I spent the entirety of the 1990s bartending for a living. The nature of the job–plus the active social life of someone in her 20s–meant I was often driving home at 3 or 4 in the morning. Most of my interactions with the police happened during that period, often late at night. And I realize my experiences were very much shaped by who I am. White. Middle class. Female. A “non-threat.”
Anecdote A (I’m a jerk):
There was a problem with a taillight on my car. I kept replacing the bulb, but the light kept shorting out. I was heading home after a night out and didn’t know my light was out again. I was pulled over. Not by HPD–I think it was a constable.
It was late. After the bars closed. He came up to my window and said, “Did you know your taillight is out?” to which I replied, “Yes. I leave it like that so I can meet cute cops in the middle of the night.” (editor’s note: This was totally out of character, and I still have no idea why I said that.)
He laughed, we shot the shit for a while and I mentioned where I worked. A locals hangout that was on his patrol route. When I reached for my glovebox to grab a business card, I didn’t get shot or yelled at or treated with suspicion. Instead, he took the card and began stopping by to check on me when he was on the night shift, either idling in front of the bar or coming inside for a Coke.
Anecdote B (the cop is a jerk):
Putting gas in my car after a shift. It was probably 3:30 in the morning. I saw a cruiser sweep through the gas station but didn’t really pay attention to it. I left, the cop followed me. I drove carefully, not too fast/too slow, but I still got pulled over.
I knew I’d done nothing wrong. I was tired but not drunk. “Why did you pull me over?” I asked as I handed him my license. He stood there staring at my license and asking questions. What was I doing? Where had I been? Did I have a boyfriend? (Uh oh) I realized this aggressive man with a gun–and my license in his hand–was maybe going to be a problem. I sat there and talked to that asshole for 45 minutes because I was afraid to be confrontational. When we realized we knew some of the same people, he ended the conversation and I went home. I didn’t get gas after work anymore.
Now this is the difference between youth and middle age. I would handle that second situation very differently now that I’m full grown. And I think I would have handled it differently then if it had been the 10th or 50th time I’d gotten pulled over for no reason on my way home from work. I would have grown less and less accommodating, eventually reaching the point where I’d want to hop out of the car at the first sign of blue and red lights and say, “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT? Just leave me alone.” And I probably would have gotten a pat on the head in response.
I get to live my life as a non-threat. To have the opportunity to charm my way out of a ticket. To be in a dicey situation with a cop and still go home, unscathed. To be inappropriate, and not pay the price for it.
My white male friends have different stories. And my brown and black friends have really different stories. Dave Chappelle has different stories (here he talks about how cops treat his white friend Chip. Spoiler alert: differently than they treat Dave).
The truth is, some of us have more to fear than others. And that’s a big problem.