The Color of Me: Stopped in the Name of the Law
I spent several hours Sunday afternoon writing a post I chose to name A Death In Ferguson. This case, for some reasons, has struck a cord. Like many before it over recent years, it carries the same story elements: Caucasian male + African-American teen/young adult + incident/situation = Death of African-American teen/young adult. This is Act One.
Then, Act Two follows. Act Two appears to always be the villainization of the African-American teen. Was Trayvon Martin not villainized by George Zimmerman’s defense team? Was Zimmerman’s arrest immediate or, as perceived by the public, his familiarization with the law enforcement the cause for his delayed arrest? Is Michael Brown now the victim of the same villainization?
In 2014, why is it that we have people working in law enforcement who have two sets of rules – one for the white population and one for the non-white? Yes, this is an assumption on my part, to some degree, and I would anticipate some could comment with fervor for with either positive or negative responses.
What we should realize is this:
Just because the United States has seen the election of the first African American President, it does not mean that racism is now extinct. It is still there…hidden.
Because of the situation currently unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, I would like to expand an example I used in yesterday’s post. It is a reminder to anyone who might read this post that we all have room for growth. It is a reminder that people in authority sometimes use that authority in ways that are inappropriate. It should make us all stop and look at ourselves and our own actions. It is a hope that law enforcement protects and serves instead of only enforce and submit. This is The Color of Me: Stop In The Name of the Law.
The Color of Me: Stopped In The Name of the Law
I stated the following in the post mentioned above:
Michael Brown, a Ferguson teenager, was shot and killed last week by police. Since that time, little to no information has been released by the Ferguson Police Department. For the purpose of this post, I will not comment on Mr. Brown. I do not know him and I am not capable of speculating on his character or his potential future accomplishments or his past deeds/misdeeds. On the same note, I do not know anyone in the Ferguson PD or the city’s government. I cannot speculate on their character or past deeds/misdeeds. I do not live there and am not qualified to make those judgements.
I won’t delve into details already given in that post. Instead, this post is about me and my own experience. So, let’s go back in time – back to Mississippi in 1996.
Many of my readers already know my background; however, for the purpose of understanding, I provide these facts:
- I was born in Mississippi in 1973.
- I am an only child (biological) to white parents.
- Our family would be considered Middle Class.
- I attended public school.
- I had a Nanny who helped care of me at my grandparents country store during the first years of my life. (See below for more of the Color of Me series.)
Because of my background and the path my of my own destiny, I became friends with a guy named Curtis Magee, who has been mentioned several times in the Color of Me series. By 1996, Curtis and I had moved past the Best Friend label and shared a brotherhood – one that extended past us and to his four brothers and his other family members.
Curtis’ grandmothers were both still alive and it was not uncommon to see me at their houses after school or after dark. I was enrolled at William Carey College and worked as a Computer Lab Tech at the local Middle School.
I Will Follow You
I lived in the dorm at William Carey and, after visiting with Curtis and his family, prepared to leave around 8:30pm. I do not recall the date but feel confident that it was either a Tuesday or Thursday night. I got into my car and drove off. I came to a stop at the end of the road and saw a city police car – driving slowly – heading in my direction on the road I was about to cross.
By the time I reached the second stop sign, it was clear that the city car was behind me as I saw him in the rear view mirror. I stopped….waited…and turned. I reached another stop sign….stopped…waited…turned. I reached another stop sign….stopped…waited..proceeded to cross the highway and into the cross section. There was ANOTHER stop sign. I stopped…waited…and pulled out onto the lane that would carry me back to William Carey.
The cop chose to follow me through all the stop signs and my gut instinct had been to proceed all the way across the highway and into the driveway of another city policeman who I knew – and who was African-American. I’ve always wondered, had I done so, would the following still occurred? Would I have been stopped in the name of the law?
The Stop Sign that Ran
So, I pulled out onto the highway and began my trek back to Hattiesburg and William Carey. My trip was delayed because I heard a whistle and saw the lights. The city cop, who had followed me for a good two-three minutes, was behind me signaling for me to pull over.
He approached my car – a white Mercury Topaz – and asked for my license and I provided it. He shined his flashlight in my backseat and asked, “Do I need to search the vehicle?”
I responded, “Sir, you do what you need to do.”
He shined the light in my face and went back to his car. He stayed there for three-five-eight minutes. I don’t recall how long but it didn’t appear to be a quick run of a license. I wouldn’t admit it to anyone then but I had become fearful. I knew many of the policemen on the force – both black and white. I had worked with many of them at local athletic events and was on good terms. I did not know this man.
The cop, who I would later find out was a part-time cop working for the city, returned to my car and handed me my license. He said, “Mr. Jones, what business do you have on this side of town at night?”
EUREKA! All was revealed. “I was visiting friends.”
He didn’t reply to the comment with words. Instead, he tore off a ticket and handed it to me. The ticket was for running a stop sign. Not just any stop sign, mind you. The stop sign on the road where he originally saw me! It was a stop sign that I KNOW as fact that I observed and came to a 100% complete stop. How do I know? I changed CDs at that stop sign before proceeding!
What he said next was the icing on the cake.
“I’m giving you a ticket for running a stop sign. You will find all the information you need on the ticket.” I was so angry that I was almost in tears but did not want to reveal it to this man. “Maybe next time you will think twice about being somewhere you shouldn’t be after dark.”
I could not believe it. In 1996 and in my hometown where I had been the model citizen, a part-time city cop had stopped me for running a stop sign that I knew I had not run. I only wish that I had been able to use technology of 2014 to record his words: Maybe next time you will think twice about being somewhere you shouldn’t be after dark.
I knew that we had a new Chief of Police, a man not from Collins. I assumed that the man who hired this cop might not respond to my letter. Because of this, I wrote a letter to the following:
- the Mayor
- the local Justice of the Peace
- the Board of Alderman
- AND..the Chief of Police
My goal was to make sure that the cop’s conduct didn’t go unnoticed. It wasn’t the fact of the ticket – even though it was – but the fact that I was a victim of discrimination by this cop. He assumed, just because I was white in a black neighborhood, I must be up to no good!
The Call of the Chief
Several weeks/months later I received a call from the Chief of Police. He prefaced the call by informing me that his call was “at the behest of the Mayor who received a copy of the letter you sent me.”
I translated that to mean: If it were up to me, I wouldn’t call you but I have no choice in the matter.
He continued, “I spoke with Officer (name). He assures me that you did indeed run the stop sign and I find no reason to not believe my officer’s word.”
Translation: He says you ran it so you ran it. I take his word over you.
He finished, “I understand you don’t agree with the ticket but Officer (name) was within his rights to stop you after you broke the law by running that stop sign.”
Translation: He stopped you. Deal with it and shut up.
I replied with, “Tell the mayor I appreciate him asking you to call.”
Translation: I know you didn’t do this of your own will and there is nothing that can come of disputing it further; however, I am not thanking you for being condescending.
My network of contacts – both black and white – quickly uncovered the part-time cop’s mistake. Around that time there was speculation of a white male in his 20s/30s, who would go into predominantly African-American neighborhoods after dark, in search of drugs. This white male drove a small, white, four-door car.
I choose to believe that this part-time cop mistakenly identified me as that person. With that assumption, his questions made sense.
“Do I need to search the vehicle?”
“Mr. Jones, what business do you have on this side of town at night?”
On the other hand, it provided new insight to the length of time it took for him to run my license and return to the car. I speculate that he discovered that he had the wrong person. He could have returned and said, “Mr. Jones, everything checks out good. Make sure to buckle up and drive safely.” Instead, it appeared that his ego did not allow that to happen. He chose to show his authority.
The Chief of Police accepted a different position in another city within the next year. To my knowledge, the part-time cop is no longer such nor has he been that for many years. He owned a convenience store/gas station in the city and I never bought anything from there again.
The Lesson of the Law
A white male in South Mississippi chose to be in an area where another white male did not deem appropriate. Did I feel the victim of discrimination? Yes. Did it allow me to feel the same as what someone who was an African-American male might feel? No, it did not. Does it provide me an insight into the world of discrimination? Of course.
The lesson for me in 1996: You can’t always trust the police.
The lesson for me in 2014: The men and women of law enforcement are human. They have their own prejudices just as do we all. The problem comes when those in charge either do not hire the people who can police fairly and consistently OR agree with those who share prejudicial and biased views.
If we could go further back in time and change the circumstances to match the era, what would my lesson have been in 1966, 1956, 1926, 1886, 1876, 1866, 1856? Would things have been the same if I had been stopped in the name of the law during that time?????