UPDATE: It seems that Mr. Sir and John counted fourteen policepersons in all on this fateful evening and so I thought this worth adding. Because so often people tend to exaggerate numbers and situations, it is my way to… what is the opposite of exaggerate? I am going to check the antonymary… I am going to go with understate. Anywho, I tend to always round things down as I find that hyperbole discredits the point one is trying to make. My memory of that evening is very clear though it is the emotional part of it that is most fixed. As we waited for forty-something minutes for the FOURTEEN policemen to decide what to do with us, I ruminated on the inherent hypocrisy of the situation, the shame, and the tragedy, while my ethnic companions counted cops over and over, as the numbers increased. Part of me doesn’t want to believe there were quite that many uniforms surrounding mar car but I know my companions to eschew hyperbole as well. I am not going to go back and edit the post below, so this update shall suffice as sufficient edit.
I have a friend, whom I shall call Mr. Sir for this post, and who is a rather wonderful mixed breed of African American, German, and Native American, which is rather evident in his features. Mr. Sir is a well-educated and accomplished sort of sir and holds a very prestigious position at a highly regarded art museum with a notable (7$s worth) collection of Fine Art. Often Mr. Sir is sent to other countries by this museum as trusted escort for priceless artwork — by the likes of Monet, to name a one — when this museum borrows or loans work from/to other prestigious museums. Museums do this, and the work being shared MUST be escorted for various reasons, all of them, like, totally important. He has also been sent to other countries to authenticate rare works of art ($729,000 worth of rare art on one trip alone) before his employers write the check, and is responsible for conserving six figure works, like when kids stick gum to paintings and whatnot.
Art is also “handled” by “Art Handlers” and shipping companies, but that good, bad, and sometimes rather ugly inside scoop is for another post. Mr. Sir is not an Art Handler though, yet our pal Biggie is, who is big. And strong.
Mr. Sir has experienced his fair share of flights running late, resulting in his dashing through airports alongside said priceless works (think very large packages and/or crates) in order to make connecting flights and he has been stopped — due to the packaging and the features and the dashing — at a more frequent rate than other running airport people, the point being that he is among those who seem to attract such visual scrutiny in airports. Therefor, Mr. Sir is ever-s0-vigilant to shave on flight days, even if that means shaving at 3 am, because he has learned by the seat of his delayed-ass pants that the combination of facial hair plus dark skin color and exotic features can result in scrutinizinglied missed flights, and how often can one ask their employer to purchase yet another last-minute flight due to attention attracting (not ALL of it bad, actually) exotic features?
I have tried to walk a figurative mile in Mr. Sir’s various ethnic shoes yet I am merely able to approximate what life must be like for persons of different colors and ethnicities, having been born a whitey through no merit of my own (I’m looking at you white people who feel superior for “winning” some sort of pre-birth lottery). Recently, however, I had a small taste of this thanks to the Northampton, MA Police Department. Thank you NPD, I am now ever more sensitized to the dubious perils of being non-white. Though having been pulled over in the south — by another baby-faced, blond-haired, blue-eyed officer — and astronomically ticketed for being a Yankee, I know a wee bit of the helpless rage one feels at such injustices.
It’s all fun and games until someone gets profiled and finds their car surrounded by policemen wielding flashlights and a few rounds of hollow-point suspicion.
I don’t choose my friends by visuals; I choose them by their souls, how they make me feel about myself, and that which is abundant in their hearts. My companions on that fateful night are two of the most sensitive, sincere, compassionate, spiritual (by which I mean that they believe in and practice that which is truly good and beneficial for fellow humans, though not affiliated with any particular brand of religion), kind, generous, intelligent and evolved people I have the fortune to know. They are beautiful people, inside and out.
Mr. Sir, like many of his related relatives before him, has in the last few years been getting more involved with his Native American roots. He grew out his adorable jheri curls and now sports braids, often sporting Naive American-ish clothing. Noooooo, not feather headdresses and immodest scraps of buffalo hide barely covering his manly bits, I mean “ribbon-ed” shirts and beaded necklaces. “Ribbons” in this case refers to hand stitched designs — by an authorized person — which signify one’s specific tribe and whatnot, including admirable accomplishments I believe, though not scalps of whites brought back to the rez, silly. I don’t understand all of it and so I will leave it at that. Mr. Sir goes to Pow Wows all over the country, participating more and more in Native American ritual and philosophy, which is about kindness, peace and forgiveness. They best believe in forgiveness, for what was done to those native to this land was deplorable; being slaughtered and herded onto fenced millifractions of what was once their own land. And it hasn’t ever gotten much better, though the slaughtering ceased ages ago.
Mr. Sir always bring me back a satchel of sage blessed by a Medicine Man at the Pow Wows and I burn it for friends who need prayers. I swear sometimes it works. I have never been to a Pow Wow or even a reservation — not because I haven’t wanted to go, but because, “It’s not a fucking theme park”, and I get that.
Through Mr. Sir, I had the fortune to meet Gary Farmer, an accomplished actor (Dead Man, Adaptation, and Dances With Wolves — in which he uttered his now-iconic line, “Stupid Fucking White Man”, and who now tours North America with his band, Gary Farmer and the Troublemakers, and with whom I once did a pretend duet at a gig and furtherly for whom I am to one day do a documentary of his life as activist, actor and blues musician — our interview went THAT well. Mr. Sir plays in Gary’s band, as does his pal John, who is part of this story.
BTW, soon I will post here an interview I did with Gary Farmer over a year ago (shamefully delayed) and which I have since been editing down to an hour. Our conversation was so fascinating that I didn’t want to lose a single sentence of it but, alas, 2.5 hours is too much.
AnywhatthehellwasItalkingaboutanyway, this post is about profiling in what had once been considered one of our most “sensitive” and progressive towns here in “The Happy Valley”, and involves a traffic stop, a few police cars and foot/bike patrolmen, my car being surrounded by EIGHT policemen (there were no female police present, hence the term), and a subsequent verbal warning, after about 40 minutes in all of boredom and profound embarrassment for all involved (looking at you and your armed cohorts, Babyface).
It all started one night when Mr. Sir and his pal John and I were on our way back from seeing a band in Greenfield, Ma. It was a dark and stormy night… yet it was a clear and balmy evening.
John, the other passenger, was in town from Rio Rancho, New Mexico for a visit with his pal Mr. Sir, as well as for a reception; he was showing his work at an area gallery. John is a big guy, and has hair down to his waist. One can easily guess at his heritage. John also has a business crafting beautiful custom guitars and plays as a studio musician and in several bands including Gary farmer and The Troublemakers. A friend of his from high school in was playing at The Art Bank in Greenfield and so we all went to see her band and I paid 3$ for a airplane-sized bottle of water, while Mr. Sir and John each had a single $20 (ish) beer, as I don’t often drink and we’d been fairly depleted by the $10 cover charge.
On the way home we took the scenic route and as I approached the intersection of Main and King/Pleasant streets in downtown Northampton, MA the light suddenly changed from green to yellow, just as I reached the stop line. Rather than slam on my brakes — though I was in second gear and thus only going about 20 mph, having just stopped at the Cumberland Farms for a candy bar and thus having not driven far enough to get past second gear — I felt it safest and perfectly legal (it is) to just go through the intersection. As it is a short yellow light, it turned red just as my tires crossed the stop line at the other side of the intersection. Just then Mr. Sir said, “Monkey (he calls me ‘Monkey’, because of this picture of me as a child, in which, logically, I look like a monkey), there was a cop right at the intersection on the left, facing us!”, and I said, “No problem. That was a perfectly legal maneuver.” But the cop had seen Mr. Sir’s ethnic face in the back seat window — they looked right at each other — and soon enough I saw the flashing lights in my rear view mirror.
I pulled over immediately, which un/fortunately was right in front of The Elevens ( a local bar popular with the young folk), and as luck would have it, half the bar was on the sidewalk out front providing us with an audience. It would later turn out that one of Mr. Sir’s coworkers was on that sidewalk, watching the whole show and wondering whether or not to jump in, being a sophisticate and well-connected and all that.
Then there was a flashlight in my face, held by a young, very white face. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Yes, because I went through a yellow light.”
“Well, it was red…”
“It was yellow.”
As we spoke, his flashlight searched my car. A second cop then joined the non-fray, and his flashlight also got busy all over my car through the window on the passenger side, including into Johns face in the passenger seat, and all over the back seat including, as I noticed during one of my rear view mirror glances, right into Mr. Sir’s non-buffalo-hide-clad crotch.
“How much have you had to drink tonight?”
“You sure? Because..I mean, you ran that red light back there.”
“It was YELLOW. I had nothing to drink. Check me.”
“Well, no, I don’t really smell alcohol.. it’s just that…”
His flashlight continued roving the depths of my car, breaking up his sentences as he divided his attention between what he was saying and whatever insidious contraband for which he eagerly searched. It shined into my eyes, down to my feet, straight into John’s and Mr. Sir’s faces. New flashing red lights arrived, reflecting off the rear-view mirror, and then there were a few more cops comically/cautiously nearing, elbows bent and hands twitching near hip-mounted gun holsters — while yet more approached the car, and us perps, from a different direction, suggesting they were not from the arriving/flashing car behind me. Perhaps they were on foot and/or bike? Northampton, MA has a few bike cops, because it is a very dangerous town. In all I counted ten cops, which suggests some of them had to be on bike or foot, as there were only two police cars; ONLY. I amused myself by picturing them all tumbling out of a single cruiser clown-style, while we waited. And waited.
“Go ahead. Check me. I give you my full permission. I had one small, over-priced 3$ bottle of water.”
I had handed over my license and registration, and so I added, “Run my license. I have a clean record. Perfectly clean.”
Throughout all of this both Mr. Sir and John had been staring straight ahead, neither saying a word. They seemed oddly immobile, and even possibly nervous, which surprised me because one does not get arrested for running a yellow light. And that’s when it hit me — this, the two police cars, the ten policemen in total circling my car with flashlights, the lights GLARINGLY flashing, all of it — this is what happens to them, this is what they expect and are what they are used to, even for more minor “transgressions” than running yellow lights. This was a nearly inconsequential example of what it is like to be them, to be viewed with what seems an awful lot like an assumption of guilt, rather than an assumption of innocence, or an assumption of neither.
Were I, a white woman, alone, and had that light actually been red, I sorta doubt there would have been an extra police car and a few extra foot cops. I felt angry, embarrassed to be white, sad, and resigned. With the crowd waiting and watching from the sidewalk across the street — likely thinking this was some serious shit going down and someone was about to be cuffed and taken away, due to the sheer number of cops and cars — I felt shamed, demoralized, furious. I am grateful that I am not made to feel this way on a regular basis, but there are those for whom this is a way of life simply by virtue of their appearance and it begins at birth.
NOTE: Neither of my passengers wore gang colors, do-rags, or saggy pants; both were securely belted, seat belt and otherwise. Neither of them wore face paint or wielded bows and arrows. There were no battle calls, tomahawks, guns, knives, glassine packets, glassy eyes, or vicious dogs involved. No test tubes, scales, suitcases full of cash (else I might have had an adult-sized bottle of water at the bar, or even two), there was no cloud of smoke in the car, no odor, and no lawyers on board.
I forget what the blue-eyed cop with the fair and enviable baby-smooth skin said next, but before he walked back to his car to run my license I found myself blurting/explaining, “Look. My friend here had one beer at the Art Bank, and he works at ____. And this is our friend visiting from Santa Fe, who is a musician and artist. I think he had one beer as well. We went to see a high school friend’s band and now we are tired and on our way home. That is all.”
My young, fair, blond, blue-eyed cop joined the bulk of the group of now TEN cops — well, he joined five of them; four were in front, ostensibly keeping an eye on us, while the rest had gathered behind the car. I watched in the rear view mirror while they discussed “the matter” for 20 minutes. Does it take that long to run a check? For 20 minutes we sat and waited, and I kept an eye on them in the rear view mirror as they discussed us while facing my car from the back. There seemed to be some brainstorming going on as they chatted back and forth, while looking at my car, at us, back at each other, some chin stroking going on, some harsh reproving glances, more chatting, and then FINALLY Blondie came back to my window.
“I’m going to give you a warning. This time. But [something something something] red lights [something something]“, to which I replied again, yet this time halfheartedly, “It was YELLOW“, and he nodded, handed me my license and registration, and walked away. No written warning, just a mere verbal warning.
I was a bored/exhausted nervous wreck as I pulled out back into traffic, and I had trouble seeing because of all the still-flashing lights, but then we were free, and we waved to the few dozen patrons of The Elevens still on the sidewalk as we drove off, at 5 mph.
All that for a verbal warning.