It was 11:30 p.m. during the summer of 2008. I had just left a committee meeting at my church in suburban Atlanta and was driving home on Jimmy Carter Boulevard in my 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which I was holding together with baling wire. The left rear tail light and turn signal was temperamental, as has been true of many, I would learn later. So much so that I had taken to checking the turn signal before I backed out of the driveway, and getting out and banging on the light until it worked. In the weeks prior, the Jeep had also begun to suddenly idle too low and shut off when I stopped at traffic lights, and on this particular night at the entrance to the bridge from Norcross toward Lilburn, it did it again. For those familiar with this intersection then (it has been completely redone since then), it would not be a good place for a woman alone to break down, so I prayed that it would start again.
A victim of the Recession (which frankly still isn’t over for me or for a substantial number of others I know, despite the stock market buoyancy), the stress of the financial challenges I faced was high and I was, frankly, exhausted in addition to being tightly wound.
Thankfully, the car started, and when the light turned green, I pulled away, only to look in my rearview mirror and see flashing lights. After crossing the bridge, I turned right onto McDonough and came to a stop. The police cruiser followed and pulled in behind me.
I assumed that it was the light, and started to get out of the car, only to hear the police officer scream at me to get back in the car. I complied. He walked to the passenger side of my car and I let down the window. He asked to see my license and insurance card, the former of which I had already removed from my purse. Glancing at the insurance card, I saw that it had expired a month before and I started looking in the console and glove compartment just in case I had just failed to put the new card in my wallet—but I had a sinking feeling that in my ongoing juggling of funds, I’d forgotten to pay it for the first time I could remember in 20 years.
The moment I reached for the console, the officer started screaming at me to keep my hands in view. I saw that his hand was on his holster and I stopped searching for a moment. Because I could see his face in the streetlight’s glow, I knew the Hispanic-American man was young enough to be my son, and I reacted like a mother with a kid who was out of control. With my hands in front of me, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Officer,” I said. “Officer, stop!”
I guess it surprised him, because he did stop yelling, and I was able to explain that I was trying to find my insurance card. I handed him the one from my wallet, explaining that I knew it was not the new card, and picked up my cellphone to call GEICO, which fortunately had agents on call 24/7. While he was checking it via his dash computer, I confirmed that I had, in fact, failed to pay the last premium, and proceeded to pay the bill with a credit card right then and there. I asked the agent if she would speak to the officer, she agreed, and I got out of the car and started back to hand him the phone.
Once again, he jumped out of his car, screaming for me to get back in my Jeep. I stopped and held up the cellphone, telling him that my insurance agent was on the line and would confirm that I had just paid my bill and was now insured again.
It took some doing, but I convinced him to talk with her and he did. He initially told me that I would not be able to drive the car home, but relented and gave me a ticket. Shaking, I took the ticket and my cellphone, thanked the officer for his allowing me to go on home, and got back in the driver’s seat.
I have been reminded of that incident several times this week, but especially in relation to the police shooting in Minnesota.
When it happened, I was in my early 50s. I’ve wondered several times what might have happened had I been carrying a concealed weapon. I wonder what might have happened if I had had a gun and had disclosed it to the officer. I wonder what might have happened if I had had a gun and had NOT disclosed it to the officer.
And I know, with a certainty, that because I’m a white woman, the answer to what might have happened is…exactly what did.
Had I been black, I’m not as certain. Had I been both male and black, I’m not certain at all. The officer was scared—it was late, it was dark, there was no one else around. I was scared—it was late, it was dark, there was no one else around. And though I am white and female, the potential for a life-changing event for the both of us existed for a few excruciating seconds. But I know that because I am white and female, the idea that I might have been shot to death or otherwise brutally treated never crossed my mind.
As a person who once was a counselor, I know of the poor judgment we are all capable of when we are panicked. And I know what we are capable of when we deal with each other as human beings—responsible, compassionate, understanding human beings. It wasn’t the officer’s fault that I had financial problems and had forgotten to pay my insurance, nor was he responsible for responding to me without holding me accountable for my failure. I was guilty as charged. Nor was it my fault that because of the nature of our increasingly uncivil society, the officer felt he had to protect himself by expecting to be shot during a traffic stop rather than expecting to find a person with emotional maturity sitting behind the wheel of that broken-down Jeep.
But it was what it was, and on that night eight years ago, what should happen between two human beings in a confrontational situation did. And it does every day all over the United States between people of all persuasions. And it will continue to be so if we keep our heads and treat each other with the respect we all deserve.
But only if.