First, let me preface this blog with my personal experience of a police stop. Let’s take a journey back about 40 years ago when I’m driving my (kinda) new red Ford Pinto 4-door with hatchback wagon back to California from visiting my relatives in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Tulsa, with my young son in the backseat. We get part way through Dammithehell, Texas and run into a road block after stopping to get gas and food, then getting back to the freeway. It’s 600 hellish degrees outside so my AC is blasting and my young son is dozing. When we get to the cop motioning people forward, he looks at me, I smile automatically, and tells me to pull over. Now, I’m usually a rule-follower so I did as I was told, but I was certainly puzzled. Well we sat on the side of that road, had to be 2-3 hours and the only breeze was that of other cars speeding past the roadblock.
So much time passed that I had to turn off my engine so it wouldn’t overheat and let the windows down and pray for the breezes of the cars allowed to move. I watched car-after-car being waved past the cop directing traffic, but what I wouldn’t do was to get out of the car (don’t know why, something just told me not to—so I didn’t). Perhaps the fact that I was a single woman with an elementary school-aged kid had something to do with my instincts, but I knew I wasn’t going to tempt fate knowing no one knew where I was (no cell phones in those days), or where I’d been stopped, or even THAT I’d been stopped.
At some point the cop comes near enough to my car that I could shout to him asking him if I could leave, he said no dismissively and kept walking; more time passed. In those days I always dressed “cute” even when I traveled so that I would always be presentable, and my son looked as sharp as my Sears shopping budget would allow. My hair was neatly cropped, short, and curled, but definitely a Fro by the time we left. Smiling was ingrained into my psyche from an early age (generational memory), but subconsciously even in those days I knew it made white folks more comfortable when I did. Under no circumstances could I be mistaken for a man with curlers in a blue car.
Finally, the Texas cop comes over to my car and tells me I can go. I ask him why I was pulled over. He tells me “I fit the description” of someone who robbed a store. I asked what that description was, he told me it was a male, with curlers all over his head, driving a BLUE two-door. I looked at him to see if he was joking, and said something to the effect that I wasn’t male, nor did I have curlers, and was in a red car with California plates. He chuckled and said they were playing it safe and told me I could leave, so me and my equally sweaty, irritated son drove off and got back to California as soon as I could. Abuse of power galore, but I was powerless to do anything about it. True story.
Now, here’s what is really happening in current day America in the minds of a POC in these “ice cream cone” stops:
Those well-publicized “ice cream cone” stops police departments around the country have been posting seem more like subtle harassment to me. If it’s never happened to you, you can’t imagine being scared to death seeing flashing lights behind you. If you are white and have trouble understanding this situation, let me give you an example of what’s behind our fears. Lately these stops by police for things that don’t even warrant a ticket have been given the hashtag #FatalStops, or #TerminalStops because they’re many times fatal to the Black drivers. Let’s examine these seemingly innocuous incidents.
First, the shock of being pulled over makes anyone anxious, but it used to be more of an annoyance than a fear. Imagine you’re sitting there waiting for a cop to approach your car, your mind would be racing trying to figure out what you did wrong, how could you fix it, how much would it cost out of your limited budget. Real fear.
Let’s look at it as if I’m in that situation. First, I’m waiting for an armed white man to approach my car. No one knows where I am or that I’ve been pulled off the road. Danger from the jump. My worry would turn to me mentally checking my behavior, questioning every singly move, trying to pinpoint what triggered the stop. I’m thinking, will I move too quickly, or look guilty? I still have hot flashes, so will my damp brow look like I’m sweating out of fear? All the while fighting the images of people killed during traffic stops swirling through my mind causing me more anxiety. Even though I know I’ve done nothing wrong, will he “think” I look guilty, or look like “the description of someone who robbed a store?” After all, even if I say I’ve done nothing wrong, this (sometimes inexperienced) cop holds the power of overruling my objections and I am defenseless to win that argument. #StreetJustice
Let’s say that the cop stopped me because I “fit the description” (IF it really existed) and the real culprit would turn out to be a 30-something MALE, with long dreads, in a blue 2016 car with Texas plates when, no matter how much you cross your eyes while using your peripheral vision, this close cropped, gray haired grandma in a 2012 orange SUV could not possibly match. But, if he’s wrong all the cop has to do is dismiss me, without apology or explanation, and send me on my way—hours later, because… power. That’s how it still happens today.
Maybe the situation causes a flashback to my own experience years ago, but I know I must remember to smile when he looks at me through my slightly lowered window so he won’t feel “uncomfortable.” When he demands that I lower my window even more, then hands me a frickin’ ice cream cone, my terror would overshadow any movement he makes towards me with my mind flashing mental pictures of other Black folk who did nothing wrong and still ended up dead because they blinked funny, looked nervous, sneezed, or the officer thought he smelled pot, or any combination of similar situations. Not only must I smile but I must thank him for being friendly, for his melting gift (of which many Black folks are lactose intolerant), or simply for not killing me or escalating the situation because of his own insecurities.
I would sit nervously in my fear and anxiety, understanding that I can’t show my annoyance when he assures me I did nothing wrong, just because he wants to give me an–(drum roll, please)–ICEfrickinCREAMdammitCONE? Knowing it would cause more harm than good to call the PD and complain about this intrusion in my life and normal routine. Knowing white folks all over the country will be thinking, why would she be afraid if she hasn’t done anything wrong? A frickin’ ice cream cone in my still shaking hand, because my heart has been beating out of my chest since I saw those flickering lights and the brief “whoop whoop” of the siren?
Nope, all I could do is smile, just like generations before me, like I did 40 years ago, and like Black folk do up to this day, to put the white man at ease by chuckling at my surprise and resulting forced, coerced pleasure. Knowing he expects me to be thankful for his generosity of presenting me with a 10 cent cone. Knowing he’s exacting 10-15 minutes on the tax dollar to act momentarily benevolent at his well-rehearsed and scripted performance BEFORE THE CAMERAS, as I’m more relieved than grateful to accept his magnanimous (soon to be YouTubed) gift, while I fight to keep from crying from the sheer helplessness of it all as he signals to his partner with the camera, hitches his gun belt and saunters back to his car.
Nope, don’t ever try to convince a Black person that it’s okay to be pulled over by the police “if you’ve never done anything wrong.” There’s documented history of that falsehood all across this country going back generations.