'Driving While Black:' Anatomy of a Police Stop

Marlon Peterson

Marlon Peterson

Last month, I spoke at a panel on Urban Policing at St. Francis College in New York about the historical underpinnings of the animus of Back and Brown people toward police. I drew the linear connection between the Harlem Riots of 1943; Watts 1965; Los Angeles, 1992; Ferguson 2014; and Baltimore 2015.

I mentioned that although I work to reduce community gun violence and police violence—and often consult with elected officials about how to engage the community in various endeavors—I am still aware that my Black body is under threat from violent policing.

Two days later, my words came back to haunt me. On October 1, while driving a rented white 2016 Hyundai Sonata just two blocks from my apartment in Brooklyn, NY, I was pulled over by a police car. It was around 10pm. Both officers exited their vehicles. One came to my driver's window, and the other walked to the rear passenger side window—even though there was no one else in the car but me.

I felt surrounded. The officer at the driver's window directed me to lower my window and put the car in park, which I immediately did. In a deceptively cordial tone, he began his inquisition.

The first question the officer asked me was:

“Are you on probation or parole?” to which I answered, “neither.”

After I handed him my license and rental agreement, he went back to the car to radio the information to headquarters. Then he returned with a second question.

“Did you kill someone?” to which I answered, “no.”

Third question:

“Did you stab or shoot them?” to which I answered, “neither.”

Fourth question:

“So why were you convicted of assault in the first degree? Why were you charged with attempted murder?”

My answer: “That was 16 years ago.”

The cop devalued my time in a disrespectful, intrusive and discriminating manner. And at this point, he still had not told me why he stopped me.

But I knew why.

My hoodie, black baseball cap and Black skin.

The subsequent questions about my criminal past were irrelevant to the stop. Would he have treated any of my White neighbors with the same disrespect? Would a question about whether I was on probation or parole be part of a “routine traffic stop” for them? And once he learned about my conviction—for which I have long since paid my debt to society—would he have subjected a White person to the same grilling?

While I owned the right to reciprocate this officer's disrespect, I did not. Would I be alive to tell this story if I did?

Maya Angelou once said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In Black and Latino urban centers throughout the United States, memories are long. The “bad feelings” evoked by aggressive policing cannot be eliminated simply by policy reforms. Placing “community” before the word 'policing' falls short of erasing the stain of police violence viscerally embedded into the Black experience in this country.

Even Black cops (the ones courageous enough to admit it) feel what Sandra Bland felt, what Tamir felt, what Eric Garner felt, what Mike Brown felt—and what I felt that night: Feelings of being targeted, devalued, fed up, disrespected, infantilized, and subject to indiscriminate violence—perhaps fatal violence—if I took a step wrong.

As one who served time for my role in a violent crime, my death would have been based on my past, not my present.

If I asserted my right not to be harassed, the news headline would likely have read: “Violent Felon Who Served Ten Years Killed by Police.”

I avoided that fate because I heeded my parents' warnings—given when I was a young boy, as they are given to many other Black children: “Marlo, please be careful around them police. You know they could kill you.”

And I did not want to die.

At the St. Francis College panel, a White lady in the audience advised me that if I did not argue with the police and didn't dress like a slob, I would not need to worry about negative interactions with the police.

I told her and the audience, “This is what White supremacy looks like.”

Dismissing my experiences dismisses me. The core of White racial superiority exists within the erasure of the Black biography—our human experience.

I am irate that I did not tell that cop the same thing.

These micro-aggressions take an immeasurable toll on people. In the VICE HBO special, Fixing the System, former Attorney General Eric Holder's analysis of experiences like mine and that of countless Black people over the decades rang true: “When an incident occurs, all this accumulated anger explodes.”

My accumulated anger almost reached its tipping point when towards the end of the stop the officer tells me why he stopped me.

Officer: “I stopped you because you were driving too close behind me for a [city] block, and when you got in front of me you switched lanes without signaling.”

More questions:

Officer: “Were you drinking?”


Officer: “Are you in a rush to go home?”

Me: “No, I live around the corner.”

Officer: “Well, as long as your license comes up clean you can go.”

My license turned up clean, and the officer let me go, but he first checked in with his partner:

“What do you think about this one?”

“Let him go,” his partner answered after a pregnant pause.

No ticket written, but the damage was done without incident.

Those officers harassed a person with contacts in city government. I am writer who uses his pen to advocate on behalf of others. I was aware of the tools that would allow me to survive the moment of the harassment, but those tools cannot remove the accumulated anger—anger that is justifiable and logical. Anger that justified Eric Garner's and Sandra Bland's resistance.

After I posted details of the incident on Facebook, an acquaintance suggested I make a formal complaint to the New York Police Department's Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), where I was given the option for mediation with the two officers, and told that if I was satisfied I had to agree to sign an agreement that would effectively disable a CCRB investigation into the officers.

That option was off the table for me.

There are too many Black women and Black men who feel the way I do. So, I concluded that silencing my feelings of fear and resentment, and not pursuing the incident further, would be a disservice to my work in community empowerment. I filed the official complaint on October 2 and during my 20-minute hearing with the CCRB on October 13, I decided to pursue an investigation into the officers' conduct.

I was told the investigation that could take up to a year.

I wonder if the CCRB investigation will mirror the record 25 days it took to complete the investigation of James Blake, the tennis star who found himself the victim of a police assault in a New York hotel lobby when he was mistaken for a wanted criminal?

Will I get an apology from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton—as Blake did? Will they also find my accusations of misconduct justified? Will I get to suggest and implement remedies to these “routine traffic stops” of driving while black?

Editors Note: To see the open letter Peterson wrote to NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, please click HERE.

Blake's “celebrity” status got him an apology and a promise of reform from the NYPD when the media focused on his case.

I am not a celebrity. But the strategies many of us without celebrity status bring to the table must include more than simply training our way out of bad feelings. We cannot “policy” our way out of bad feelings. Bad feelings and accumulated anger cannot be remedied by surveillance cameras—on the body of cops or those lurking on city streets.

We must seek ways to reduce police interactions with residents. We must allocate more resources to empower communities. We must explore avenues that remove the bad feelings.

I didn't take my decision lightly. To tell the truth, I'm scared, and my father is scared for me.

Much as I hate to admit it, I know that Black lives still matter too little in our criminal justice system. But if I do not tell my story—the right story—their story will win.

Marlon Peterson is a 2015 Soros Justice Fellow and founder of The Precedential Group, a New York-based social justice consulting firm. He has served as Director of Community Relations at The Fortune Society and a founding coordinator of Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets. A member of the New York City Task Force to Combat Gun Violence, he holds an A.A.S in Criminal Justice from Ashworth University and a BS in Organizational Behavior from New York University. He welcomes comments from readers.

Comments are closed.