Identify or not–that is the question

So this, whether we have the right to identify ourselves when we’ve done nothing wrong, is a damned if you do or don’t situation. We (citizens) are led to believe that we have the right to refuse to identify ourselves when pulled aside, stopped and frisked, or pulled over by the police. We are given mixed messages from different legal sources about whether or not we can refuse to identify ourselves and the police have to tell us why they are detaining us. The article, “Can You Refuse to Identify Yourself to the Police?” (, still talks about both sides of the issue without giving readers a clear yes/no answer to that (sometimes lethal) question.

In the article there is a statement about officers having a “broad description” of a suspect (which is why they can stop you), is suspect in itself. That “description” can be fabricated on the spot and used to harass someone. And no one can say to me that “if you’re innocent you have nothing to worry about.” That’s bullish*t.

Way back in the 70s when my oldest son was small and I was in my fearless early years, I drove across country after a visit in Milwaukee going back to my home in CA. In Texas I was pulled over when passing through a roadblock when a cop looked at my son and me and asked me to pull to the side. It felt like it was 1000º in the Texas heat and I couldn’t sit there with my air conditioner running and we had no bottled water. I must have been there an hour at best as I watched this cop wave hundreds of cars past (all white folks that I saw), my son and I sat and sweated in the car. I was alone, scared, unsure of what was going on, fearful that I was in the dreaded south, and wondering why I was singled out. I had to keep reassuring my son that everything was going to be all right and that we would get something to eat when we could go.

Finally, the officer sauntered (and that’s exactly the way he walked) his fat ass back to my car and said I could go. I asked why I was pulled over and what was going on. You know what he (hurriedly) said to me as he was signaling for me to get back in traffic? He said they got a report of a Black MAN robbing a store and escaping in a blue car. Described as a shorthaired Black MAN in a BLUE car (can’t remember the model he said) with Texas plates! He stood there with his sh*t-eating grin on his smart-ass face at me through my window…the window, I might add, of a RED Pinto with a CA plate, and with NO trunk so there was no one hiding in there. I even had long hair at that time.

Again, I was alone, female, in Texas for G-sake, with a small child. The relief was mixed with anger when I was finally released and I can still remember the emotion being so strong I could hear my heart pounding in my own ears so strong I could have stroked out. I couldn’t even cry when I was so angry because I didn’t want to upset my son. Worry? Oh, yeah, I worried about all the unknowns in my situation. The frustration, disrespect, and helplessness, it was AWFUL. AWFUL. I can still feel the mental anguish after all these 40+ years later.

So when I hear Black men talk about the degradation of being stopped while Black, questioned, and disrespected in what amounts to having no rights, I understand. I get it. I’m not a man and I’ve been there and it was so frightening that I was even afraid to tell my family because they would have chided me about driving by myself, which they didn’t want me to do in the first place.

In his later years, Daddy told me about being arrested in Mississippi in the 1930s after he passed a white woman on the road because she wouldn’t move over, it was another emotional situation because when he got to town the sheriff arrested him because the white woman was pissed that an uppity Black man didn’t stay behind her until SHE was ready for him to pass. He was put in jail, he said, and no one knew where he was or for how long he would be there. It was Mississippi. The South. There were no attorneys for Black folk then. He was afraid that my mother was alone with an infant and didn’t know where he was. No one you could call. No “one call” rule when arrested.

In good ol’ boy country Daddy could have been killed and no one would even suspect and that was foremost in his mind the whole time he was there. Imagine how he had to soft-shoe his way out of that situation by remaining calm, saying yes sir, no sir, to an officer who called him, a grown-assed man, boy, and that pissed him off as well. Now, Daddy was over 100 years old in 2008 when we had this conversation last, and I can tell you that you could still feel his anger from the situation. He was still visually shaken and the words were spoken through clenched teeth. You get “past” it; you do NOT get “over” it.

As you can see this damned if you do or don’t article elicits more emotion from me because it doesn’t leave me with any resolution about what is right, or what is OUR right as citizens. It seems to boil down to us constantly being in a police state because they have the right to do as they please regardless of what is morally right. And it sure doesn’t factor in those racists with a badge, but I know that’s almost impossible.

I used to interview applicants for the SDPD for a couple of years as that “citizen” member (and only Black/person of color) of their interview board and we, as a group, could see (feel) when someone was going to be problematic. We discussed it after each applicant to decide which pile to put him or her in (advance or this is the end of the road for you buddy piles). Somehow the interview boards are not picking that up in many places, or maybe they see themselves and want a larger group in which to hide their misdeeds.

At the end of the article it says we just have to comply. Period. We might think we have a right to refuse to identify ourselves, but that’s a false sense of our legal standing. Failing to comply means we can be locked up and (in some places) have our DNA forcefully taken, fingerprinted, have all our personal effects confiscated, etc. A record of that incident (our standing in our truth) will be in the system to follow us forever, which is what we didn’t want in the first place.

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