Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Home for awhile, racial profiling, an upcoming essay...

I've been home for awhile, at Nambe Pueblo, and am now back at work in Illinois. Postings to American Indians in Children's Literature will be scant over the summer while I focus on the academic writing that universities require.

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.

29 comments:

Mitali Perkins said...

Thank you for sharing this so openly, Debbie. I'm sorry you had to endure this, and I'm sure you were a great example to your daughter as she watched you interact with poise and power.

I'm trying to prepare my brown teens sons for possible incidents -- they are shy kids on the inside and tall Middle Eastern looking men on the outside.

Jonquil said...

I am so sorry (and angry). A quick Google tells me that Oklahoma does have an anti-racial profiling law, but it doesn't require data gathering. Way to be toothless.

Debbie Reese said...

Mitali--Liz could tell I was uncomfortable as she watched from the car. Do talk to your sons. Though we talk about race and racism a great deal, I don't think Liz and I have ever had a 'if this happens to you' conversation about racial profiling.

Thanks for the link, Jonquil. Interesting that the article focuses in on the same stretch of I44/I35 that Liz and I were pulled over. The officer who stopped us was definitely Sheriff's dept, not the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, but it is possible the Sheriff's officer was engaged in the same kind of work that the Highway Patrol was sued for.

Katy Horning said...

Debbie, what an awful experience for you and your daughter.

Just out of curiosity, I checked on that 500 foot signaling law, and could find no such thing. Here's a link to the Oklahoma Drivers Manual. Laws about passing are on page 54 of this pdf, and they say nothing about signaling for 500 feet before and after.

http://www.dps.state.ok.us/dls/pub/ODM.pdf

Sounds like a bogus made-up excuse to pull over a law-abiding citizen.

Debbie Reese said...

Katy,

The link Jonquil posted says that officers pull people over on bogus pretenses, search their cars, and let them go without issuing citations. Our car was not searched, but he definitely looked it over as he talked to Liz. Thanks for searching for that 500-feet-signal "law" --- I wondered about it but had not yet done research on it.

Dlux said...

Debbie I am so glad you and your daughter are OK-- I wonder what he hoped you had been arrested for?

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Over here from child_lit.

Horrendous incident. Good luck with following it up.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

I'm sorry this happened to you and your daughter and thank you for pursuing this with the ACLU and the OK Sheriff's Dept. on behalf of all people who have to endure racial profiling.

DianeRChen said...

Debbie, I am so sorry you had to go through this. My sons have experienced this type of profiling many times in Tennessee. Because they are minors we have tried to just be very cooperative. It is tremendously upsetting but the county I live in pulls over minors for any pretense.

Charlotte said...

I am so sorry. And disgusted that this would happen.

Kynn said...

Debbie, have you seen the frightening video of an Oklahoma cop pulling over an ambulance and choking the paramedic?

Liz said...

I'm so sorry that happened, it's so awful and so frightening. It does violence to our souls. and I know what you mean about freezing up and not getting badge numbers, etc. good luck in reporting and pursuing it.

Susanne said...

This is really disturbing and worrying.

Robin said...

Thank you for sharing this story, and thank you for reporting the incident. I was pulled over twice as a teenager on country roads by officers who got their kicks by scaring and sexually harrassing young women. The encounters shook me up so badly that I still don't drive to this day. Now I really wish I'd reported them, but as a teenager without much family support, who came from a certain part of town, I didn't know how and wasn't sure I'd be believed or taken seriously (which is exactly what people like those cops count on).

softestbullet said...

That's so awful. :( I'm glad he stopped at that point, at least.

Monica Edinger said...

Debbie, thanks for telling us about this. Unbelievably disturbing.

Ariel Zeitlin Cooke said...

I think it sounds like you acted with great presence of mind, Debbie. It would be so frightening to have an authority figure with a gun obviously trying pin something on you. I'm sorry and ashamed for our country that such a thing happened to you.

Beverly Slapin said...

I'm so sorry this happened to you and Liz, Debbie. This kind of thing is common here in California, too. The offense is called "DWB"—Driving While Brown. For a lot of young people, as you know, this crap starts before they're old enough to drive. Years ago, my son and his friend were followed around a supermarket by the security guard, who was glaring at them. They were, like, ten years old. When the guard saw this enraged (white) parent approaching him, he backed off. I know, in my heart, it could have ended differently. Anyway, be well.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Very upsetting. For so many reasons. But mostly because -- although we don't quite have a police state-- the law definitely is POWERFUL and one doesn't want it "assuming" stuff of innocent drivers. I hate feeling powerless but when encountering the police that's the feeling like to induce in people...fear and trembling. They leech on fear. Am so sorry it happened. -C

Sid Armstrong Native American Artist said...

Thank you for sharing that. I remember now we can use the ACLU in these types of situations. I live here in Okla. and know that the law is cracking down on illegal immigrants here in the State. Just because your skin is brown doesn't give the law the right to interrogate you..

kb said...

Hideous and inappropriate. A bitter reminder of white privilege, as well {it always stings, but never hurts, for me to remember all the "invisible" benefits of being white}. I'm glad you filed complaints appropriately.

Your description of the fear that gripped you while talking with a police person reminded me of the fear that gripped me when I was mugged. Terrible that those who should engender a sense of protectedness, of well-being, instead use their position to frighten.

k8 said...

How horrible! I'm so sorry you had to deal with that. Thanks for writing about it, though. I think it's important for these stories to be told.

green_knight said...

(Here via Jonquil's link)

Just wanted to add my voice to the general chorus of 'I can't believe we're living in the twenty-first century and a law officer believes it's ok to act like that.'

Anonymous said...

Debbie, he picked you not just for the color of your skin, but because you are a woman, with her young daughter. This was an extension of the sexual harrassment/violence that women of color are subject to by males in positions of authority. If you had NOT told him that you are a professor, and spoken so clearly (i.e., without an "accent"), I suspect - I KNOW - that the officer would have treated you worse still. We do not yet live in a police state, and you do not have to give a complete stranger access to your daughter on the side of the road. Sounds to me like this officer broke with most of the protocol of a stop. Don't be fooled by the fact that you did not get his number or name; his superiors will know who was patrolling that section of that road at that day and time. You can ask for a photo line up. Your responses (filing with ACLU and getting a complaint form from OK) are absolutely brilliant. Please don't beat yourself up for not being more resistant or aggressive. That is not what this country trains women of color to be, and even we "enlightened" academics know this. Plus, you had your daughter with you. If you had been arrested or cuffed, who would have taken care of her? Fight back on YOUR turf: blog, write essays, file complaints, and use the enemy's language to hoist him by his own petard. I'm proud of you for putting this out there - it's a violation, and nothing less. -- sorry, your blog is not accepting my gmail account, I'll try posting as anonymous. Deborah A. Miranda

sami said...

Cynical foreigner says: Probably the bit where you mentioned you were a professor, etc. That means you're going to be someone who can call a lawyer, someone who might well Know People who can bring hassle and consequences for this asshole for this kind of behaviour. And because you're a university professor, he's not that likely to get away with telling blatant lies about you - people might believe YOU. Getting that far away from his car he'd be getting away from the video camera cop cars often have. Asshole.

Carys said...

I'm so sorry that you were subjected to such racism. I am sorry you and your daughter were made to feel so threatened. I'm beyond horrified in part because I'm not surprised. Around here, if you see a car pulled over by the police, the person driving the car is generally NOT white. DWB - as some of the other posters said. Friends of mine (she's white, he's black) were pulled over a few years ago and the police officer asked HER if everything was alright and if she was OK. Clearly, he thought she was being abducted! I'm glad you reported the incident.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry that you felt you were being racially profiled, but my husband is a state police officer and those are standard questions. As a white woman, I've been asked similar questions before, including the "do you speak English."

Maybe your experiences have caused you to become hyper-sensitive. You should never feel afraid, but as another commenter mentioned, I don't think it was because of the color of your skin.

Delux said...

Debbie, I'm not at all surprised to see an anonymous white commenter explain how your reactions and perceptions were inaccurate, despite the amount of research and analysis on the reality of racial profiling.

"You should never feel afraid" is very easy to say when you are not a person of color.

JCD said...

And had this happened in Arizona with the new law - you'd have been asked to show proof of citizenship! I mention this just to let you know that I've linked to this blog post on a friend's blog.

http://imagine1community.blogspot.com/2010/04/uncivil-law.html

-jc