You’re driving somewhere, in a perfectly normal state of mind, and suddenly, you see someone following you… after a few blocks, you see flashing lights behind you… police lights… how does it feel? Your heart races, even if you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong. You start to perspire. You pray that they’re not after you. You slow down and realize, with dread, that yes… for some reason it is you they want.
I have to suspect that a vast majority of adults in the United States know that feeling. White, Black, of Latino descent, Asian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, male, female… we all know what it feels like in those moments before we find out why we’ve been singled out.
Now… imagine how it feels when that happens all the time. Imagine what it is like to drive while brown, walk while black, or in my case as a 17 year old, drive in a car that didn’t look like it belonged in the neighborhoods where I drove.
I haven’t fully processed the verdict in the case against George Zimmerman but one thing is clear to me, no one should have to live with the constant fear of being stopped, pulled over, followed, beaten up, or in the extreme, killed, just because of who they are or how they look. The question is, now that George Zimmerman has been found not guilty, and for an important moment the nation’s attention is on this issue, what do we do about it?
When I was around 17 years old I had a beat-up, used, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that I drove to deliver deli orders for Epstein’s deli in Nassau County Long Island. I lived in Rockaway and also had a lot of friends who lived “across the line” from Queens, many much wealthier than my family. Whenever I crossed the line from Queens to Nassau County, beyond feeling the dramatic difference in the roads (pot holes you could lose your entire car in when in Queens versus beautiful roads in Nassau County), I could also count on another difference as I crossed that line. More often than not, as soon as my beat up car passed that line, a police car would begin to follow me. Over a period of six months I got pulled over dozens of times. Each time the same treatment. “What are you doing here?” In some cases I was on my way to visit friends, other times delivering deli platters.
“Open the trunk.”
“Why did you pull me over?”
“Shut up and open the trunk.”
I’d go through the routine, over and over again, and after they had searched the car I’d be sent on my way.
This was humiliating, aggravating, time-consuming, and wrong.
Each time I followed the rules. I was polite, I did what the police officer asked. I made sure that I didn’t make any moves that could be perceived as dangerous. And I seethed. Just because I had an old beat-up car, I was a suspect. Just because I crossed the line from Poor America into Wealthy America I was a suspect.
Finally, after months of this happening, I’d had enough. I was pulled over for the last time. The police officer demanded that I get out of the car and open the trunk. I said no.
“What the *&^( do you mean, no?”
“Officer. May I please reach above my visor and take down a piece of paper?”
“OK. Here’s why I’m saying no. You’ve pulled me over 3 times in the last six months. Your badge number is XXXX. Your fellow officers, all of whose badge numbers I have here, along with the dates I was pulled over, are written down here. You have never found anything in my trunk. You have never charged me with any crime. I have never done anything wrong and I’m finished being pulled over like this. If you want to arrest me, go ahead, but I am not opening my trunk unless you have a warrant. My mother has a copy of everything I’ve written down here and if you arrest me she’s going to the press with it.”
“OK. Shut up and get out of here.”
That was the last time I was pulled over.
What’s the difference between me and Trayvon Martin? Beyond my living to be able to tell the story, there are actually a few more.
- I was a white Jewish kid who had connections to people who could do something about the problem I was facing.
- I wasn’t afraid of being beaten up or killed by the police.
- The person harassing me was a police officer and there was a system in place to deal with that type of problem.
- I knew my rights and in my heart I believed that I could prevail.
Trayvon Martin didn’t have any of those advantages.
Whatever your opinion about the circumstances surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death, it is clear that driving, walking, shopping, jogging, or doing just about anything while black/brown is fraught with problems in America. There have been more than enough exposes showing what happens when a white person walks into a store, wearing certain clothing, and when a black person of the exact same age and body type, wearing the same clothes, walks into that same store. One gets extra scrutiny by store clerks and security and the other gets a polite “Hi there! How can I help you?”
Had Trayvon Martin been a young white kid, walking down that Florida street, talking on his cell phone, with a bag of skittles and an ice tea, George Zimmerman would probably not have given him a second glance.
Each of us, individually and in groups, needs to think about, talk about, and figure out a healthy way to do something about whatever level of prejudice we have. Before we can change any laws we have to look into our hearts and change.
Across the country, communities are having an important conversation about race and the way in which our police behave. In some places, “stop and frisk” laws allow police officers to stop people on the street who look “suspicious” and search them. Sadly, no matter how many controls are put into place, we can all guess what the people stopped and frisked will look like, for the most part. It is humiliating and wrong and we have to work to put a stop to, or at least incredibly strict controls on, laws of this nature.
We also have to break the grip the NRA holds on our nation on the issue of gun control. We should begin at the local level. Towns, cities, counties, and states will have an easier time putting gun control measures in place than Congress. Let’s work this one like a mustard seed, tiny successes here and there that will spread.
A very specific law communities can put in place would bar someone engaged in a “civilian patrol” or “neighborhood watch” from carrying a gun while “on duty.” Only trained professional police officers should be armed. Why? If George Zimmerman had only been armed with a cell phone, or a walkie-talkie, he would have reported his suspicion and having been ordered NOT to follow Trayvon, he would not have been as likely to disobey that order and follow anyway.
Back in the day when I had my run in with police in Nassau County, I also had the benefit of being part of a civilian patrol organized by the 101st Police Precinct in my home town. The training we got was clear. Call and report and then stay back. And, NEVER carry anything that could be considered a weapon.
Trayvon Martin should never have been followed by a gun-toting man. Like every American, he had the right to be able to walk down the street, drive down the freeway, wander into a shop, or engage in any other activity that Americans rightfully assume we are FREE to do. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should not be dependent on the color of our skin. Trayon lost the most precious freedom of all, his life, because a man with a gun decided he looked suspicious. There are so many things wrong with that outcome and so many ways we as Americans can work to prevent outcomes like that from happening again.
I stood up to the police when I was 17 and said “Enough!” 17 year-old Trayvon will never have that chance. Now we need to stand up for all the Trayvon Martins in this country and say “Enough!”
Craig Wiesner is the co-founder of Reach And Teach, a peace and social justice learning company dedicated to transforming the world through teachable moments with books, toys, and fair-trade gifts focused on peacemaking, sustainable living, and gender equality. Reach And Teach also manages web operations for Tikkun/NSP.