I haven’t been on Twitter in days.
I cannot watch Sandra Bland’s video or face or read another theory or click another hashtag.
Last week my eye started twitching. It twitched for three days. The left eye, not the right. I had lunch with a colleague and halfway through he says, “do I see your eye twitching? Are you well?”
I am not well.
Every time I see a video clip of the first point of conflict that leads to so many dead black people I have chills and flashbacks. I am not well.
I have had all the traffic violations except the biggies. I don’t drink and drive or transport narcotics. But I speed. A lot. Because I often live nowhere and across multiple states at one time, I am always likely in violation of some DMV code. “You must change your license and registration within 30 days of moving here.” But what if I will only live here for this fellowship and then still live in Georgia but also live in Virginia, two places where I work? The rules are for a lifestyle I have not lived in almost ten years.
When the cop pulled me over in Atlanta three years ago I was in between states. I was coming from “home”, where my parents live, to my “home” in Atlanta where I would temporarily live for five years. I knew my way to seven places, all inside the perimeter as locals say. I was tired and driving my mother’s car because my trustworthy Jetta was cheating on me with a busted gasket. I’d left it at “home” to ail. The car wasn’t mine. The plates were out of state and I was lost.
I took the wrong exit and circled around trying to find the unmarked entry ramp back onto the highway. It was about 6 pm in the evening, late summer. An hour before sunset at least.
The officer said he pulled me over for not having my headlights on.
He called me in as a possible car theft. I heard him. The car is a Mercedes. Did I mention that? And I was lost around Morehouse Medical School. It is a prestigious institution, but Morehouse is also historically black. Consequently, its surrounding neighborhood is like most formerly-great but presently-blighted urban black tracts in the U.S. You have to really police the towns from the gowns in such a place. I was out of place.
My license was out-of-state and they couldn’t confirm that it was legal. I was arrested for stealing my mother’s car and driving illegally.
As I waited in the booking area of the jail, I watched a young white guy in Dockers pay his fine by pulling cash from his wallet. He’d sat there for awhile, scanned the room and stood up with his hands in his pockets like men do on subways. He’d had enough of the pretense and he walked up to the all-black police staff on duty and said, “How much do I have to pay? I’ve got it on me.” “We’ll find out, sir”, she said. A couple of hours later that’s what he did. I think it was $500 for a DUI.
I had the cash to pay my fine too. But they’d taken my purse when they held me. I couldn’t keep anything in my pockets or write anything down. I couldn’t access even the nominal amount of cultural capital — lawyer friends, credit cards, and family — that I did have.
The next week I was with an attorney at the county courthouse to present them with printouts from various states, proving that the DMV records were incorrect. I had a license. I also lived and paid taxes in several states. I had proof of that. I had proof of the 18 visits I’d made to DMVs over the previous three years, each time leaving with a promise that the “records will be updated in 24–48 hours”. I paid a lawyer more money than my rent only to have him come out and tell me that there was no paperwork for my arrest. It was gone. It wasn’t there.
With my parents in tow we tracked down the officer who had arrested me. He was at the Morehouse Medical Center police station. As it turns out, campus police are the police. I had been arrested by what would have been the equivalent of a campus security guard during my college days. Campus police, especially “urban” (read: black, brown, poor and/or blighted) are responsible for policing the boundaries of college life. In many ways, the entire enterprise of corporate universities rest on the authority of campus police. How else can an elite “urban” university ensure a generation of parents who mastered helicoptering their kids will be afforded the sanitized safety that $60,000 in tuition implies than to have campus police enforce it?
For three years I’ve asked the same lawyer to go back and ask again about that paperwork.
For three years I haven’t had any.
Jokes have abounded over the years about that time I was arrested. People on the Internet find it hilarious. Even my family makes fun of it at Thanksgiving. And it is funny. It’s especially funny after three years of being alive to allow it to be funny. It’s probably funnier because I wasn’t murdered. Jokes are weird that way.
Every video clip I see reminds me of those moments. There are the first moments of being incredulous. What do you mean I’m being arrested? And then there are the jokes. Police officers are very funny. They laughed at the stickers on my car. They threatened to throw my laptop (the one with all my dissertation data) away when I said it was important. They told me how “thick” I am as they patted down my thighs and laughed as they looked down my shirt.
I could remember one phone number after the purse with the smartphone that holds all of my memory was locked away. It was my mother, of course. I had one person who knew where I was when paperwork would have said I’d vanished into thin air. By Monday everyone, from deans at my university to friends and friends of friends and every lawyer in my family, had called.
They all said the same thing: “Thank God they didn’t kill you”.