Sunday, June 29, 2014

Driving While White

Yesterday I was pulled over by a cop for driving while white (DWW). He was a Black cop and I was going 25 in a 15 MPH “zone” (over a speed bump). My bad. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Black folks refer to the common instance of being pulled over and harassed by police as a result of racial profiling as Driving While Black (DWB). I doubt I know a single Black person who has not experienced this. It is a serious problem, and I don’t mean to make light of it, but the situation yesterday evening was in some ways comical and so I refer to it jokingly as my DWW incident. (Or perhaps I should call it Driving While White Old Lady.)

Ron and I were driving to the Coyote Valley Dam in the late evening to go for a walk. The last stretch of road to the Dam has a 25 MPH speed limit and about 4 speed bumps to slow people down. After I parked in the lot and got out of my car, I noticed a county sheriff’s vehicle behind me and this tall, handsome, Black cop got out and approached me. Ron had not gotten out of the car yet. The cop asked me if I knew what the speed limit was on the road leading to the Dam and I told him I thought it was 25. He informed me that it’s 15 and that I was going 25. For a brief instant I had the thought that if I told my children I had gotten a speeding ticket for going 25 in a 15 zone they would hurt themselves laughing.

I wonder what the cop thought when he realized that the person he had caught “speeding” was a white-haired lady in Birkenstocks. Ron then got out of the car and joined us. I actually recognized the cop. I had met him before. So I reminded him of where we met and introduced him to my husband. Ron claims that was the point at which the cop decided to give me a warning instead of a ticket (because I had a Black husband) – who knows? I suppose he would be in his legal rights to give me a ticket for going 26 in a 25 zone. It has been done before. Ron once spent a weekend in jail in St. Louis for driving with dirty license plates in a true DWB episode. But the cop didn’t ticket me, he just said to slow down next time and he chuckled and commented, “I couldn’t believe that little car could go that fast.” Seriously? I have a 2007 Honda Fit, not a 1990 VW bug. I didn’t want to push my luck so I held my tongue, but I was thinking of replying, “Oh you should see how fast it goes when I open it up on the highway – I can get it up to 65 MPH!”

As Ron and I started out across the Dam, a gray-haired man leaning on a cane hurried up to us. He walked with us for a space while issuing a tirade about the cop, referring to him frequently as a “horse’s pa-toot.” He told us that this particular cop had a thing about the speed limit and was known in the community for aggressively searching for people going over the speed limit and writing speeding tickets. The man had had it happen to him approaching the Dam and he had called the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to discuss it. According to him, the CHP said the 15 MPH is just for going over the speed bumps and the road in between the speed bumps is a 25 zone. This guy says he always goes 25 up there now in the hope that the horse’s pa-toot will pull him over so he can take the ticket to court and call the cop out on it. He pointed out that this cop is with the county sheriff’s office, not CHP, and he really needs to focus on real crime, not issuing speeding tickets. I agree. (Ron thought it quaint and hilarious that the guy used the term “horse’s pa-toot.”)

I have written grants for Native governments in North County that are trying to figure out ways to deal with crime suspects efficiently. They have no holding facility. No jail. Nowhere to put a suspect until the county sheriff’s office sends an officer to take the suspect to the county jail for booking. On average it takes 3 DAYS for a county officer to turn up when tribal police put out a call for help. So they wind up releasing men who have beaten their wives or sold meth to teenagers because they don’t have the physical ability to hold them. In many instances, their only alternative would be to handcuff them to their desk and sit there staring at them with a gun across their knees like in an old Western. Sometimes they are able to put them into a patrol car and drive them to the county seat to have them booked into jail. But they are not always able to do this, particularly when they have more than one suspect in custody and only one vehicle with a secure “cage” in the back seat in which to transport. Or when they need to remain present on the Reservation because they are short-staffed and someone needs to be available to intervene in life-threatening situations.

There are a number of reasons why the county officers don’t respond right away. One is that budget cuts have reduced the size of the force and they don’t want to deplete their staff by sending someone all the way up to North County (takes an hour or more each way to drive). One is that it’s kind of the Wild Wild West in North County and there have been incidents where family members have shot and killed these outside law enforcement personnel when they turn up (depending on the situation). This is a serious concern. Safety. But it looks to me like one of the reasons why they don’t turn up is because they are busy writing speeding tickets on old ladies driving 25 in a 15 zone. This kind of waste of resources and disorganization makes me crazy. One would think the horse’s pa-toot officer would have bigger fish to fry.

On our way back from the Dam after our walk last night, I went 15 MPH and I swear if I went any slower I would have been stopped. We passed the cop on the road, too. He had pulled over a young man and was issuing him a ticket, writing it up while leaning on the hood of his cruiser. I wondered what speed that unlucky fellow was going. It astonished me that the cop had continued to lurk on that road for an hour (while we walked over the dam and back) waiting for someone to go over the speed limit. Meanwhile my Native friends up in North Country are on their own to deal with real crime, dangerous situations. As Marvin Gaye said, “makes me wanna holler.”

View of the boat dock on Lake Mendocino from the Coyote Valley Dam.

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