How my traffic stop echoes
A couple days ago, a cop pulled me over. It was late at night, and I’d been driving for nine hours straight. Home. That’s all I wanted, and I was going fast, too fast. I was zipping down I-80, descending the Sierra-Nevada mountain range in a blur.
The cop’s lights went on; I pulled over.
Conscious of the many many traffic stops that go wrong, I paid attention to the police officer’s instructions. He did everything right, based on my inchoate understanding of police protocol. Only that morning, I had listened to an NPR interview of a law enforcement spokesperson who explained “safe practices” during traffic stops.
My cop was clear in directions, even before he exited his vehicle. His voice echoed from the vehicle’s loudspeakers; he ordered me to stay in the car and wait for him to approach; the officer kept the SUV lights on, so they reflected off my side- and rear-view mirrors to limit my vision; he stopped at the edge of my window; if I had wanted to confront him, I would have had to perform a near 180 to face him properly. The officer seemed to take a moment to look into my car, assess me, the situation. When I handed him my license, he told me I had been speeding; I gave him my insurance and registration. The officer was incredibly cordial.
The incident was uneventful. It’s the way traffic stops are supposed to happen. Never did I fear for my life. Not once did I worry that a moving violation would metastasize into anything more: an arrest, a verbal or physical confrontation, my death.
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My mother is Chinese, my father Caucasian and Jewish; this mix contributes to my rather unique appearance. Apparently, I am the epitome of the ambiguous ethnicity. I’ve been mistaken for being Latino, Arabic, Greek and Native American. Just the other day, a young woman who took my food order asked if I was a “real, live Indian.”
I’m fairly certain that I’ve been racially profiled in the past, pulled over for being “brown.” But my “driving-while-brown” stops took place in Davis in the late ’90s. Back then the stakes weren’t so high. I was in danger of a ticket or, if I got belligerent or loud, a resisting arrest charge. That’s what Davis cops did — at least that’s what minorities who lived in the affluent and homogeneous suburb agreed on when conversations turned to such matters. Death, it seemed, wasn’t on the menu.
I imagine that my ambiguous appearance influenced officers back then. I looked Latino from afar, more Chinese upon closer inspection. Then I’d hand over a license with the name Weinshilboum. Consternation and curiosity were common reactions. At one stop (for failing to buckle my seat belt), one cop actually inquired about the origin of my name.
It’s strange having an identity that elicits so much curiosity. I am lucky to have a visage and slight frame that disarms. I can’t imagine existing in a world where my looks generate fear and apprehension.
While my recent traffic stop was completely ordinary, it included a moment that has lingered in my mind. You see, my 15-year-old son Alex was with me. When the flashing lights first emerged from the darkness, the boy erupted in glee. His father was caught read-handed and lead-footed.
“OMG, you are so busted,” Alex said aloud.
When I stopped the car, I turned on the dome lights and saw a look of merriment on the teen’s face. I reached over and opened the glove compartment, where I kept all the necessary paperwork. Alex glanced back at the flashing lights. Suddenly, all the mirth evaporated. A flash of anxiety skidded across his face.
“Dad?” he said.
I looked at Alex, red and blue lights dancing against his cheek, and I could see the remnants of Baton Rouge, Eagle Heights and Dallas.
“Dad?” Alex repeated quietly. “Put your hands on the steering wheel.”
He too had paid attention to the NPR “safe practices” segment.
“It’s OK,” I told him. “It’s OK.”
A few seconds later, the police officer’s conduct confirmed my assertion.
That moment, a moment comprised of about 10 seconds, has remained with me. When I spoke those two words to Alex — “It’s OK” — I was fairly certain that I was being honest, truthful. At least in reference to our specific situation.
Later, I learned that those very words echoed at the Philando Castile police stop — the stop that resulted in three to five bullets in Mr. Castile’s side. And his death. Only those sequestered in a cave haven’t seen excerpts or transcripts of the video taken by Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. She recorded a video immediately after a police officer shot Mr. Castile. Some might not have seen the complete video — or known that Ms. Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter was in the back seat and witnessed the entire incident.
Ms. Reynolds was calm and collected throughout the recording, perhaps due to shock, maybe an unconscious realization that, if she had acted in any way emotional, she might have been shot, too. A good seven or eight minutes elapsed before Ms. Reynolds’ calm demeanor deteriorated. She was placed in the back of a squad car with her daughter, and her monologue devolved into screams. Her daughter consoled her.
“It’s OK,” she said. “I’m right here with you.”
A 4-year-old who just witnessed a violent death comforted her mother with hollow words. Mr. Castile’s family is not OK, nor are the family and friends of the five police officers in Dallas, nor is the son of Alton Sterling.
We can only hope that Ms. Reynolds’ daughter has divined a future that the rest of our nation has yet to see.
David Weinshilboum is an English professor at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.