Later this week I will post an essay about Bearstone, one of Will Hobbs' books. It is written by Jane Haladay, an assistant professor in American Indian Studies at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. In August, 2008, I pointed to her article about teaching Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed. If you haven't read his YA novel or her essay, make time for both.
So. Racial profiling. Daughter Liz and I drove to Nambe, a road trip we know well, one we've done many times. Around 5:00 PM on Sunday, May 31, as we turned south on I44 in Oklahoma City, making our way to I40, I noted a sheriff's patrol car by the side of the road. The officer inside was just watching cars pass. He was parked at a right angle to the road, not parallel to it. A couple of minutes later, I glanced in my rear view mirror and he was behind me, lights flashing.
I pulled over and rolled down the window. From behind my car, he gestured to me to get out of the car. He walked about 20 feet away from the road, saying it was to get away from the traffic, and asked if I knew why I'd been stopped. I had not been speeding, or driving recklessly, so did not know why he pulled me over. He said that Oklahoma laws about lane changing require that the driver signal 500 feet before and after executing a lane change. I said ok, and then he began a series of questions...
Where was I coming from
Where is that town
When did I leave there
Who was with me
Where were we going
What were we going to do there
How long were we going to be there
I answered all questions, with a growing unease. Each answer was met with another question, designed to check the answer I'd given. He had my driver's license, and asked if the car was insured and registered. I said yes, and started to the car to get the items. He said he would get them, and walked to the passenger side of the car where Liz was sitting. He tapped on the window. She tried to open the door, but he wanted her to open the window. (As I write this, I realize this added to her own discomfort, because she had to reach over to turn on the car in order to roll down the electric window.)
He turned and called to me "Does she speak English?" That question confirmed my suspicion that he thought we were illegally immigrants.
I was too far from the car to hear what he said to her. He returned to me, insurance and registration and her driver's license in hand, and asked more questions, and then this:
"Have you ever been arrested?"
I said I had not.
"Are you sure you've never been arrested, maybe a long time ago, because I'm going to run this and I don't want any surprises popping up."
I don't like admitting fear, but I was afraid, and said so, reiterating what I'd already said several times:
"Your questions are scaring me. I have never been arrested. I am a professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois. That's my daughter. We're from a reservation in New Mexico, and we're going there now to spend time with my family...."
Something I said made him change his mind. He handed me our driver's licenses, car registration and insurance, and said I could go. I got back in the car and told Liz what he'd said. She said he'd asked her all those questions, too, including "Have you ever been arrested."
We were shaken by the incident. Due to my research and study, I know that racial profiling happens, and that people of color can instantly find themselves being put inside a police car and/or handcuffed by overzealous (fill in whatever descriptor you'd use yourself) officers of the law.
We drove on through OKC, checked into a hotel in Clinton, OK, and I went online to file a report with the ACLU. I went to the OK Sheriff's website. I called the office number and requested a complaint form.
Fear is an awful thing. With a doctorate, and study in racial politics, I should have been able to respond differently. I should have thought to read his badge, get his name and badge number, but I did not even think of that. I also did not have to answer any of those questions, and I think I knew that, but that knowledge was blocked by fear.
The officer's barrage of questions was intimidating and threatening. That was only a traffic stop. Things worse than that happen to people of color all the time. We were lucky.