Traffic Stop: Oscar-nominated doc shines a critical light on one woman’s experience of Driving While Black
“It could have happened to me.”
This is a phrase I often hear when talking about Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, spoken by Black women from all walks of life.
They are referring to Sandra Bland’s fateful — and ultimately fatal — traffic stop in July of 2015. They describe the outrage they felt at the way Brian Encinia, the officer who pulled Bland over, rapidly escalated the situation in response to a simple question from Bland about why she had to put her cigarette out when she was sitting in her own car — yanking her out of the vehicle, threatening to “light her up” with a TASER, violently throwing her to the ground and injuring her, and ultimately arresting her for the minor traffic offense of failing to use a turn signal, something all of us have done at some point or another if we drive a car. They express profound frustration about the abject deference expected of Black women by police officers, and the swift punishment that ensues for failure to display it. But behind the anger and the grief at Bland’s fate is fear — rooted in the realization that but for the grace of circumstance, it could have happened to them.
“I never believed it would happen to me.”
Those are the words spoken in the Oscar-nominated short documentary Traffic Stop by Breaion King, a 26 year-old schoolteacher who was also pulled over by a police officer just a few hundred miles South and a few weeks before Sandra Bland. As was the case for Bland, the officer rapidly escalated a simple traffic stop into a violent, abusive encounter. In this instance, the officer abruptly ordered King out of her car — after ordering her into it seconds before — when King calmly asked the officer to “hurry up” so that she could get on her way. He then proceeded to violently remove her from the vehicle, flinging her repeatedly onto the pavement like a rag doll as she screamed in terror, cried out to her god, and begged him to stop. The officer, who was twice her size, and later described King as an “itty bitty thing,” has since been fired following an unrelated instance of misconduct.
These were the words used by one of the officers who drove King to the police station to be processed after her arrest to describe Black people, and to explain why white people might be afraid of the Black community. Usually, people associate such statements with perceptions of Black men, not Black women who are college graduates and elementary school teachers. Yet one of the lessons of Traffic Stop — and of Invisible No More — is that these are perceptions that apply with equal force to Black women, driving officers’ interactions with women like Bland and King, who clearly posed no physical threat to them.
In fact, a recent study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, found that close to 60% of police killings of Black women involve unarmed women — in other words, Black women are more likely to be falsely perceived as a threat by police officers than other groups, including Black men.
Black women are also systematically perceived to be carrying or concealing drugs — and suffer sexual as well as physical violence at the hands of officers as a result. The same month Breaion King was pulled over for speeding, Charnesia Corley was stopped a few hundred miles east for failing to stop at a stop sign. Claiming that he smelled marijuana, the officer who pulled her over called a female officer to the scene, who proceeded to order Corley to pull her pants down, took her to the ground, spread her legs apart, and forcibly searched her vagina for 11 minutes. Such violations take place with alarming frequency on the nation’s streets, highways and airports. Yet while Corley describes this assault as a rape, and, given that such a search is clearly impermissible under the U.S. Constitution, the law would agree, experiences like hers remain shrouded in silence in the midst of the national conversation around sexual assault currently taking place under the #MeToo rubric.
Traffic stops of Black women like King, Bland, Corley, and more recently, Aramis Ayala, Florida’s first Black elected attorney general, are far from anomalies. Racial profiling, discriminatory enforcement, and use of excessive force during traffic stops — also known as “Driving While Black” — plagues Black women across the country. Indeed, studies disaggregating traffic stop statistics by both race and gender find identical rates of racial disparity in stops of men and women. In Ferguson, Missouri, Black women experienced more traffic stops than any other group in 2013, the year before Michael Brown was killed.
“Who’s to say next time I’m going to be alive?”
Traffic Stop does a masterful job of illuminating the long-term physical and psychic impacts of incidents that for so many of us are reduced to a few seconds of cell phone or dashcam video that come across our TV screens or social media feeds. It also has the potential to bring Black women’s experiences front and center national conversations around policing — but only if we refuse to turn or explain it away, as we have done for so long, as an exception to a story that normally exclusively focuses on men’s experiences of policing. By shining a spotlight on one more Black woman’s experience of policing in America, Traffic Stop brings us one step closer to ensuring that police violence against Black women, will, in fact, be invisible no more.
Andrea J. Ritchie is an attorney and Researcher in Residence at the Barnard Center for Research on Women. She is the author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, published by Beacon Press in August 2017.