27 July 2009

Driving the Yeomans

Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I were on our way home to Northern Virginia from the Tridentine High Mass at Old St. Mary's in Washington, DC. It was the fall of 1996, and the future Homeschooled Farm Boy (then a baby) was napping in his car seat as we cruised through the District of Columbia on Interstate 395. I'd just pulled onto the freeway, and traffic was fairly heavy for a Sunday evening; I'd spent so much time wrenching my head around looking for an opening in traffic at the end of the on-ramp, I hadn't noticed any speed limit signs. But this was a freeway, so I figured the speed limit would be at least 55 MPH --- and that's about what the other cars were moving at. So I settled in, and did my best to stay with the pack.

A moment or two later, we came around a bend and I spotted a police car on the right shoulder. Glancing at the speedometer, I confirmed I was still going 55, so didn't bother getting nervous or slowing down. Until, that is, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw him pulling onto the roadway with his lights flashing. The next thing I knew, he was right behind me and chirping his siren. I began looking for a safe place to pull over, and soon both of our cars were on the right shoulder.

The officer, who happened to be black, approached my window and asked if I knew why I'd been stopped; I replied that I honestly had no idea. He informed me that I'd been driving 56 in a 45 MPH zone, and that he'd like my license and registration and proof of insurance.

"Forty-five?" I asked, incredulous, as I dug around for the documentation. "I honestly thought it was 55, because it was a freeway. That's why I didn't slow down when I saw you."

"Well, it was posted at 45," he said, taking my documents and retreating to his patrol car.

As the officer did who-knows-what, I fumed aloud to MYF about how ridiculous the whole thing was. I was going 55 on a freeway and wasn't passing anybody! And he pulls me over! She agreed, but there wasn't much else she could say. HFB was waking up and fussing, and she soon had her hands full getting him calmed back down.

The cop eventually returned from his patrol car with my documents --- and a ticket for some amount of money that was about to disrupt our fragile, tight-as-a-drum finances, especially once my insurance rates jumped as a result. I was irritated, but had enough presence of mind to suppress my irritation, take a deep breath, and wait until he'd left before saying anything negative. Even then, I simply muttered something to my wife about probably having been stopped because we had Virginia license plates. MYF made a comment about how unfair the whole thing was, and we were soon back in traffic making our way home. And, yes, I noticed that the first speed limit sign we passed read "45 MPH." I kept the car in the right lane, the speedometer needle at 45, and fumed in silence as we drove.

The story does have a happy ending: I mailed in the ticket with a written explanation/appeal, but no payment. We moved across the country a few weeks later, and I managed to keep my mail correspondence with the DC Metro Police going long enough for my ticket to get totally lost in the District's bureaucracy. We never paid the fine, and the ticket was never reported to our insurance company.

The incident eventually faded from my mind, and I didn't think about it for years --- until last week's story about Professor Henry Gates' run-in with the Cambridge (MA) police. When officers showed up at his house investigating a reported break-in, all he had to do was give a calm explanation as to why he and his limo driver had had to force the front door open, and produce picture identification with his home address. Instead, he followed the officers outside and began ranting to the whole neighborhood about "this is what happens to black men in America."

Actually, I thought, this is what happens when you have a chip on your shoulder, lose your temper, and taunt the police.

From everything we've read and seen about the incident, it seems clear to both MYF and myself that the individual with the "racial narrative" in his head was the Harvard professor; Officer Crowley seems to have conducted himself with the utmost professionalism. Our only complaint about the arrest is that the Cambridge police dismissed the disorderly conduct charges.

Let's return to 1996, and the shoulder of I-395. As upset as I was about a perceived injustice, the fact remains that the officer had a good reason for pulling me over. I didn't agree, and was understandably angry about the traffic stop, but had the self-control to remain calm and wait for my opportunity to "tell it to the judge" and let the system work. But let's suppose that instead, I'd had the same sort of "racial narrative" in my head that Professor Gates evidently carries around with him. I most likely would have jumped from my car and accused the D.C. cop of having pulled me over because I was a white guy with out-of-state plates in a heavily black city --- and that he was giving me a ticket only because he was angry that I'd married a black woman. That he was probably trying to prove he had some power over me.

Those of you who know me know that I don't see the world through the prism I just described. But had I said and done those things, and had I refused the officer's instructions to return to my vehicle, the cop would've been completely within his rights to have arrested me for disorderly conduct. And my wife would've been completely within her rights to have not spoken with me for the next six weeks.

That seems clear enough to us. What MYF and I find particularly troubling about the Gates story is the sharp divide in the way most blacks and whites have reacted to the basic details of the case --- and in the way black and white perceptions of and assumptions about the police diverge so sharply. As a recent Rasmussen poll finds:

Seventy-three percent (73%) of African-American voters believe that most blacks receive unfair treatment from the police. Just 21% of white voters share that view. Thirty-two percent (32%) of black voters say that most policemen are racist, but 52% disagree. Among white voters, just seven percent (7%) believe that most policemen are racist and 71% say they are not.

I'm not so naive as to pretend that race doesn't play a role in police work. As recently as this year, my father-in-law was visiting my brother-in-law's family in a large East Coast city with a history of ethnic tension. On two separate occasions, while out for a walk on the streets of his son's upper-middle-class, heavily white neighborhood, my father-in-law was stopped and questioned by the local police about what he was doing. My father-in-law knew perfectly well that he was being questioned because he was black, and therefore looked out of place in that neighborhood. But he was friendly and cooperative, answered the officers' questions politely, and came away reporting that he'd had "a really nice conversation" with one of the cops. He didn't point fingers, didn't make accusations about how "black men in America" are treated, and didn't raise his voice. He treated the officer with respect, and was treated with respect in return.

Treating people with respect, and not constantly looking at the world through the prism of race, are pretty simple lessons, really, and ones that MYF and I have been teaching our kids. Too bad the President of the United States passed up an opportunity to be truly "post racial" and to have made this same point when asked about the incident in his recent press conference.

As for MYF, this is what she told me:

"I am incensed at Gates' behavior toward the police, I'm infuriated by the President's and the professor's race-baiting, and I'm embarrassed that both of them are giving blacks a bad name."

And there is nothing more I can add to that.


John said...

Brillian insight once again. Years ago, a friend of our family told us that if you get stopped for speeding, you should get out of the car and ask to see the radar. I did this once in a Chicago suburb with no incident (other than a guarantee I'd get a ticket from the cop). But when I told a friend to do this after we were stopped by an Illinois State Trooper, we learned a lesson. The trooper told my friend that it's not a good idea to get out of your car and approach the officer's car--he has to assume this is a threatening motion. Never did that again! And always have done what the police say and act cordially and respectfully. It even got me out of a few tickets that way.

Anonymous said...

I happened to be passing by your blog and couldn't help but disagree very strongly with your self-congratulatory post here. I'll limit myself to three points:

1. You're presumably not black. A lot of people, myself included, would say that a white person not feeling persecuted for his race is not much of an accomplishment, and not a very meaningful demonstration of self-control.

2. You were in your car. Culturally, psychologically, and even legally, a person's home is very different from a car on a public highway. I think most Americans, black or white, would react with animosity (if not violence, in some parts of the country) if a police officer refused to leave their home after being provided adequate identification by the owner.

3. All the accounts of the incident I read made it rather clear that Mr. Gates did cooperate with the officer and provided identification.

TYF said...

Anonymous -

Correct. I'm not black, but as the post tried to make clear...my wife (referred to on the blog as "MYF," or "Mrs Yeoman Farmer") is. You don't need to give me any lectures about not understanding race relations in this country. Furthermore, my wife was even more outraged by Prof. Gates' behavior with the officer than I was.

I don't know what accounts you read of the incident, but I've read multiple reports indicating that Gates did not provide identification WHICH INCLUDED HIS ADDRESS. All he showed was his Harvard ID, which did not demonstrate he lived in that house.

If it had been I, or my wife, we would've been thanking the officer for his diligence in ensuring that we were not intruders at the residence --- not berating him for what we may have presumed his motives to be.