Image by Falon Opsahl
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in a special section on race in the Graphic.
I started teaching at Pepperdine in 1993. The cop who pulled me over recently was still in high school in that year.
Occasionally, I enjoy teaching night classes at Pepperdine, especially if they include film. But I dread the prospect of being stopped by the police on my way home afterward.
Call me paranoid, but the sight of a police car trailing behind me conjures up memories of the Barney Fife-looking cop who stopped me when I was walking home one day carrying my dad’s radio. I was 16 years old. The officer didn’t simply question me about where I was going or whether or not the radio belonged to me; he showered me with a stream of racial epithets. He also tried to provoke me to sudden movement, as he yelled and flailed his arms in such close proximity to me that any sudden movement on my part would have been a natural reflex.
Thank God that my father, who grew up during segregation, prepared me for this situation. I called the cop “sir” so frequently during the incident that one would have thought the title was his first, middle and last name. I didn’t move a muscle either; my hands were frozen in plain sight.
Though 37 years have passed, my father’s training regarding blue-on-Black interactions remains intact.
I was traveling south on Pacific Coast Highway, on my way home after my class on Sidney Poitier and the Civil Rights Movement. I noticed that a sheriff’s car was traveling behind me. Instinctually, I stiffened and readied myself for the prospect of being pulled over. I rehearsed in formulaic fashion the steps I would take should the police car lights begin flashing: 1) Pull over immediately; 2) turn the engine off; 3) turn on the interior lights of the car (my permanent tan might prevent an officer from seeing me at night); 4) place my hands on “10 and 2” on the steering wheel; 5) don’t move until the cop asks, and when I do, announce each action before slowly performing it.
Truth be told, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice these steps, including several times on PCH over the years.
But this time was different. The lights flashed behind me. “This is it,” I thought. “Sit up straight.”
Pull over immediately. Check. Turn the engine off. Check (or so I thought at the time). Turn on the interior lights — oops, I opened my trunk instead.
As the officer approached, flashlight in hand, I panicked, but I managed to flick on the interior lights and place my hands on the steering wheel a split second before he knocked on the window.
“Can you put your car in park?”
“Oh, Lord,” I thought. I skipped step 2. Good thing I didn’t miss steps 4 or 5. Brothers have been killed for those oversights and less.
“License and registration,” he said in an even, borderline friendly tone. I keep my registration and insurance in a compartment on my dashboard because the compartment is highly visible and paper thin. It would be nearly impossible to hide a weapon.
“Would you like my insurance card, too, Officer?” I asked in a casual tone that actually masked my trepidation.
I reached for the documents and slowly passed them to the officer. After he scanned them, the indignities began — subtle in this case, since he used no racial epithets, but still stinging.
“Is this your car?”
“Do you have any outstanding tickets or warrants?”
“Wait here while I run your plates.”
I’m sure the wait was fewer than 15 minutes, but it felt like he took long enough to run my plates and credit. For some reason, even unclear to me, I fished out my Pepperdine identification. Perhaps on a subconscious level, I wanted to preempt the questions that often accompany this type of blue-on-Black encounter: “Why are you out here tonight?” Or, “Where are you on your way to and from?” I snap back into reality as the butt of his flashlight tapped my window.
“Do you know why I stopped you?”
“Your right headlight is dimming.”
“OK. Thanks for letting me know.”
Before he said anything else, I casually flashed my Pepperdine ID. Again, I’m not sure why — to defuse the situation, vindicate myself or show off. I blurted out, “Yes, Officer, I’m just coming from work.”
“What do you do at Pepperdine?”
“I am a professor.”
“A professor of what?”
He took a step back and smiled. I don’t know whether it was because he was skeptical about me being a professor or relieved that I probably wasn’t a car thief. After all, I look so threatening in my newly grown, neatly trimmed, snow-white beard.
“Yes, I’ve been teaching at Pepperdine since 1993.”
“Really, I was still in high school then. Well, I’m not going to give you a ticket. But get that light fixed.”
“Will do,” I said.
He waited for me to drive off. As I do, I think about all of the students I’ve taught since 1993. How many of them are pulling people over? How many of them are being pulled over?
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