driving while black


On April 29, 1994, I got a taste of what it’s like being stopped by an angry cop for driving while black.

My mother had just called that day to tell me she was hospitalized and dying, and I was driving downtown to pick up an orchid plant that I planned to drive to my mother’s bedside in South Bend. Being distracted, I made a lane change in front of City Hall without signalling, and was stopped by a cop with a bad attitude (who I later learned was visiting police headquarters from the fourth precinct, in Minneapolis’ predominantly black near-north side).

I very quickly surmised that the traffic stop was not going well, picked up my cell phone, and dialed 911. “Hello, I’ve been stopped by an out-of-control cop, and I’d like you to stay on the line until this is resolved.” Suddenly, before the cop had realized what was happening, the situation was immediately out of his control and his behavior was being monitored.

“What are you doing?” he asked angrily. “I’ve called 911 to listen in while you get yourself under control,” I answered.

I suppose if this had happened at night on his turf, I might have been shot already for “reaching for a gun.” But this was broad daylight and in front of City Hall, for god’s sake. Anyway, I didn’t think of the potential consequences. I was thinking about my mother, and there hadn’t been the many stories in the news of police violence.

The situation deescalated quickly, the cop gave me a ticket, and we each went on with our days.


Yesterday, on November 18, 2015, the group Black Lives Matter Minneapolis was protesting at the fourth police precinct in north Minneapolis, where they’ve been camped out since Sunday.  That’s when an unarmed Jamar Clark, 24, was fatally shot in the head in a confrontation with police. Witnesses say he was shot while handcuffed and on the ground, the police union says he was not and was “trying to disarm one of the officers” during the physical altercation. Video surveillance from several sources is being pieced together, but it is said not to show the whole thing, and authorities are not releasing it to the public. Black Lives Matter is therefore very distrustful. The involved officers, Mike Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, have been placed on paid administrative leave. The matter is being investigated by state authorities.

Tensions are high and Black Lives Matter is calling its supporters down to the scene. They clashed with police last night at the precinct, with both sides using chemical irritants. How the matter will ultimately be resolved remains to be seen. Based on my own experience, I tend to believe Black Lives Matter—but then, I’m prejudiced.
I took the traffic stop to court so the behavior of the cop would be outed in the official record. But the coward never showed up at court, and the case was dismissed.
No such option exists for Jamar Clark. He’s permanently dead.

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