Campus Life

“Routine” traffic stop

One night. Two stories. And an all too familiar experience.

about that night
by Gabriella Carter, Princeton ’22
Written on August 25.

It hurts to think about that night. Such a beautiful day has forever been tainted by feelings of powerlessness and frustration, but most poignantly, a loss of hope.

We were leaving the beach on our way to try the House of Mac for the first time. I remember being so excited after linking with our other friends in the parking lot to finish off a fun day of bike riding and catching up. 

Brian and I pulled out of the parking lot ahead of our friends with the GPS as our aid. I recall “Skrilla” by Kodak coming on. It was the perfect hype music for us to embark on our journey. We started rapping bar for bar and the energy was as positive as it could be after such a coming-of-age movie-like day. 

A few seconds later, Brian noticed colored lights in the rearview mirror and wondered who they were for. We pulled over instantly and waited. I made a lighthearted joke referencing a similar scene from Queen and Slim. We laughed to mask our nerves and bask in the irony of this situation, given that we had watched the movie together earlier in the summer. If only we could’ve known the uncanny similarities between our encounter with the police and that of those fictitious characters.

This whole year, I have been dwelling on how fast time escaped me. With COVID-19 and impending pressure to figure out my profession, it seemed like I could never get enough of it. But in this situation, time dragged endlessly.

It took at least three minutes from the time we pulled over to get any form of correspondence from the police. I was confused as to why not a single word was said to us by anyone in the four police vehicles parked behind us. 

I distinctly remember asking myself, “Aren’t they supposed to ask for your license and registration first?” before we were commanded by an ominous voice to “roll the windows down and stick our hands outside of the vehicle” over the intercom. Before doing so, Brian called his mother and left her on the line. Instantly, fear festered inside of me. What happens when they see two pairs of Black hands protruding from the windows?

Officers finally approached the vehicle, and they made sure to brace the guns proudly etched on their waistlines. They never asked Brian for his license and registration. Instead, they asked him if he knew how fast he was going, and then implored him to get out of the vehicle.

Once they got Brian outside toward the back left hand side of the vehicle, I couldn’t hear or see their interactions. What I did see was the officer on my side of the vehicle quietly shooing innocent bystanders away telling them “there’s nothing to see here.” But, there was. They were looking at a young Black man getting handcuffed and put in the back of a police car within a matter of seconds. 

Alone in the car, my mind began racing. “What would happen to me if Brian gets arrested?” “What would happen to the vehicle he’s driving” “What does his mom think?” “Why did they call for backup after seeing our hands out of the window?” “How can this be a routine traffic stop if those procedures weren’t followed and we were treated like suspects from before they even approached the vehicle?”

It wasn’t until Brian’s mom spoke that I remembered she was on the phone. She asked me what was happening, and I gave her a rundown of everything I possibly could: What we did during the day, where we were going, what was happening to Brian. Hearing her voice was comforting and grounding. Even in the midst of the madness, Black mothers never fail to make anyone feel at ease.

The officer who was shooing people away eventually realized that I was talking to someone and poked his head through my window. He wanted to speak to Brian’s mother, so I passed him the phone. He began rambling about how there was nothing to worry about, and stated that he would call her back after the situation had been handled. I thought it was weird that he was trying so hard to get her off of the phone. I started thinking very negatively about how this could be a preventative measure so that they wouldn’t have any earwitnesses on the phone or observing in the area to confirm or deny their story. I’m so disappointed in myself for not fighting for Brian’s mom to stay on the phone. I felt so small in the presence of the police’s unchallenged power.

After what felt like eons, the officer who put Brian in the police car came over to speak to me. He, like the other officer, kept asking who Brian was to me and whether we were under the influence. They asked those same questions in a variety of ways, just waiting for me to incriminate us. Officers love to play these mind games where they suggest you did something wrong by posing their assumptions as the truth to try to trip you up.

“Are you sure you two aren’t under the influence?” They continuously probed before asking me for Brian’s ID. Why would I know the whereabouts of his belongings better than Brian himself? I thought it was peculiar that they asked me for his ID before asking for my own. Brian is a fully competent human being, and just because we were riding in the vehicle together did not mean that I had the authority to search through his belongings, regardless of the circumstances. Nonetheless, I felt pressured to begin searching through his bag. I didn’t want to incriminate anyone or violate Brian’s personal space, so I stopped looking and suggested that the officer ask Brian himself for his ID. The main officer then left to do so, leaving me with the officer who wanted no witnesses.

The burdensome expectations of Black womanhood didn’t let me feel in the situation. I was only worried about who I’d been conditioned to believe could be the only victims of police violence: the Black male. I invalidated and suppressed my own fear, confusion, and hurt because I didn’t think I was the main target, hence my pain wasn’t just in the wake of Brian’s sense of powerlessness. It wasn’t until the wee hours of the morning when I stared up at my ceiling with tears welling in my eyes that I realized the weight of the world wasn’t something I could bear.

I wasn’t concerned about my own well-being. In fact, I beat myself up for being negatively impacted because nothing ‘happened’ to me per se. I immediately embodied the nurturing role that’s thrust on Black women, even when they themselves are enduring pain and trauma.

I’m everybody’s scapegoat. It’s crazy how someone's inspiration can also be the perfect body for defamation, humiliation, incarceration.

Written on Juneteenth, to myself. 
by Brian Williams, MIT ’22

I want you to understand that it isn’t your fault for being alive. I hope you understand there isn’t anything wrong with the way you are. This is your experience. This is real life.

You just spent your Saturday at the beach with your friends. It was a beautiful day. The sky was that summertime orange fade of colors you only see in movie scenes. It was honestly a great day. You’re leaving the beach with your friend, driving down the road, playing music, and life is good. But these memories are eclipsed by what happens over the next hour. 

At an intersection, you see flashing red and blue lights behind you. And at first, you question if they are even for you, what was going on? You nervously drive into the right most lane, it’s your first time being pulled over.

You look over to your friend in the passenger seat and share a laugh because it seems like a scene taken right out of Queen and Slim...

In the next moment, the officer yells from his speaker PA system, “WIND DOWN ALL THE WINDOWS” followed by “PUT YOUR HANDS OUTSIDE THE WINDOW” like it’s a damn hostage situation. It catches you off guard. And you feel afraid. 

You turn right to the passenger and share a concerned look. In no words, you both understand: “We’re in danger.”

As soon as your hands come back inside, you call your mom. You let her know you’re being pulled over, you’re scared, and things feel very weird. She stays on the phone. The atmosphere is completely different, and you’re tense. 

You see the officer walking to the window, playing with his holster, as if he wants you to know he’s armed.

When the officer comes to your window, he accuses you of a slew of things. “Do you know the speed limit?” “Do you know you were speeding?” “Are you intoxicated?” 

He doesn’t ask for your name or where you’re going. 

You reply with “No sir, I didn’t know, I don’t think I could have been going that fast but no sir.” 

You weren’t detained for protesting; you were detained for driving while Black.

He then tells you to get out of the car. What? What for? What did you do? You look over to your friend worriedly then get out the car. 

You’re guilty until proven innocent. 

The officer tells you to put your hands on top of the car, and the officer pats you down. Your pockets, your legs, down to your ankles. You’re very confused. 

He tells you to put your hands behind your back. Time freezes for a moment because you don’t really process this. You’re handcuffed within a second. 

The image of the Black male. Creating fear around the Black male as criminal.

Like clockwork the officer says into his radio, “black male detained.” These words strike you harder than a sucker punch. You ask him why you’re being detained, and he only replies with “for your safety and mine.” This makes less sense the more you think about it. And you’re shaken to your core.

As the officer guides you to the back of his police cruiser, he and his partner accuse you of some other exaggerated claims. You’re still in cuffs. 

“Why you’d pullover without using your signal?” “Sir I was nervous—” “Are you intoxicated?” “Are there any drugs in the car?” “You know we could arrest you.” “Sir, I didn’t do that—”

There are more Black people controlled by the prison industrial complex than were ever enslaved.

You bite your tongue because you understand your only goal is to make it out alive. In this moment, you’ve felt like you’ve already lost, like you’re already guilty of things you didn’t do. And it replays in your head again and again.  

Door opens. You’re placed inside. Door closes. 

And you don’t question the words “tough on crime” or “war on drugs”?

You sit in the back of the police cruiser. The space is cramped, and the weight of your body pushes the handcuffs into your wrists. They hurt. It dawns on you just how powerless you are. absolutely powerless. at their mercy. 

No matter how small you felt in that moment, never let them cuff your spirit. Are you going to let them break your spirit? 

These thoughts race through your head: 

What did you do wrong? How would your parents get here if you really needed help? What are they doing to your friend that’s still in the car? Is this really happening? How long will you be in here? What happens if they take you away? Who is going to protect you from them? What did you do? Are you going home tonight? You really want to go home.

Once someone is convicted and sentenced, nobody really cares about them. 

How do you act? You find yourself somewhere between wanting to speak up to defend yourself from the assault of accusations and remaining “cooperative” to defend yourself from the threat of a very real death.

Time goes by. You see another cruiser pull up to the scene, then leave. Bald white officer nods then drives off. 

Taking Black men away from their families, disappearing them into prisons.

The police cruiser door opens, and the officer asks for your license. Your student ID falls out of your wallet, maybe the officer sees value in your life now. You don’t know. You’re uncuffed and walk back to your car. You’re then asked for your registration. He walks to his cruiser. 

A system where being rich and guilty is better than being poor and innocent.

He comes back and says, “Oh, so your name is Brian.” You can only help but squint. The officer explains he could have arrested you for something you didn’t do and is doing you a favor by only giving you two tickets. His attitude is completely different from earlier. His partner explains your rights: paying, traffic school, court. 

You dislike how the second officer says “rights” as he looks at you. Patronizing. You bite your tongue again. 

Answer carefully. Your rights depend on it.

Have you ever been convicted of a felony? [yes] [no]

But you’re only focused on one thing, making it out alive. So you leave, with only one thought in your mind: Did that really just happen? 

That was my first time being pulled over. I left with two tickets and small bruises on my wrists, but the biggest wound was on my mind and spirit. It was an hour long altercation but when I exited the car, I was detained within seconds. I was in the back of the police cruiser before the officer asked me for my name, license, or registration. 

For those who know me, know that I’m a few weeks into turning 19, I go to MIT, and want to do everything to uplift myself and my community, and even in the absence of all that, my life matters, but to that officer I was just another “black male detained.”

That is my story. As I lived it. And if you ask me about it, I’ll smile and say I’m fine, because I don’t feel like reliving it. As soon as I opened the front door, my mom rushed into my arms. I got to come home that night. Some of us aren’t as lucky to say the same. Remember their names...