Don’t Bring a Gun to a Knife Fight
I’ve been reading a lot lately.
And remembering things.
It must have been six or seven years ago. Maybe longer. It was summer. I was driving to my job to pick up something I’d left there, and then heading out on a weekend trip with my wife.
Eight blocks before we got to my office, I noticed flashing lights in my rearview.
I pulled over to let them pass.
Instead of going by, the police car slowly maneuvered right behind me and stopped.
My whole chest cavity filled with anxiety. I’m getting a mini reminder of the sensation now as I type these words.
One second, you are starring in the American dream, laughing with your life partner and mapping out what you’re going to do first on your weekend vacation. Then, an instant later, you’re thrust into the World Championship Round of “How to save your life when you’re not armed, nor dangerous, but nobody believes you, Black man, because the dead tell no tales and you might not make it.”
There’s only ever one round in this tournament, and it’s always for the chip. What do they call that again?
Right. Sudden death.
Win and go home, B. Win, and go home.
“You know your tag’s expired.”
It wasn’t a question from the officer. It was a statement.
My tags expire in the summer. I usually trust myself to remember. It’s not the best strategy, clearly, when I also had to remember summer birthdays for the kids, phone chargers, groceries, returning emails, and random checklists that were always too full. But up to that point, it had been working.
Now I remembered. And now I was cursing myself internally for forgetting whatever it was that I had left at my job, because had I just gotten on the road, rather than make this detour to work, chances are I wouldn’t have been sitting here talking to this officer, and hoping I remembered how slow was slow enough to get my paperwork out of the glove compartment.
It was page 87 of Oluo’s book (hardcover edition) that brought this story rushing back for me. I had quite honestly blocked it out in my archive of police encounters (which is something I hope that my daughter and two younger boys never have to have, but sadly, my two oldest sons— 14 and 16 — already do). On this page she shared a story about also being stopped for expired tags, but in her case, she was still in the same expiration month, which meant that the police had run her plate to find out this information. In mine, we were into the next month, so my sticker was visibly outdated, but I always wondered how and why the police just happened to notice that detail on a tiny ass white decal affixed to my license plate. Or did they also run my plate? And if so, why?
Luckily for me everything went fairly smooth. The officer spent most of his time in his car producing paperwork that added up to a hefty fine for my administrative negligence. Nevertheless, it was a nerve-wracking wait, praying that there were no computer glitches that showed erroneous arrest warrants, while beating myself up over not keeping up with the calendar and allowing this to happen. I’m thinking that my minivan with child seats, and my wife in the passenger spot kept his questions minimal. In fact, I don’t think he asked me any questions at all, after getting my license and registration. He just left me with the bill, almost with an attitude, as if he’d signed up for something other than disseminating invoices to unsuspecting motorists.
This took me back to Marc Lamont Hill’s book, Nobody, which skillfully unpacks the way that Ferguson, Missouri essentially floated their municipal budget on the fines, citations, fees, and late penalties assessed to their mostly Black citizens for all sorts of minor infractions. Michael Brown was initially approached because he was allegedly jaywalking, or as it is known in well-funded suburban neighborhoods, walking.
Where was my hefty fine going? Where did the regular $36 annual tag renewal money go? Why was I pulled over for this violation — was it something the officer just happened to notice at the red light, or was it an intentional action to generate revenue?
These were my questions then as I sucked it up and re-worked my budget. I was caught slipping, so we ate and drank a little less on our weekend getaway, I mailed off a check that Monday, and that was that for my story.
Kaba’s piece, pushing the current conversation about policing, adds another chapter for me, one that I first started thinking about seriously when I learned the name Philando Castille.
Did you know that he was only 32 years old when he was shot to death in his car by a law enforcement officer, in front of his girlfriend and her four-year old daughter in 2016? NPR reported that Castille was stopped at least 46 times by police for a range of traffic violations. The vast majority were not visible moving violations or issues with his car, but administrative infractions, like driving with a suspended license (which was suspended because of a failure to pay past citations and fees, not because he was an incapable driver, or otherwise a threat to motorists or pedestrians).
I remember thinking then why do police make traffic stops? When, how, and why did this become a part of their function? I’m thinking a lot about that question now. And others. Like why do we send police officers to defuse situations that require a crisis intervention counselor? And is carrying a firearm the best way to earn trust (and is it trust that they really want)?
Maybe this happens somewhere, but if the police see that I have a broken taillight, they can send me a friendly email or text message. Same for if my tags have expired; we really don’t need to have any kind of face to face interaction that involves you walking up to my car window with your gun on your hip. The anxiety is real — perhaps for both of us — and 100% unnecessary.
In fact, maybe this shouldn’t even be what police officers do at all. Maybe the only reason we think that it is is because we haven’t taken the time to imagine something different.
I believe that now is that time. And I believe that we’ll all be better off for it.