The Impossible Choice of Driving While Black

March 18, 2013

Police brutality poster, March 18, 2013. (

Police brutality poster, March 18, 2013. (

Let me say this right off. I can’t stand cops. I haven’t since I was about five or six years old. That was when a couple of dumb-ass Mount Vernon Police officers idly stood by and laughed as my father was being taken to the hospital with a stab wound in his left thigh, the result of a fight between him and my mother. I’ve been accosted, stopped, frisked and followed by police in Mount Vernon, the Big Apple, DC, Silver Spring, Los Angeles and Virginia since I turned sixteen back in ’85. Mostly for the simple issue of being an over-six-foot tall Black male and man. Walking while Black in Beverly Hills or on my own campus at Carnegie Mellon. Or Driving While Black in Pittsburgh or Maryland (see my post “Why Black Men Carry A Public Anger” from March ’12)..

To me, the issue is not as simple as a White racist cop finding excuses to harass, intimidate or beat up a Black or Brown person. It actually doesn’t matter what race or ethnicity a police officer happens to be, because their uniform, badge and gun are way more important to them than race. By definition, then, they represent our collective psyche of bigotry when it comes to race, class, gender and criminality. So don’t argue with me about the race of any cop in terms of police brutality and intimidation.

Two Bad Driving Choices

For the first time in about a half-decade, a police office pulled me over. This time, it was half my fault, albeit, it depends on how you define fault. Thursday afternoon, March 14, I was driving down Colesville Road past University Blvd East, to do a left turn on Lorain. From there, I’d meander my way back to the Shell station on the opposite side of University Blvd – it’s cheaper than the one on Colesville. Now, there’s a sign on the median next to the left turning lane that prohibits making a U-turn.

No U-Turn sign & left turning lane, Colesville Rd & Lorain Ave, Silver Spring, MD, March 14, 2013 (2:35 pm). (Donald Earl Collins).

No U-Turn sign & left turning lane, Colesville Rd & Lorain Ave, Silver Spring, MD, March 14, 2013 (2:35 pm). (Donald Earl Collins).

The problem on March 14 was, though, that a utility crew had closed up the street, between their trucks and their cones, making it impossible to make the left turn. I had no warning for this until I reached the front of the left turn lane. By then, I had a blue Toyota Camry behind me, and heavy traffic coming down the adjacent lanes on my side of Colesville.

So I had a choice, and not much time to make one. I couldn’t back up. Cutting across the solid left turning lane line is technically a traffic violation, one which could lead to me being pulled over by police. Not to mention, with so much traffic, I could’ve easily caused a traffic accident.

There wasn’t any traffic coming from the opposing side of Colesville. So I made the U-turn, figuring that this was the only actual choice that made any sense at all. Within three seconds, a siren approached, so I pulled over on the next block, right next to the Colesville Shell gas station. The whole time I’m thinking, “What the heck else was I supposed to do – run over the cones and then jam my car into the back of a utility truck?”

Utility work closing off Lorain Avenue (cones included, Silver Spring, MD, March 14, 2013 (2:37 pm). (Donald Earl Collins).

Utility work closing off Lorain Avenue (cones included, Silver Spring, MD, March 14, 2013 (2:37 pm). (Donald Earl Collins).

Admittedly I was nervous, as I consider police to be about as honest as Mafia bosses and city council members beholden to their local Chambers of Commerce. But I also realized that even if the police officer issued me a ticket, I’d have a crapload of evidence in my favor that would lead to a judge dismissing the citation.

The Not-So-Friendly Neighborhood Cop

So I waited. And waited. Then, after five minutes, a police officer named M. Kane (ID # 1382 for those truly interested) came up to my window, one who must’ve been having the worst day ever. Even for a White or Black police officer, he looked like he was ready to brutalize anyone who said more than “Yes, sir! I’ll suck you dick, sir!” to him. That pissed me off right away. Because a traffic violation, especially under these circumstances, didn’t rise to the level of the threatening nonverbal communication that was coming off of him like heat from an exhaust pipe.

I did get a written warning, and then some directions about what do next. The problem was, the officer issued his directions in a low grind of a growl, and I actually didn’t hear all he said. So I asked, reluctantly

“Officer, can I pull over here into the gas station? That’s where I was on my way to when you pulled me over.”

“You can go wherever the hell you wanna go, just pull out over this other car here!,” he yelled, so close to me I could feel the hot air and spit from his mouth as he was yelling. He looked at me with mean, dead eyes, the kind of look that so many folks who look like me have seen from police all these years.

I pulled out, probably a minute or so away from being arresting for assaulting a police officer, because that’s probably what I would’ve done in a parallel universe.

More Choices

What could I had done, really, to have avoided the situation? Have better hearing? Found my way into a car accident? Not left the house to go get gas and hamburger rolls before going to the Y for a five-mile run? Well, Montgomery County could’ve actually cut off the left turning lane with cones, making folks go elsewhere to make left turns. That is, if they were more interested in safety than in handing out warnings and tickets!

Utility work on Lorain Avenue (slightly different angle - 3rd truck hidden from view), March 14, 2013 (2:38 pm). (Donald Earl Collins).

Utility work on Lorain Avenue (slightly different angle – 3rd truck hidden from view), March 14, 2013 (2:38 pm). (Donald Earl Collins).

Beyond that, I don’t have much choice other than to be me. Despite almost every part of me wanting to smash in this police officer’s head with a twenty-five pound weight, the spirit inside said to forgive, and so, I forgave. But that doesn’t mean condone or not write about my experience. After all, if this officer is like this every day, then he’s a walking time bomb, set to go off on the wrong person of color at the wrong time.

I don’t want to hear about how dangerous it is to be a cop. Right now, it’s dangerous to be a teacher or professor, given mass shootings over the past six years. Last I checked, these officers weren’t conscripted into service. They chose their line of work. I don’t expect cops to ever be nice. But professional would be a pretty good standard to meet.

Why Black Men Carry A Public Anger

March 21, 2012

Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrested by Cambridge Police, Cambridge, MA, July 22, 2009. ( via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of historical significance of photo and topic and its poor resolution.

I hadn’t planned on posting this piece until June, when it will be twenty-five and fifteen years since my shopping while Black incidents literally a block apart on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But in light of the Trayvon Martin murder — and that’s what this is, a murder — at the hands of the racist vigilante George Zimmerman more than three weeks ago, it makes sense to do this post now.

Tower Records, 1961 Broadway (NW corner of 66th and Broadway, Lincoln Square), New York City, November 22, 2006. (Stuart Johnson via In public domain.

Tower Records, Friday afternoon, June 19th, ’87, the day after I graduated from Mount Vernon High School (see more from my “The Day After” post from June ’08). With high school now over, I was in a celebratory mood. I took the 2 train from 241st to 72nd and walked the six short blocks to the great Tower Records on 66th. I had my latest Walkman, my first Sony Walkman, actually, and my book bag with my recent tape investments, including a few I’d bought at Tower Records the previous Friday. Investments like Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night, Genesis’ Invisible Touch, and Glass Tiger (yes, Glass Tiger — absolutely terrible).

I went into the store and began to browse the R&B and Pop/Rock sections for tapes. There I noticed some plastic wrapping on the floor, as if someone had taken a tape out of its case and stolen it. While I thought about the wrapper on the floor, three White security guards came out of nowhere, grabbed me and dragged me to a storage room downstairs.

“We got you for stealing,” one of them said, presumably the store’s head of security.

“You don’t have me for anything. Is this because I’m Black?”

“Well, how do you explain the wrappers we found on the floor and the tapes in your bag?”

“The wrappers were on the floor when I got there and the tapes . . .”

“You’re going to jail, asshole, when we bring the cops in here!”

“First of all, I’m not going anywhere. The tapes are all mine, and some of them I bought in this store last Friday. I have the receipt at home. Don’t you have ways to verify my purchases?”

“We don’t believe you!”

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe me. I’m under eighteen. You can’t hold me or turn me over to police without calling my parents. I’m not even from here, I’m from Westchester County, and my receipts are back home there.”

“If we were outside instead of in here, I’d slap you around, wise-ass!”

“Then I guess I’m the lucky one. Why don’t we check the receipts from your cash registers up front for my purchases from last Friday? I know they’ll show that I’m right and you’re wrong!”

The hotheaded White man who did all of the talking got up and made a threatening slap gesture with the back of his left hand before the other ones grabbed him and told him to calm down. They let me go. On my way out, I said, “I hope you learned that not every Black person coming in your store is a thief!” It would be ten years before I went into Tower Records again (of course, Tower Records went out of business in ’06).

That next time was May 12, ’97, and I had just finished a day-long interview for an assistant professor

Barnes & Noble, 1972 Broadway (NE corner of 66th and Broadway), New York City, December 30, 2010, three days before it closed. (Jim In Times Square via In public domain.

position at Teacher College (Columbia University’s school of education). I had no problems as I browsed Tower Records for about twenty minutes. It was my first time there since the ’87 incident. Then I went across the street to the Barnes & Noble mega-store. From the moment I walked in the door until I left a half-hour later, a Latino security guard tailed me as I perused books in the African American nonfiction, Cultural Studies and Music sections of the store, across three floors. As I walked out, I walked up to the guard and said

“While you were stalking me, you probably let half a dozen White folks slip out of here with books and CDs. Did you learn anything while you were watching me?”

“I was just doing my job,” the dumb-ass security guard said in response.

“Well, if following a Black guy around for thirty minutes is part of your job, you deserve to lose your job,” I said as I walked out, not to return until Christmas ’02.

Over the years, I have been stopped by police in Mount Vernon, Pittsburgh, DC and L.A., followed by police in Maryland, Pittsburgh and L.A., patted down by police at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, and followed by more security guards — including ones guarding those precious gated communities — than I’d ever care to count. My only crime was being a Black male in America’s public sphere.

Trayvon Martin in hoodie, March 19, 2012. ( Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because photo is an illustration of one of the subjects of this post.

Like so many others, I could’ve easily been Trayvon Martin twenty-five, fifteen and even five years ago. This constant tightrope dance that we must do to make old White ladies and scared White guys and ig’nit Black folks feel comfortable. So that I’m not arrested, or maimed, or killed. So that I can go about the business of being me and making myself and the people in my life better. As Nathan McCall would say, it “makes me wanna holler.”

Short of moving to a nation not built on the imperialism and fear of Black males in particular, all I can do, for better and for worse, is to prepare my son for this very racial America in which we still live. And yes, that makes me angry.

Me at 16 (with torn gray hoodie), Mount Vernon High School ID, Mount Vernon, NY, November 1985, March 21, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).


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