings trying their hardest to live a life that deserved dignity. I tried to resist thinking they all hate my kind and they were all willing to let me die in this pandemic. And in this comfort I glanced at my husband. He was looking nervously in the rear view mirror. Finally he said what I had feared “I think I’m getting pulled over.” It was mid morning and there were two officers at our window blocking the sunlight. Our not such a baby anymore child was in the backseat looking around trying to make sense of what was happening. Our son. A five year old. And this was not his first encounter with policing.
Months before this a day care worker thought it was good behavior control to tell him that she was going to call the police on him and then had a relative who is a cop take a stroll through so he could see. “Mommy, the police came for me today” is what he said to me that night and it is still a phrase that makes my heart race. How long before those words take on the character we have heard all too often in marches we have walked and petitions we have signed? I looked back at him in the car seat and tried to reassure him with my eyes. My husband presented all of the proper documentation and the officers explained that he was over the speed limit. They did their chastising mentioning him having kids in the car and our son shouted “that’s not a kid that’s actually my mom.” The officers had already started to return to their vehicle and I’m not sure if they heard him but I’m not sure if they were listening either. I don’t look like a kid but I imagine the box braids and hoodie I was wearing drew some conclusions closer. We took the warning and went on our way.
Today I was returning after a break and I was tired. I completed my day’s meetings around 4pm and decided to head to campus because I have a 9am meeting and I am tangling with insomnia. The whole way I was watching my speed and checking my rear view mirror carefully. I was also agonizing over what to eat before I got to the rural town where my college is because I had not packed any food. My options were all fast food places. I picked the one that I thought would make me feel least guilty and realized that I had missed it when I saw the sign where I would usually make a left hand turn up a mountain to the secluded college town where I work. It was dark already but I knew I had missed the drive through somehow and I knew that once I made that turn up the mountain road it might be a while before I could find a safe place to turn around and come back down. And it would be darker still. So I waited for all the cars to clear and then I swung wide and turned around in the intersection. I saw the sheriff sign on the vehicle that I had just allowed to pass before I made my bold u-turn and immediately felt worried. The car pulled over and let me pass then it let a few more cars pass. I relaxed a little and then I was covered in blue light. My brain and stomach started to communicate with each other in waves of fear. I put the car in park and put my hands at 10 and 2.
He was young. He reminded me of some of the college seniors I had coached into their career moves or watched walk across a graduation stage or even alums who had come back to show off their babies to me. He looked like someone I’d had in class at some point. He stood a little behind me. I had to turn my neck 90 degrees to look him in the eyes and listen to him with respect. The officer told me that thing I just did back there can’t be done in West Virginia. He said he didn’t know if it was legal in Pennsylvania. I really didn’t know either but I said I thought it was. Images of no u-turn signs flashed through my mind. I hadn’t seen any at all in the neighboring state. He smiled and said “yeah it happens all the time with people from Florida” and explained that he has to let them know they can’t do it. I nodded. He asked for my license and said he was sure it would be fine but told me he just needed to “run it.” I don’t know what that means but I had the sense that I would get a ticket and be ok. He asked me if I had insurance on the car “oh yes” I felt myself saying in the same voice my mom would use when she had a receipt and needed to return or exchange something. He said ok and as he turned I looked at his nameplate. I thought it might be a Polish name and began to wonder about him and his family. Did his family get treated poorly when they immigrated here? How long had he lived in this state created from the fissure of the confederacy and the union? I had told him that I worked at Bethany and was afraid to get too far up the road because I needed to turn around. I wondered if he questioned why I was heading to work (not from) at 5:30pm in the evening. I wondered if he understood why I didn’t want to turn into someone’s dark driveway to turn around. Did he know that was because I had centuries of Black Virginian body memory in me? My mind now kept pace with my heart shifting thoughts like a slide deck on an old rotator. I saw rubberneckers wondering too. I imagined them wondering what I had done wrong and I felt embarrassed. The blue lights were still bathing me. I wondered if I looked Black or blue to them. I exhaled as I saw him returning. I got a verbal warning and an easy smile. I was grateful and decided to forgive myself for having a burger and fries when I had originally planned on a salad.
I ate on the way up that mountain road, brought my stuff into my little Overlook reminiscent hotel room and realized I had left my phone at home. I fired up my laptop and sent a message to my family. I started mapping out my work plans and prepping for a community organizing meeting at 8. But I found myself…exhausted. I slept with my clothes on and coat draped over me for hours. By the time I woke up I had missed the meeting and was worried I had also missed the opportunity to say good night to my children. I used an app to video call and found my son on the other end. He smiled at me showing the blank space where his two bottom teeth used to be and told me he loves me. My husband listened to my eventful evening and told me how glad he was I made it safely. I nodded and took in the concern. I said goodnight, got some water and enjoyed a couple of tv shows I wanted to catch up on but the feelings were still in there. The looming question was still there. Will next time be the time when getting pulled over goes wrong?
So here I am at 2am writing this. I’ll email the community organizer tomorrow to express my apologies for missing the meeting. I’ll try to get some sleep and make it through my morning meeting at work like nothing at all happened. I’ll head back home to retrieve my phone and soak up the love of my family. I’ll get back in my car and do it all again. I’ll wonder if all this is worth it. I’ll wonder if I’m making a difference. But I will be sure of some things, too. Mainly I’ll be sure that I can share my experiences with a community of people who nod their heads when I say today I was blessed. I was pulled over, the officer did me no harm, and people cared about how I was when I arrived at my destination. People cared that I arrived at all. Yup, blessed.
A January 9th update. It is now impossible for me to imagine that beyond those flags are people who wouldn’t either kill me or let me die. I pray for peace and pray my travels are not too triggering.