Every “Routine” Traffic Stop Is A Racial Encounter When You’re Black

nathan congleton
nathan congleton

This is what happened.

I came to Brooklyn that day in August to, among other things, look for a new apartment. Because of the nature of real estate in New York City–living expenses are dwarfed only by the speed in which apartments & rooms are snatched from the market–I drove fourteen hours.

I drove through the night, from Iowa to New Jersey, where I had to catch a train into New York City. As I drove, I scheduled walkthroughs and sit-downs with potential roommates or landlords; my iPhone and I worked as one, became one, in the name of finding a place to live.

I arrived in Brooklyn–fourteen hours of driving (and one hour of sleep) later–and secured my apartment. The rest of the day was not a blur; I remember the afternoon, the evening, and the night very well. I remember the smells, the sounds, the dark and the light, skin and words whispered, the beauty of Brooklyn’s skyline, the allure of the five boroughs which, on that day, crystallized into something tangible, a spherical orb of glass or gold–hope was the object.

But I had to return to New Jersey for a few days. A cab was called to take me from Crown Heights to Penn Station in Manhattan. The cabbie, a fellow black man, seemed pleasant: he listened to gospel music as he drove and, on occasion, made small talk with his thick West African accent (Ghanian, I guessed to myself).

I told him to take the Manhattan Bridge and he commented on the nighttime construction work being done on the Manhattan Bridge and I needed to get back to New Jersey. He recommended the Williamsburg Bridge. I was a NYC neophyte–who was I to argue directions with a cabbie?

I was unfamiliar with Williamsburg at night. The street, though busy, was unknown to me. Not that I paid attention: I thought about coming back in a few days to move into my new apartment; I thought about the past eight days when I travelled the country in my car; I thought about the future, as colorful as mercury, which suddenly seemed brightened by resplendent blues and whites.

I wasn’t paying attention, but that doesn’t mean I ignored the cabbie’s driving habits: he watched his speed, he looked out for pedestrians, he eased into turns. No, the shock–the moment that brought my attention fully to the present–was the police cruiser behind us, which seemed to have spawned out of thin air. Neither the cabbie nor myself knew where the unmarked car was parked, or if it was hidden or in plain sight, and it all seemed irrelevant.

Maybe the cab has a busted taillight; maybe the cabbie forgot to use the turn signal.

As I sat in the backseat & behind the cabbie, the sight of one cop’s flashlight didn’t surprise me–it was almost midnight.

It was the second flashlight.

It crept up on me like a ghost; it flanked the passenger side of the cab.

I’ve been pulled over for speeding or failing to wear a seat belt before; never had there been more than one uniformed police officer to speak with me.

Both of these officers wore white tee shirts and jeans; their badges dangled from chains and rested against their chests. Their flashlights weren’t pointed at the cabbie; they stared at me. I remember seconds between a moment of silence and the moment one of the officers began talking to me–in that space, I thought of three scenarios: I was going home; I was going to jail; I was going to be shot & killed.

“Lemme see your license.”

I handed him my driver’s license.

“You from Jersey? Whatchu doin’ in Brooklyn?”

Looking for an apartment.

“You from Jersey?”

Yes.

“Where?”

Camden.

“License says Vineland.”

I moved.

“The back of your license says Millville.”

I moved.

Every time the cop lifted his eyes or head, I snuck a peek over to the passenger side; the second cop was primed for…something.

He was backup. He had his partner covered. He would be the first to put a bullet into my chest if I gave him cause–or if the mood struck him.

A precarious position: to find oneself in a life-or-death situation, but completely ignorant of how to best avoid the worst case of those two scenarios.

“Where you headed tonight?”

Penn Station.

“Where you goin’?”

Back to Jersey.

“Where?”

Burlington County.

“You said you lived in Camden. You know…Camden County.”

I moved.

The cop looked up and toward the direction of his partner; I assumed they mouthed words to each other, since they said nothing aloud. I thought, “Why are they asking me questions? What did I do?”

“Hey,” the cop said. “You got drugs on you?”

What?

“Nah, don’t do that. You heard me. Drugs. That backpack next to you. Drugs in there? Maybe a gun?”

No, just my laptop.

“Where are you coming from?”

Crown Heights.

“Who you know in Crown Heights?”

A girl.

“Your girlfriend?”

Yeah, sure.

“So no drugs, right? If I toss your bag, I’m not gonna find a little somethin’?”

No, just my laptop.

“You workin’?”

No.

“You lookin’?”

Yes.

“Why aren’t you workin’?”

I got laid off in June.

“Where?”

Factory in New Jersey.

“What happened?”

Whole facility got laid off. Plant-wide shutdown.

“Shit. Tough luck. You on unemployment?”

Yes.

“Ok good.”

My answers seemed satisfactory–or I answered his questions fast enough to avoid suspicion (but why would the cop be suspicious?)–so my license was returned to me. The officer wished me a good night and drove away with his partner.

“Happens all the time these days,” the cabbie said to me. His eyes were hard. I saw them in the rear-view mirror: white and hard, solid, stoic.

I wanted to ask if what just happened was a “stop and frisk” but–the notion seemed ludicrous. They didn’t pull me out of the car, they didn’t pat down my body, they didn’t touch me at all. But what does it mean to “touch”?

***

I’ve had days–weeks–to digest what happened that night. I’ve had space and time to sit with my intuition, to listen to it howl with frustration, to feel it bang its fists inside my body: against my muscles and spine, against my sternum. The label means nothing to me. Call it “stop and frisk,” call it “a simple misunderstanding.” Either way, I’m not listening; my intuition’s howl dominates the airwaves.

I’m sitting here in the middle of a coffee shop. This room is filled with white people and I want to hurt them. I want to drag a white hipster male into the unisex bathroom and shove him against the wall.

Ask him questions.

Ask him where he was before he came to the coffee shop. Where is he going tonight? Who is he seeing? Is he carrying a weapon? And if I don’t believe him, I’ll pat him down. I’ll humiliate him. Oh okay you’re not carrying anything dangerous, I’ll say with a smirk.

I would do all of this because, in my imagination, I’m a plain-clothes NYPD officer and the statistics, the laws, back me up on what I already suspect: white hipster males are dangerous, more likely to have drugs and firearms on their persons, and their civil liberties can–and will–be sacrificed for the greater good.

That’ll be my platform: “the greater good”. From that platform, I’ll stand tall, shoulders back, proud of my work, despite the hate in the eyes of the white hipster male. Because–what can he do to me? I protect the flame of “the greater good” and his life is mere kindling. TC mark

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