On Saturday, July 30, 2016, my husband Richard and I decided to take a little road trip to Oakdale, Louisiana for a family reunion on his side of the family. A five hour or so road trip. We were pretty excited about it and all was going well until around 7:00 pm when we drove through a small town called Glenmora, Louisiana.
At the bottom of a hill Richard noticed blue lights behind us so he pulled over to the curb.
Richard rolled down the window, we both faced forward and we waited for an officer to approach.
We were a little startled when the officer came to my side of the window as we were expecting him to come to the driver side, but OK maybe that is what they do now. Who knows? His badge read Officer Jack Wall. He was a young Anglo man.
Officer Wall asked Richard for his driver’s license and insurance. Richard complied and I passed it to the officer. Officer Wall then asked Richard if he knew why he was being stopped.
Richard, who drives 90 miles round trip to work every day and has not had a traffic violation in 6 years, responded, “No, I do not know why you stopped me.”
Officer Wall said, “You were doing 61 in 50 zone.”
Richard responded, “I just saw a sign that said 65.”
Officer Wall said, “It changed at the bottom of the hill.”
I am thinking OK that is a speed trap but I didn’t say anything. Richard replied, “Oh OK.”
Officer Wall said, “Why are you so nervous?” Richard replied, “I am not nervous.” Office Wall getting noticeably agitated demanded, “Do you have any weapons in the car?” Richard responded calmly, “No.” Officer Wall replied, “People going that fast often have drugs or large sums of money in the car. Do you have drugs or large sums of money in the car?” Richard responded, “No.”
At this point Officer Wall asked Richard to exit the vehicle and stand in behind it in front of the squad car. Richard complied, leaned back on the car, crossed his legs at the ankle and put his hands in his pocket. Officer Wall barked, “TAKE YOUR HANDS OUT OF YOUR POCKET”.
Richard complied. Wall then asked Richard a series of questions as he examined his driver’s license as if he were trying to catch him in a lie…, “Where do you live, why are you here, where are you going, do you have drugs, do you have large sums of money?” Richard answered all of his questions.
I am looking in the rearview mirror at all of this not sure what to do. Should I grab my phone and try to video record it? Should I at least place my phone on record and leave it in the cup holder to audio record all this? I just had the uneasy feeling that it was not going to go well but I was too afraid to move for fear of being shot.
This young cop was really escalating things here so I didn’t know what might happen. So I sat there really concerned for my husband’s safety because this young officer was acting so erratically. Wall then got into the police car I assumed to run the license and the plates. I began to think that it was taking an eerily long time.
About 10 minutes later another police squad car came swooping in and another young Anglo officer, Brian Flower from McNary, jumped out like they were coming in to take down the mafia. He screamed at me, “PASSENGER EXIT THE VEHICLE.”
I complied and came to stand next to my husband. They then proceeded to ask me the same questions they had already asked Richard. I responded. Then things really got bizarre. They asked if they could search the car??!!! I am thinking, search the car? For 11 miles over the speed limit? This is a minor traffic stop!!!!
My mind was whirling. We have nothing to hide. Do we let them do this illegal search? I know they need a search warrant to search your car. If we say no are they just going to take us to jail until they can get a search warrant? Will we have to wait until they call a K9 unit? We just want to get to the family reunion.
While all of these things are going through my head Richard responds, “Go ahead. We have nothing to hide.”
So I am waiting for that process to start and just when you think things can’t get any weirder Wall says, “For your own safety and our protection we need to place you in handcuffs while we search the car. You are not under arrest but we need to place you in handcuffs. We wouldn’t want anyone to get tazed or shot.”
At this point the entire scene is unbelievable to me. You don’t want anyone to get tazed or shot? Was that a warning, a threat or a declaration of what was about to happen? This is a traffic stop. You have two completely harmless middle aged grandparents that you are about to handcuff and search the car because… why???
About this time a THIRD squad car arrives and this time a Black cop steps out. Wall says to the Black cop, “Since you are here if you will watch them we will not need to handcuff them.” Watch them? Watch them! Like we are common criminals. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?
Officer Wall had declared himself judge and jury. I was just praying that he would not make the leap to executioner as well. He ordered the black cop to “watch them”. Watching is what I do when I baby sit my bonus grandkids. I am a quite grown, law abiding, tax paying woman. I do not need to be watched.
Everything about the situation was demeaning. Wall and Flower began to search our car and our things. They looked in the glove compartment, perhaps they enjoyed seeing the pink slip for the Volvo.
I know they think we stole it. How surprised they must have been to see that we actually own it. Made the last payment months ago and that the title matches the name and address on our driver’s license. Maybe they enjoyed going through the bags of snacks in the back seat that contained nothing more than a soda bottle and a couple of bottles of water. Looking for open liquor containers? Sorry. Nope. Not even a beer. They unzipped my CD container and guess what they found? CDs. A little Anthony Robbins and the complete Bible on CD. Bet they weren’t expecting that.
Can’t find anything in the cabin of the car, time to look in the trunk. Wall asked if there was anything in the trunk. Richard responds, “Yes, there are bags in the trunk.” They proceed to go through Richard’s bag, dropping his clothes on the ground and examining all his things. They open his pill box and ask him what is in there. He responds we will be gone overnight so his vitamins are in there.
They pass the pill box back and forth between the three of them and sniff his vitamins. They are finally satisfied that they are vitamins. They then turn their attention to my bag. They go through all my things, handle my Bible. MY BIBLE!!!! Who do you think I am the guy from Shawshank Redemption or something and I have carved out a little place in my Bible for a tiny pistol? There is nothing inside my Bible put pages. And a lot of words that you should take the time to read.
Then they start going through my clothes. They hold my little sundresses up and then cram them back in the bag. They turn my socks inside out. They hold up my underwear and finger them. I really feel like they were trying to get a reaction out of Richard so they would have an excuse to do something to him.
What man wants another man to finger his wife’s underwear? I will never wear those underwear again. I am going to burn them. How dare you put your grimy little hands on my unmentionables? I tried to make eye contact with the Black Officer but he just looked at the ground. It’s alright I know you have to do what you have been ordered you to do. “Watch Them”. I couldn’t take it anymore.
While all of this is going on my mind started to drift away. I thought about my dad. The WWII Veteran. I thought about Richard’s brother, the 20 year career Army vet who has passed away but who helped raise Richard after their mother died. We were on our way to see his widow. I thought about Nicholas’ dad. A proud Marine and all of Nicholas’ Aunts and Uncles who serve in the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Shoot I thought about my own 30-year career as an educator. Is that not service too? I thought about the foundation I helped Nicholas start and all the thousands of dollars that we have given to the community. Is that not service? I worried that this could happen to Nicholas some day and wondered how he would handle it. He is out there at Google all by himself.
If stopped would a cop see an Eagle Scout, honor student and Google intern or would they jump to some wild conclusion that he was somehow a menace? There are less than 1% of the tech population in Silicon Valley that is Black. I pray every day that some cop doesn’t hurt my boy because he sees a Black man who is in an area where he is thought not to belong. But he does belong. He belongs anywhere he wants to and works hard enough to be.
We are a patriotic, proud, law abiding, God fearing American family. But to the scores of people passing by on the highway on this warm Louisiana evening we must have looked like common criminals.
After all there were three cop cars, blue lights swirling, an obvious search going on with all of our things strewn about on the ground and Richard and I standing there being watched. On this display you could not see my three degrees, 6 teacher and administrator certifications or 3 professional licenses.
On this display you could not see Richard’s wide smile, warm heart and dozens of employee of the year certificates and other accolades. No what we must have looked like were common criminals who obviously had done something wrong and were being brought to justice.
The entire display only contributed to an already negative stereotype. We looked like two more of the usual suspects. Round them up and handcuff them. Is there ever going to come a time when we can just be?
I was taken back 200 years by this episode. Massa’ Wall demanding to see our traveling papers because we were outside of our plantation (Texas). We must provide an explanation for our presence. Where are you coming from, where are you going, whom are you going to see? And the Black cop playing the role of the overseer “watching us”. His own people. Why can’t we just be? It is a public highway. Can we just be? If we were speeding fine. Issue a ticket and keep it moving but this was way too much.
I cannot sleep for worry that this will happen again or happen to Nicholas or my brother or other loved ones. I shudder to think what might have happened if Richard had been alone. In my heart I really do believe they would have found a reason to shoot him.
And if I had been alone I would never have submitted to the illegal search. They would probably have taken me to jail. But just for the record if that does ever take place and anything were to happen to me in custody please know that I want very much to see Nicholas graduate from college. I want to dance at his wedding someday. I want to hold my grandchildren someday. I want to grow old with Richard. If anything ever happens to me in custody please know that I did not commit suicide!
And for all of those of you who say if you just follow the orders of what the police say you will be fine. If you just follow the orders of what the police say things will not escalate. Well we did everything that was asked of us. Literally more than the law requires. Things did escalate and I am not fine. The thing that bothers me the most is I don’t know anything that we could have done differently.
Except not be Black.
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