Friday, July 14, 2017

Driving while black: as a black woman with a black man

As a black woman, it’s often unsafe for me to drive alone. I realized this during my first year in very populated Northern Virginia as I drove back to my new apartment from the nearby mall. I went to Potomac Mills after work for whatever unmemorable reason, so time quickly shifted from late evening to dark night while I picked up purchases and dinner.

I approached the first stoplight leaving the shopping center, braking and stopping as the overhead circle of yellow flashed to red. A horn simultaneously sounded from my right. I turned my head to glance at a driver, a male silhouette whom I didn’t recognize, so I automatically assumed his attention-getting tactic was meant for someone else. Yet when I pressed the gas pedal at the green light, I noticed that he trailed me.

He honked a little longer at the next light. This time I took off at a higher speed, but the faster I went, the faster he went, too. We raced towards Dale Blvd – which led to my apartment – breezing past slower-moving drivers who obeyed posted signs and probably chastised my recklessness because they were oblivious to my situation and impending dilemma.

I was maybe a mile from my right turn. For my safety, I couldn’t take him to my home where I lived by myself. My strategy was to lose him in sparse nighttime traffic or lead him directly to the local police precinct. I was new to the area and could only visualize the station, which was located a few miles the more familiar long way. I couldn’t think straight enough to know what to do after I hooked a left on Minnieville, but I was alert enough to zoom in and out of groups of cars and confuse my chaser whose only apparent aim was to stick close to my rear bumper. He couldn’t fit in one of the spaces between my car and the one behind me.

I stopped at another light and didn’t see his neutral-colored Impala behind me or beside me. He didn’t pull up next to me at the following light, either; nevertheless I cautiously went home, forever remaining alert to the few men who lurk as predators to single women on the highway.

I immediately recalled the incident nearly 20 years later as I drove down Washington’s New York Avenue, near the point where it switches to Maryland route 50. I’d since relocated out of the area, but I maintained Virginia license plates, which are prevalent in the DMV – DC, Maryland, and Virginia. I wasn’t exactly an out-of-towner.

I had just dropped off my cousin at her nephew’s (my other cousin’s) apartment, which quite literally rests on the DC and Maryland border. It was somewhere around 11 p.m., yet I decided to make the nearly 4-hour return trek back to her home. Solo. However the area was my home for several decades; I wasn’t exactly scared to travel that route by myself.

That is until a big, yellow Penske truck paced the vehicle I drove, side-by-side, beginning at the point where I left behind the bustling city traffic: on route 50 where it splits with the Baltimore-Washington Parkway exit.

I heard the horn honk three times followed by a yell out of the driver’s side window. I continued to stare ahead. I hoped he was hollering at someone else, so I instinctively mashed down on the accelerator, temporarily creating a two-car length’s distance between his vehicle and mine.

But he quickly caught back up to honk and yell some more. His words were unintelligible, not that it mattered. I wasn’t interested in what he was saying. It was pitch dark, and I wasn’t trying to mingle with a stranger in the midst of it. I pressed the button to close the tiny gap in the passenger’s side window that provided a wanted draft of fresh air. Still the driver continued his attempt for initial contact.

I grew nervous as the bright lights of Chocolate City dimmed in my rearview mirror. I felt a twinge of deja vu; once again I didn’t have an escape plan. Nearby exits into Prince Georges County only led to darker streets. Not a single DC Metro or PG officer was in sight.

The only difference is I wondered if I was jumping to conclusions and perhaps this was really a concerned driver who was simply trying to warn me about some imminent danger, after all I had parked my car a few blocks from my other cousin’s apartment and not quite under a light post. And although my other cousin walked me back to my car, I didn’t thoroughly check inside when I got back in it and pulled off. Maybe someone sat up in my backseat waiting to stab me closer to Bowie, where suburban Marylanders were off the quiet roads and in their plush beds.

I did a quick turn to the back, but I didn’t see anyone. I sniffed for smoke but smelled none. I checked my side and rear mirrors for flames or a slightly flopping trunk, but I saw nothing. I looked out the driver’s side window at the other passersby, searching for a cosign that “Yeah, girl, you need emergency roadside service.” But everyone stared straight ahead.

The fool on my other side continued to beep and shout.

“Leave me the fuck alone!” I screamed, more to myself since both of my windows were then up. I hit the gas pedal again, passing everyone who didn’t notice me or chose to ignore me. Finally the yellow truck diminished and merged onto 495.

I traveled 85 more miles tapping my brakes and looking out my side mirrors for shades of red on the backs of road signs and on the road itself, an indicator that I did indeed have brake and tail lights.

“Forget it,” I said, as I pulled over in Cambridge, MD, to give the car a cursory check at a brightly lit gas station.

There was no man in a ski mask patiently waiting for some interval of street lamps to dim and disappear into complete darkness. There were no wafts of silver smoke escaping from the undercarriage of the vehicle. No flickering flames. No leaking liquids. No blown bulb lights. No nothing.

I was absolutely relieved all was well, that I wasn’t about to be assaulted or stranded hundreds of miles from my destination. But then I was peeved.

I was literally in the dark, unaware of true intent. I was vulnerable. I panicked, oblivious to any faint hint of flirting. I wasn’t flattered by any of these men’s actions. I actually wished for a male companion as a way to avoid unwanted attention or a police presence for protection against what could’ve transpired because I was truly afraid.

But part of this was before unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer; before 25-year-old Freddie Gray sustained a mysterious fatal neck injury under the supervision of 6 Baltimore police officers; before 28-year-old Sandra Bland was found hanging in a Texas jail cell three days after being stopped for an improper lane change; and before 32-year-old Philando Castile was shot and killed inside of his car in front of his girlfriend and her daughter by a Falcon Heights, Minnesota, officer during a traffic stop. Part of this was after. Alerting the police to some perceived danger – especially of a strange black man – today can lead to a tragic outcome. I would think twice and thrice before making a judgment that could ultimately cost someone his life.

But something I didn’t really think about was how my experience would remain practically unchanged in the same vehicle as a black man, and that I’d likely go through the same range of emotions and then some.

Driving with a black man creates a whole other level of anxiety, fueled by an automatic assumption of his demeanor and presumed guilt. It doesn’t alleviate any of the typical pressures of driving while black by simply riding with a black woman. For the woman, it introduces an unnecessary edge that’s somewhat proportional to exercised caution and awareness: the more alert I am of the news and my surroundings, the straighter I sit in my seat, the harder I grip the wheel, and the more I exaggerate my actions to obey the laws of the road. It diverts some of the attention from passing cars driven by civilian “admirers” to parked vehicles occupied by uniformed men.

During a recent Saturday morning, I drove one of my 40+ year-old male cousins two hours north to a Delaware casino and back.* On the ride up, we laughed about our mode of transportation: “We’re riding low-key today,” he said. Instead of the usual full-sized SUV, we rolled in the everyday vehicle, a nondescript car with a screwdriver in each doorjamb to hold the front windows up. It wasn’t flashy or new, and it wasn’t the vehicle we normally took out of town, but it was in great condition considering the low mileage and gas intake. On the return trip we laughed about how quick it was to lose a few bucks, especially when you get greedy and try to double and triple your winnings with just one mo’ spin of the wheel or just one mo’ roll of the dice.

I travel through rural lower Delaware at the exact speed that’s posted on the sign, especially with the constant reminders of “Strictly Enforced” lining the highway, not to mention the abrupt changes in speed. It isn’t unusual for the signs to reflect 55, then 45, then 35 with a Delaware state trooper perched near the last one all within a quarter mile distance. It’s a trap, in my opinion, and I hate it just as much as I hated traveling from Texas to Louisiana through what my girlfriends described as “Klan Town.”

“You have to drive the speed limit through there,” they said before we got to the outskirts of Houston.

And so in the same manner I maintained a steady 55 in the right lane towards Laurel, Delaware, with a handful of cars in the left lane. We passed a cop, who sat on the side of the highway clocking our speeds. He immediately pulled out behind us and followed us.

My cousin and I continued to crack up, but I kept my eye on the officer, whom I kinda suspected was trailing us because he wouldn’t pass us but rather closely paced us while everyone else left us behind. It’s a pet peeve of mine; if it isn’t rush hour, there’s no reason to ride my bumper, drive catty-corner to my vehicle, or ride side-by-side like motorcycle club members. Either slow up or speed up. We decided that we’d stop at a Royal Farms gas station to force him by.

“Make sure you put on your signal!” he warned.

“Um, I got this,” I said. “I don’t get pulled over. You do!” Admittedly there’s no humor in that comment, and I regretted it the moment I said it, but there is a bit of truth: It’s his rite of passage as a tall, black man sporting a baseball cap to often be illuminated at night by a bevy of blue lights. I once discreetly sat on the phone line as a witness with him at 1 a.m. just last fall as he endured a random stop and search in the first state. I suppose he looks scary and suspicious of something in his luxury truck or car even if he hasn’t committed any crimes.

We were at Royal Farms long enough for me to go inside and use the restroom, so it definitely wasn’t a quick circle around the parking lot and I was back on the highway.

“Let me be sure he’s gone,” I joked as we got back into the car. I’m not sure why I even said it. I’m thinking intuition, but sometimes I forget there’s life in the tongue, and the things we say often come to fruition.

“There he is,” my cousin said as soon as I got back on the road. There was a little side store maybe a tenth of a mile from the Royal Farms. He hid on the side furthest from the gas station. As I drove past the little store, the trooper pulled right back on the highway and got behind us. I shifted into disbelief because no cop would actually play hide-and-seek with what could be represented as an out-of-town couple in an old sedan that doesn’t even have rims and tinted windows! Who does that?

“He’s following us,” he added.

“No, he isn’t,” I countered, mainly because I truly wanted to prove that we were operating off of ridiculousness and paranoia.

We were approaching the turn that leads to the development where another cousin happens to reside, but I was too close to the intersection, and I didn’t want to slam on brakes with the uniformed smart ass so close behind us. Just past the turn was a busy truck stop; so what if I did just leave Royal Farms. I turned on my left signal and moved to the turn lane.

He did, too.

And he turned on those blue lights.

I drove into one of the diagonal spaces facing the highway; the trooper parked directly behind me, got out of his cruiser, and approached the passenger side of our car. I found this to be odd since we were no longer on the highway where this would be protocol for safety reasons.

“May I see your license?” he asked my cousin through the rolled up window, although my cousin wasn’t driving; I was.

My cousin told him that he had to open the door since we couldn’t roll down the windows with the screwdrivers and all. The cop nodded. He asked for my license, too, and registration.

“May I ask why you pulled us over?” my cousin said. “She did nothing wrong.”

“I’ll get to that in a minute,” he replied before asking where we were coming from.

“Harrington,” one of us replied.

“Did you win anything?”

I gave him a does-it-look-like-we-won look. He chuckled. Then he finally decided to divulge the details of my alleged infraction.

“You failed to signal when you made that right onto route 9,” he said.

I contradicted him because there was no route 9 in my journey. It was one highway through three states. “Route 9?” I said. “Sir, I only came down route 13.”

“When you made that turn by Royal Farms,” he explained. That was 9. He said I didn’t indicate in time. “So I pulled over and waited for y’all to come back out.”

If my cousin and I could exchange incredulous looks, we would’ve. But instead we aimed our expressions towards the trooper who’d just admitted to hiding from us and trying to trap us instead of immediately pulling us over. We were cognizant of when I turned on the signal light because my cousin and I had discussed it. I also wanted to tell the officer that we were well aware that he had his eye on us way before the turn because he was already trailing us prior to us making the decision to get off of the highway. So the turn really had nothing to do with it.

He told us to sit tight while he ran our licenses. He returned to my side, handed me the licenses back, and warned that in the future to remember to turn on the light before I begin my turn. Then he left us wondering what in the world had just happened.

We replayed the story of the stop to our relatives to see if they could come up with a valid explanation. Maybe the vehicle matched the description of one that the Delaware State Police were looking for, someone said, only that car isn’t as popular of a model as say a Honda Accord or a Nissan Altima. Perhaps my cousin’s general appearance resembled that of a known fugitive. Or just maybe his brown complexion, slightly masked by the lid of a cap, and apparent physique automatically made him guilty, and that’s why he was often asked to provide identification because surely he was on some most-wanted list. My mere presence didn’t change that.

Rather selfishly, consciously, and yet unfairly, I separate myself from my cousin when it comes to any out-of-state excursions. I no longer want to be in the same car. I don’t want to be profiled, stopped, and harassed for no real reason. I don’t want to be on that list. Unfortunately that also means that I’m feeding into that same stereotype that law enforcement is consuming: Something about this black man must not be right.

What’s just as unfortunate is the realization that this is routine for many black men – to be presumed guilty until reluctantly proven innocent – and there’s no such thing as safety in numbers, even with a woman. But it’s a new narrative for me, and it has taught me that I’m only exchanging one precarious situation for another one, and as a black woman, I am no safer riding with a black man than I am riding alone. 

*In case anyone wondered why he didn’t drive: Something about being an official “city driver” has made me the designated driver for everyone, both intoxicated and sober. I drive everywhere. I’m an unofficial Uber.

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