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Driving while black: On transformative police encounters

For black folks, telling the truth about police encounters is painful: Only some people will assume that you are being honest. Others will think that you hate the police or even America. A few might label you a troublemaker and decide to keep a respectful distance.

The most difficult aspect of speaking about my interaction with the police is that it forces me to revisit a time when I felt the full weight of this country’s checkered racial history on my shoulders. I am not sure that words can capture that feeling, that sadness — that feeling of powerlessness, that longing to be free.

Fall 1997

One Friday night, we all crowded into my Delta ’88 and headed down University Drive, a central throughway in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama. We were four black boys heading to a party. I had forgotten to get some gas earlier, so I decided to stop at the station coming up on my left. In my city, this street is well known, highly populated, and relatively safe. It is the same street you would take to get to the mall.

Much too my surprise, at that same gas station, I saw some of our friends from school. We got out of the car and conversed about our plans for the evening. They did not know about the party, so I told them they should follow us there. One of us pumped gas while I went inside to pay.

After I returned to my car and got ready to leave, I noticed an all-black SUV had pulled up right behind me. I remember thinking That dude can chill because I would be gone in a minute. But then another SUV came in on the left and another on the right. We were surrounded.

Am I getting carjacked on University Drive? At a gas station?

Before I had a chance to consider the matter further, police came pouring out of the SUVs and rushed the car. They were not flashing weapons. They had flashlights. I thought, “Well, that is good news: flashlights.” They told us to keep our hands visible. Then they told us to get out of the car.

I remember asking what the problem was. The cop told us that we were at a well-known drug hangout. I remember thinking This is also a well-known place to get gas on a Friday night, but I remained quiet.

Then the police began to search my car without my permission. They looked under the seats, in the glove compartment, the trunk, everywhere. They did not find anything because we were not drug dealers. I was furious, but what could I do?

After they did not find anything, I remember asking the officer for his badge number: I had seen that on TV. He covered his badge, they got in the SUVs, and left. After it was over, my friends said, “Are you ready to go to the party?”

I replied that I was done for the night. I took everybody home and told my mother what happened. I had managed to get a partial plate of one of the trucks. She called the station and found out that they were part of some drug task force.

Nobody apologized. Nobody cared. I remembered.

Spring 1998

One Saturday night, I was parked outside the house of a friend, talking with my girlfriend. We were having one of those silly arguments that couples have in high school. A police car pulled up, flashed the lights, and asked what we were doing. I told the officer that we were just talking, which was true.

He asked for my license and registration. I gave it to him. Moments later, he came back and told me to get out of the car. I complied. He told me to place my hands on the car.

That scared me. I asked the officer, “What’s the problem?”

He said that a warrant was out for my arrest. I asked him what I had done. He told me I was wanted in connection with an armed robbery in 1987.

I said, “Sir, I am 18 years old. In 1987, I was eight years old. I think you are looking for my father: we have the same name, but we do not look alike, given that he is a grown man.”

While I stood there with my hands on the car, he considered the facts and decided that I was indeed not the Esau McCaulley he was looking for (who, as it turns out, was not guilty of that crime either). He then asked me if I had any information on where my father might be. I said no.

He let me go. I went home.

Winter 1998-1999

One night, I got a call from my mother saying that her car was broken down in a neighborhood that was a bit shady. I was worried, so I jumped in the car.

At the time, my jam was “Notorious Thugs” by the Notorious B.I.G., featuring Bone Thugs & Harmony. If you remember that song, you will understand that I was indeed speeding. It was inevitable.

The cops pulled me over and asked me where I was going in such a hurry. I thought about saying, Officer, it is Biggie’s fault, but I thought that might not be my best play.

I told the truth: My mom’s car had broken down, and I was worried about her.

The officer looked over at the passenger seat in my car and said that he saw a “white substance” on my seat. He asked me what it was. I told him: I had been to Krispy Kreme the other day; it was sugar. He told me to get out of the car. I did, and he put me in the back of the police car.

For the next 30 to 45 minutes, I sat there as my friends and neighbors returned to their homes and saw me sitting in the back of a police car. Eventually, another officer arrived and got out of the car. I remember seeing a large suitcase. He walked past me and went to inspect my car. I assume that he was some kind of drug detection guy. He went to my car, bent over, and looked at the “white substance.” A few seconds later, he spoke to the officer who had put me in the police car. I am not sure what he said, but the new officer did not appear happy.

The first officer came over, let me out of the police car, and told me that I was free to go. I did not get a ticket. I went to get my mother and then went home — publicly shamed for the third time.

Fall 2001

By this time I was a student at Sewanee, about an hour away from my home. One night, a friend and I were returning to campus after a brief trip to Huntsville. This route requires quite a few trips through small towns with speed traps. As we passed one town, a cop started following us. I was in the middle of nowhere, so I was very careful.

As we came to the next town, the cop pulled us over. I asked him what the problem was. He said that I had been swerving, and had a sudden change of speed. I thought to myself, “The speed limit just went from 55 to 35.” But speaking that truth did not seem like the best move.

He asked for my license and the license of the passenger. We complied. Then he went to run both our licenses. He came back and asked us where we were going. We replied that we were going back to college and that we were students at Sewanee. He asked to see our student IDs. He took a look at us and then the IDs. He told us to go straight home. We did.

Spring 2002

I graduated from Sewanee, promising that I would never live in the South again. My reasons were complicated, but I would be dishonest if I denied that my experiences of policing in Alabama had something to do with it. It was just too much to be black in Alabama.

Winter 2004

Now I am living in New England. I was driving through a small town and came across a roundabout of some sort. I think I was supposed to come to a full stop, but I didn’t. A cop came and pulled me over. He asked me why I didn’t stop. I explained my confusion to him, and he understood. He let me go with a warning. No searches, no attitude, and a warning. I could not believe it. I think I called my mom or my brother to tell them about it.

Sometime in 2006

I am still living in New England and newly married. I was traveling home with my spouse and one of her friends. Yes, I was speeding. I think someone in the car needed to go to the restroom. A police officer pulled me over. I remember being very nervous because we are an interracial couple in the middle of nowhere. The cop asked a few questions and let me go with a warning. I decided at the moment I was definitely never leaving Vermont (I did, but not without some sadness). It was not simply about whether I got a ticket. It was that the officers treated me with respect and courtesy. This simple act transformed that small town into a place that could feel like home, like the America I read about in the stories. In all my time in New England, I was never pulled over unjustly.


I do not believe that most cops are racist. That would be silly. I have experienced both the good and the bad. I am grateful for the good ones, and like black lives, good cops matter. They bring healing just by doing their jobs.

But I have only recounted a portion of the experiences with the police that were my constant reality in the South. I was repeatedly stopped, questioned, and put in cop cars, because they could. Each time I could not help but think: If I were white, would this be happening to me?

I am not a detective. I have not researched every case of police brutality that has flooded our screens in the last three years, but I remember. I remember how I felt. I remember thinking that I just wanted to get home to my friends and family. My own treatment by the police and my knowledge of American history informs how I process the news. Many other black people could tell you similar stories or worse.

I think this is the big disconnect that occurs: Some people always want to wait for the facts of an individual case before they make a judgment call.[1] However, right or wrong, many black people simply do not trust the system to give us the facts; we have personally experienced those facts being turned to our disadvantage.

So yes, there may be cases where the rush to judgment means that we get things wrong in individual cases, but does that mean the underlying claim is false? Are we really ready to march out “facts” about one or two cases in the face of 400 years of history and the individual confirmation we have etched into our souls?

We need to have a national conversation about the treatment of African Americans at the hands of the police. This is definitely not the only conversation we need to have, but it is an important one. The phrase Black Lives Matter has become the rallying cry for that conversation. So when I say Black Lives Matter, I am saying in part that those officers on University Drive had no right to treat me the way they did, and I do not want my sons and daughters to experience that pain or something worse.

But to be honest, I do not care what you call it. Just have the conversation. Help.

But …

I could have told my story differently. I could have spoken about what it is like to go into a store and have the people follow you around, assuming that you are about to steal. I could have spoken about a hundred other examples of the casual racism that follows black people around. The problem is not just the police force. We remain a nation divided; our police force is a microcosm of that division. It is a mix of good and bad, saint and sinner in need of transformation. If we want a different kind of police force, we need to create a different country. This is the work of decades, not news cycles.

The good news is that the Church can be a place where that transformation begins. We are in desperate need of a space where officers and the communities they serve can come together to discuss the issues that divide us, in a place not defined by hate, but saturated in prayer. The police need to listen to the people, but the people also need to listen to the experiences of law enforcement officers. We must begin to rebuild a sense of trust so that when issues inevitably do arise there is a reserve of relationship to draw on.

But we must also go beyond relationship building. We need to find ways to adjust the laws and practices that do excessive harm to minorities. These solutions must be owned by those who will be most affected by them. Black people need to feel that they can and will be treated with dignity and respect.

The Church is not the state; we do not write the laws. But we can be a place of reconciliation on the one hand and advocacy for justice on the other, a place where God is working through his people.

The Rev. Esau McCaulley is a PhD candidate in New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, and assistant professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York. His other Covenant posts are here. He also blogs at Thicket of the Jordan.

Photo credit: South Florida Times


[1] That being said, how some people can dispute some of the videos is simply beyond me.



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