The Problem of Police Powers for People Living While Black

by Times Newsroom 1

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images. A message chalked on the road during a demonstration protesting the police shooting death of Philando Castile after a traffic stop, St. Paul, Minnesota, July 7, 2016

A few years back, I was on my way to an appearance at the Brattleboro Literary Festival, in Vermont. My coauthor, Peter S. Onuf, and I had decided to rent a car and drive up from New York, taking the scenic route. The weather was great, and it would be an adventure. Night fell as we drove through Massachusetts, and we were in the middle of a conversation when I noticed lights flashing behind us. Peter saw them too, and immediately pulled over to the shoulder of the road.

Perhaps because we were on the highway, and it was dark, the officer came to the passenger side of the car, where I was sitting. He motioned for me to open my window. I complied. He asked if we knew why we had been pulled over, and we were at a total loss. He said Peter had veered over the center line on the road. The problem with that explanation was that there was no line on that stretch of road. There had been some construction, and workers were in the process of putting a new lines down, as we could see looking farther ahead. He asked our names, which we gave. He asked Peter for his license.

And then he asked me for my ID. I was sitting there calmly, wearing my seat belt; I doubt seriously that the officer would have asked Peter’s wife, who is white, for her identification under these circumstances. The thing that was unusual about the two of us—and which, I believe, made the officer “suspicious” of us—was that Peter is white and I am black. We were an incongruous couple and had no reason to be together unless we were up to no good.

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