I’ve been a bad girl. A very bad girl. And yet somehow I’ve managed to stay out of the slammer. I’ve only paid a couple hundred bucks in fines my whole life. Others haven’t fared as well. Racial profiling shouldn’t make anyone laugh. But when I look back at my teens and 20s, there’s no way I can deny my privilege.
Let’s start with my first traffic ticket. On Halloween night, I left work and sped downtown in my Harley Quinn outfit. There was a guy I wanted to make out with. Faced with a red light, I chose to fuck it. After cruising through the intersection, a pair of blue lights appeared behind me. Shit. I pulled to the curb.
The officer leaned into my window. “Are you on any medication?” he asked.
I said, “Why? Do I look weird? That’s probably my makeup. I’m not really dressed like this all the time.”
He sighed. “Just answer the question.”
The officer explained he’d seen me disregard the red light. He asked why. I shrugged and explained how I hadn’t seen any cars. “So I just sort of…went for it?”
“You did what?”
“Um…went for it? That’s a saying these days. It means you didn’t care about the consequences.”
The officer rolled his eyes and walked back to his car. A few minutes later, he marched back and handed me a ticket. “You’re gonna have to appear in court for this,” he said and took a deep breath. “Enjoy your party. Drive safe.”
When I showed up for court, the judge cut my ticket in half. That wasn’t my last traffic offense. I got pulled over for speeding three times in my early 20s. Also for doing an illegal U-turn. And once for having my license plates upside down. On that one, the officer flirted with me for a good ten minutes and didn’t even write me a ticket. I’ve also been “arrested” three different times for trespassing on old abandoned properties and let go each time.
One time, I was out with some friends. One of our guys decided to take a leak in an alley outside a bar. Bad idea, I know. So we were waiting on him, when a cop appeared out of the street steam like Batman. Freaked out, I clattered toward my friend and started slapping his shoulders. “You have to finish quick!” I hissed. “There’s a cop!” And then when I turned around, there the cop stood with folded arms. My friend still had his dick out. It looked bad. Really bad. The cop played tough, until I told him I knew Floyd. “Do you know Sergeant Floyd Jones?”
“How do you fucking know Floyd?”
I winced. “I did a story on him for the City Paper.”
His face got red and then all of a sudden he burst out laughing. “Ya’ll get the fuck outta here,” he said.
My friend zipped up, and we stumbled on our way.
My entire life, police have been like dads. They show up when you do something wrong. They scold you, dole out some light punishment, and then you feel guilty for a few days. My parents raised me conservative. They rolled their eyes at the Rodney King beating when I was a little kid, and complained about O.J. Simpson all the time. Police were always the good guys in their book.
It took a lot to convince me otherwise, that racial profiling happens, and that while we have a lot of upstanding officers, some of them are assholes. I’ll tell you how complicated it can get. In college and grad school, I sometimes did ride-alongs with the police. It’s the quintessential student newspaper story. Student publications tend to publish a “ride-along” story every year. Each time, the writer thinks they’re the first one to think of it.
A couple of times, police would explain to me that local leaders and neighborhood watch organizations in high crime areas had requested special patrols. I reported on some of the police meetings with community organizers. It all sounded legit. Their residents wanted more security. A couple of weekends, I tagged along. It was exciting. I remember standing amid a crowd of about a dozen officers in a Hardee’s parking lot. At the time, I was a complete fan girl. I thought I was practically in an episode of 24. The lieutenant in command even looked a little like Jack Bauer. The officer I assigned to ride with was also extremely cute. I’m telling you all this to make clear how naive I was.
What did I see when I rode with the police? Well, they arrested a guy and his friend for cruising their neighborhood with Bud lights. They stopped and frisked a woman for talking to someone on a sidewalk. They accused her of prostitution. They stopped and searched a fast food worker walking home from McDonald’s. They pulled over some Hispanic janitors outside an elementary school who didn’t speak much English. Yeah, they’d just finished cleaning the fucking school. They stopped a convenience store clerk. When it turned out he had no guns or drugs on him, they laughed and let him go. It must’ve been frightening for him, though, watching three patrol cars corner him on a dark street.
Finally, we pulled into a low-income housing neighborhood and stalked the parking lot until coming across a parked car with people moving inside. Turns out, a guy and a girl were getting high and making out. What happened to them? Arrested.
Residents gathered to watch. I thought I’d walk up and interview them. You know, local flavor. Yeah, a 21-year-old peppy college girl talking to regular people. They didn’t know anything about me, that I came from a working class background, that I had seen my fair share of violence. I hid all that. What they saw was a privileged white bitch asking them, “Do you feel safe in your community? Are you glad to see the police?”
A guy in a white undershirt sneered at me. “Get the fuck out of here,” he said. He turned and walked back to his door, and the crowd began to disperse.
That was an eye-opener. What? I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. I looked back at the stoned couple, now in handcuffs. How many times had the police harassed me like that? Zero. I’d gotten stoned or drunk and made out with plenty of guys in cars. Why hadn’t I ever been arrested? Was that really fair? No, it wasn’t. What I was observing wasn’t justice. That’s exactly why I’d been told to fuck off.
That took a long time to sink in. Meanwhile, my freelance career continually required me to be nice with police officers. In return, they were so fucking sweet to me. It was ridiculous. They gave me tours of their forensics labs, let me pet their patrol horses, invited me to attend court hearings. I knew many of them by name, and even considered them friends. One time, a sergeant let me follow him on his theme park beat. (There had been some violence there recently.) He said, “You’re real popular. We talk about you all the time. You could have a real career as a crime writer.” They let me look at cold case evidence. You name it. Of course, underneath all that was an implicit agreement. I was on their side. I wrote nice things about them. Always.
On many levels, it makes sense. I can’t stand it when people complain about teachers. Yeah, some of us are bad. But teaching’s a fucking hard job, often thankless. Police and teachers have a lot in common. We mainly show up in the news when someone wants to blame us for something. But you know what? So do black people, I’ve noticed. And Muslims. So you know, let’s all chill out. Privileged white people especially need to stop being such dicks.