Encounters with Law Enforcement: A Story of White Privilege
Content warning: Discussion of racism and bias
Note: Some names have been changed. Also, anecdote does not equal data, but the data are there regarding discrepancies in how African American and Latinx individuals and how white people are treated by law enforcement (e.g., one recent paper states, “In the raw data, blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to have an interaction with police which involves any use of force”). These discrepancies are evidence of both the racism of individual officers and the systemic racism underlying the criminal justice system. Not all officers are openly racist, but we are all a part of the racist system, and we all have implicit biases that we aren’t even aware of. To become aware of how our biases impact others, we have to talk about them. And we have to acknowledge that the system is rigged against particular groups of people before we can fix it.
White people, it’s on us to fix this problem.
Compare and contrast the following stories of interactions with police officers. Two of them involve an undocumented Mexican man who did nothing wrong. Two of them involve a white woman — me — who broke the law.
Eduardo — Eddie — was furious when he got home that night. He threw down the duffle bag with his work clothes in it and yelled at the dog when she jumped on him in greeting. It was 2002, and we hadn’t been in Wilmington long. It wasn’t going well between the two of us.
“What’s the matter with you?” I asked, barely looking up from the computer, where I was writing a story about how much restaurant work sucks.
“Police pulled me,” he said. He sat on the sofa and leaned back, legs spread in front of him.
“My sticker.” He leaned forward and put his hands in his head.
“Your sticker?” I turned in my desk chair to face him. He didn’t look up. Eddie had a sticker on the back window of his elderly SUV, crossed flags, one Mexican and one U.S.
“He tol’ me, I have to take it off. He say, the Mexican flag doesn’t belong.”
“What the actual fuck.” I moved to the couch beside him and rubbed his back. He still didn’t look at me. “What did you do?”
“I pull it off. I was scared.” His voice was full of humiliation and rage. “Why he tell me to take it off?”
“Because he’s a piece of shit.” I grabbed my cigarettes. “Why did he pull you? Were you speeding? Did you get a ticket?”
“No, Amy.” He looked up at me, exasperated. “I wasn’t doin’ nothing. I was driving from work, and he pull me and tell me to get rid of the sticker.”
“Piece of shit,” I repeated. “I’m sorry.”
“I think, immigration,” Eddie said. He was in the U.S. working to support his family in Mexico, especially his disabled younger brother. He wanted his brother to be able to go to school. He wanted to save enough money to be able to start a business in Mexico when he went home. “I was scared.”
I have never felt that kind of fear.
In the middle of the confusion, I saw a flash of tan. That was the order of my perception: thunk, explosion of white, blare of horn, flash of tan.
I turned to Eddie, who was in the passenger seat of my Escort, and said, stupidly, over the incessantly blaring horn, “Did we hit a deer?”
He looked frightened, even paler than usual. He pushed the airbag down out of his way and wrenched the door open with a loud screech. The deer was lying on the road behind us. The front panel of my car was crushed over the wheel, and the windshield was cracked. The airbags were acrid and hot. And the fucking horn would not stop.
I called 911 and followed Eddie onto the side of the road, shoving my index finger into my ear so I could hear the dispatcher. Eddie walked away to drag the nearly dead deer off the road, and I popped the hood so I could pull the battery cables. We got back into the car, out of the cold wind.
Blue lights appeared in the rearview mirror, and Eddie visibly tensed.
“I had to call,” I said. “It’ll be okay.”
“Maybe I wait here,” he said.
I shrugged. “Sure, whatever. That’s fine.”
“Why don’t you two come get in my car, and we’ll get this straightened out,” the officer said with forced friendliness, playing his flashlight across us both. Eddie stared at his hands, and the light lingered on his face.
Eddie opened his door slowly, and we both walked back to the police car. The officer opened the back door for Eddie and gestured for me to get in the front. I started to cry softly, and I told him what happened. He handed me a copy of the police report for my insurance company and got out to let Eddie out of the back.
They stood by the back door of the police car, the officer nearly blocking Eddie from leaving. Their faces were blue in the flashing lights, and the officer said something too softly for me to hear. Eddie squeaked out a reply.
“What did he say?” I asked when we got back inside my car. The horn was blaring again, and we were just going to have to drive it that way the half a mile to my house.
“He wanted me to tell him what happened, that’s all.”
“You looked scared.”
“I was in the back seat. I can’t get out. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
I hadn’t thought of it like that.
I hadn’t thought of it like that at all. I hadn’t imagined his fear. I hadn’t worried that the officer would figure out that Eddie was undocumented or that he would harm either of us.
That, my friends, is what privilege does. It stops our empathy at the end of our own experiences. Here is my confession: When I have told these next two stories in the past, I did so gleefully. I came so close to destroying myself and the life I later built by being stupid. I told myself and my listeners that I had good luck, a charmed life, a guardian angel. It was fate or it was karma or it was anything but what it actually was: privilege.
If I were not a white woman, I can say for certain that I would’ve had far more interaction with law enforcement than I’ve had, and I can say for certain that I would not have walked away from either of these two encounters with zero consequences.
Growing up, I was a Good Girl. I rarely got into trouble outside my own home, even when I deserved it, and I rarely deserved it. I didn’t take my first drink or swallow my first pills of dubious origin or smoke my first joint until well into college, or in some cases, graduate school. I didn’t even start smoking cigarettes regularly until I was 25. I was a Good Girl, doing what was expected, more or less. The whole lesbian thing was a bit of a snag, but I was an earnest lesbian, one of those non-threatening hippie types who read Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich and dreamed of one day owning a lot of cats. Even when I was in college, my friends laughed the first time they heard me say the word “fuck.”
That all changed when I hit my long-delayed adolescence. I was 26, and after the messy end of a long-term relationship, I realized my options were much wider than I’d ever allowed myself to imagine. I had disposable income. I had a car. And I had the ability of a 15-year-old to see long-term consequences.
The year I lived in Asheville, in the edge of the North Carolina mountains, was the year I dropped out of my PhD program to work for $8 an hour plus whatever tips I could scam as assistant manager of a Damon’s restaurant. That year, I coasted along in an alcohol- and drug-induced fog most of the time. I didn’t much care what happened to me, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t entirely expect to survive that year. When I received a bill for six months of car insurance that I had no way of paying, I simply tossed it in the bin.
I periodically felt bad about the fact that I was driving illegally, but as I’ve said, I’m very good at compartmentalizing, and I decided that the fact that I was an uninsured driver belonged in a box with the other unpleasant things I was doing, like, on at least a weekly basis, driving black-out drunk along twisty roads up a mountain to my trailer.
A couple of months after I failed to pay the bill, I took my dog to an off-leash area in the edge of a state park. I took a short cut, and around a corner, I saw a police checkpoint.
“Ah, well,” I thought. I wasn’t too worried. I wondered briefly if I’d left any beer cans in my car, but I hadn’t been drinking so far that day, so the only thing they could get me on was the insurance. I wondered if they’d impound my car. I wondered how I’d get my dog and me home, and who I could borrow money from to get the mess I’d created straightened out.
I never once worried about whether I’d make it through the checkpoint alive. I never worried that I could go to jail, or be deported, or simply harassed for being who I am.
When I got to the barricade, I rolled down my window and silently handed the officer my license and registration, which hadn’t yet expired, at least. I fiddled with the cigarette lighter. My dog Sadie licked my ear, wagged her tailless butt in the direction of the cop and whined to be let out of the car.
“Soon,” I whispered. The cop returned from wherever he’d gone with my paperwork and apologized for the delay. “Because your license is out-of-county, we had to call it in to verify your insurance,” he said. “Ever’ thing’s fine, drive carefully now.” He didn’t ask where I lived now. He didn’t tell me I needed to update my license with my new address. He didn’t ask why my insurance had lapsed two months previously.
I have no idea why I got away with that.
And that, dear reader, is privilege.
After the year in Asheville, I moved to Wilmington, where I was working hard at getting my life back on track. I had a part-time teaching job and waited tables to make ends meet. I stuck to legal intoxicants, in usually legal quantities. One weekend, I went to a party at a co-worker’s place at the beach, and I had a few beers while sitting on the floor and listening to the distant ocean over the talk of my new friends. They passed a joint, and I let it pass me by.
When we left, I followed a friend out of the neighborhood and back to the main road off the island. When the light turned green so we could make a left-hand turn, I gunned the engine of my ancient Chevy Blazer and swerved around her. Why? Because I’d been drinking, and it seemed like a fun thing to do.
Immediately, there were blue lights behind me.
I lit a cigarette. It’s what Mama had told me to do if I ever got pulled over for drinking. “The smoke hides the smell of alcohol,” she told me. I think she even believed she was giving me useful advice.
“Please put the cigarette out,” the officer said as he approached my window. I did as I was told. “License and registration.” I had them in my hand, legal ones this time.
“You been drinkin’?” His belly pressed against the door of my truck, and he leaned his head into the window.
“I had a couple of beers over about four hours,” I lied. “But it’s been an hour or so since I had anything but Diet Coke to drink.”
“You been smokin’ marijuana?”
“Absolutely not!” I said. I began to stammer that I’d been at a party, that other people had been smoking, and that I used to smoke a long time ago, but that I’d quit and I never do any sort of illegal drugs any longer.
I couldn’t stop myself from talking.
At this point? If I hadn’t been white, I would’ve been dragged out of my car and handcuffed.
Another officer arrived, and they asked me to step out of the vehicle. The second officer asked if it would be okay if they searched my car.
“It smells like marijuana. You got anything you want me to be aware of?”
“No, sir. It’s fine, go ahead.” I knew there was nothing to hide. I hoped there was nothing to hide. There couldn’t be anything to be worried about, right?
“Please take everything out of your pockets, ma’am,” officer two said, as officer one dragged out old cigarette packs, fast food wrappers from earlier in the day, a stack of mail, dog toys, a change of clothes, several cracked CD cases, and God only knows what else.
“I’m going to tell you what I have in my pockets,” I said. “My brother is a police officer, and he’s told me that there have been misunderstandings about what people pull out, so I just want to tell you up front.” I listed my cigarettes, my Zippo lighter, my pocketknife, my keys, a couple of pens, a bunch of change, and a wad of one-dollar bills.
I was armed with a pocketknife. I had a Zippo. I had a wad of singles. Black people in this country have been murdered by cops for less.
“I know my partner over there already asked you, but I’m gon’ ask again. You been drinkin’?”
I answered the same way I had the first time, by lying.
“You know why you got pulled?”
“No, I don’t. I know I wasn’t speeding, and the light was green.”
“When you made that left turn, you went to the outside lane. We watch for that. People who’ve been drinkin’ mostly don’t go into the middle lane where they’re s’posed to go. It’s suspicious behavior.”
“Huh,” I said. “My brother the police officer never told me about that.”
Officer two looked over at officer one, who was still poking through my belongings. “Your brother’s a cop, huh? Where at?”
Finally, he’d taken the bait, and I tried not to visibly relax. “Wallace.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s his name?”
I told him.
“Whaddaya know, I taught him in basic law enforcement training. Hold on a second.” He walked over to the other cop, said a few words, and together, they reloaded my truck with my stuff, including my garbage.
“Tell your brother I said hey,” said officer one. “Drive carefully and you have a good night. But let me tell you, you be careful about what friends you’re hangin’ around with. They can get you into trouble even if you ain’t done anything yourself.”
I nodded, thanked them, and got into my truck.
There are so many places where this could’ve gone wrong. There are so many times I deserved to get pulled over, to lose my license, to have my car taken away. But I have never been a target. I have never had more punishment than a speeding ticket. And I have never been afraid that that my accent or my skin color would get me beaten or arrested. Or summarily executed by the side of the road.
Everyone in this country should have that privilege.