The first time I read the essay below, I felt a creeping sense of dread. Michelle’s attention to detail and turn of events made me feel like I was directly in the scene; I internalized each and every word.
The second and third times I read “Don’t Be Like Me,” I began to realize that - however powerful her words are and however they moved me - I’d never truly experienced the things Michelle felt, the very real sense of dread that day. I began to understand her story through her own eyes and not mine, those of a white man who has only ever been pulled for speeding.
These “stories in plain sight” allow us to remove and replace our own lenses and put on - or borrow - the lenses of others, a privilege that leads towards new sight and understanding. The lens that Michelle and I share and see through beyond this “Issue” is that we’re both members of a society, citizens that should be the same under the eyes of the law - and law enforcement.
So, take off whatever lens(es) you may have on and see this story in a different light, through her lens.
DON'T BE LIKE ME - Michelle Ngwafon
I don’t like law enforcement. I think the only pleasant interaction I’ve had with them (outside of politics) was when they plopped me down on a fire truck for a photo; I was four at the time. But there is one incident that I will never forget…
Math has never been my subject, which was probably why I was running late for a test. I knew I’d probably get a B, but with every red light, I grew a little more anxious. Then, a police car pulls up behind me. It’s hard to describe the feeling of looking in your rear-view mirror and seeing a white Charger with dulled sirens. It’s somewhere between a tightness in your heart and an angry confusion. I shouldn’t have to feel like this, but here I am. So, you talk to yourself: You’ve done nothing wrong; when the light turns, simply switch lanes and let them pass. The light turns green. I slowly start to drive and trafficate over, and for a moment I thought I was good. Then began one of the worst days of my life.
My parents never had the “What to do when you’re pulled over” talk with me. I have older brothers, and I’ve watched enough TV. I know how this goes. You keep your hands on the steering wheel until they get to the car. You always tell them what you’re going to do before you move your hands. You reach with one hand very slowly. Don’t jerk; don’t make sudden movements; don’t forget and move the other hand. They need to feel comfortable and in control; you need to act demure and submissive.
I tell the officer: “I’m going to use my right hand to get my license and registration.” But I can’t find the registration. Now my palms are sweaty and I’m freaking out. Glove compartment? Checked. Little pull out-drawer next to the glove compartment? Checked. Arm rest? Checked. It’s not here. Fear is creeping in because I can’t tell them I don’t know where the registration is, and then it clicks - Why am I being pulled over? And as I turn back around to ask, I feel the hairs on my back rise. I am surrounded by cops, guns drawn. I am looking right at the end of my life.
“What’s going on?” Not the smooth crooning of a Marvin Gaye song, but that “How did I go from late-to-math-class to being surrounded by cops in downtown Silver Spring at 1:00pm on a Wednesday?” feeling.
“The license plate for this car belongs to a different vehicle...do you know where this car is from?”
“Yes...it’s my father’s and we’ve had it for years.”
“Your father owns this car?” I nod. “Where’s your license and registration?”
“I...here’s my license, but I can’t find the registration. Can I use my right hand to call my Dad?” The officer hesitates, and I’m looking at him as well as past him as the officers behind him look ready to pounce. No sudden movements. No jerky motions. He finally nods and I call my Dad, doing my best to speak calmly as I fight back tears. I’m speaking fast because who knows when he’ll tell me to hang up? I’m saying over and over again that they have guns drawn because I’ve only seen a gun maybe twice in my life. I’m begging him to tell me where the registration is because this officer doesn’t believe me.
My Dad is telling me to relax, telling me it’s going to be fine. My mind is racing…it’s racing Trayvon Martin and Rodney King and Tamir Rice and Michael Stewart and Eric Garner and Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Yvette Smith and Shantel Davis and Malissa Williams like they’re running a marathon and their shirts say: Don’t be like me. How can I relax when everything tells me that this isn’t relaxing? How does my Dad know it’s going to be fine? He asks if I can slowly hand the phone to the officer. So I do.
They talk for a minute or two and the officer returns to his car. My mind goes back to racing. Then there’s a tap on my window. I’m given back my driver’s license and phone and told to have a nice day.
Here’s what happened: my brother was pulled over the day before and the car was impounded. When they were entering the car’s information they entered it as a Mercury instead of Mercedes. My Dad picked up the car, and of course we didn’t know. They took the registration to enter the information and never gave it back. So this officer saw me in a Mercedes and decided to scan my plate. And he assumed I stole the car, calling for backup immediately.
I didn’t get an apology. I didn’t make my math test.
I’ve been pepper sprayed. I’ve been pulled over for not trafficating, for “distracted driving” while adjusting my mirror, and for being in the HOV lane at 5:59pm when it opens at 6pm. I’ve been asked to show ID because 23-year old me didn’t look like I belonged where I was, been threatened with a baton, been shown the taser that would be shot at me if I didn’t leave the party faster. After all of this - how would you feel about law enforcement?
MORE TO THE STORY
Learn more about the history of policing. Read "The racist roots of American policing: From slave patrols to traffic stops" here.
Akheil Singla takes a look at city revenue streams, traffic fines, and race. Read the conclusion of his study here.
After Freddie Gray's death, Baltimore saw a sharp rise in crime. Check out USA Today's report on the sudden changes in the city's policing.
This week's recommended podcast is Radical Imagination, a podcast that "focuses on radical solutions to our society's most pressing problems." Click here to listen to host Angela Glover Blackwell conduct a discussion on police abolition.