My car was thick with laughter, exhaustion, and the smell of teenage boy. We’d just finished our summer workout. It was too early in the year for football practice to officially begin, but the team captains were holding “summer trainings.” None of the coaches were present, but we all suspected they were being told which players came and which didn’t. The fear was enough to make us show. These unofficial mandatory practices consisted of little more than running – which is no small thing. Running in the middle of a New Orleans summer heat wave is not a thing to be taken lightly.
There were five us in my red Oldsmobile, three in the back and two in the front. I drove and we joked, teasing one another about our performance at the practice, sure that each tale we crafted was certain to become adolescent legend. We were headed to my house in hopes of procuring ice cream from the freezer and playing a lazy game of basketball in the driveway.
When the blue and red lights came on and the ear-splitting siren rang behind me, we were all shocked. I’d been driving like a snail withered by the heat. There was no way I was being pulled over for speeding. Still, my healthy fear of the police sent shivers down my spine. I drifted onto the shoulder, threw the car into park, and reached over my friend to dig through the glove box for my insurance and registration.
My friends teased me for my jitters. But none of them drove so none of them understood what a precious commodity a license was. The last thing in the world I wanted was to lose mine. I didn’t know why at that moment the police would take it away, but I knew they had the power to do so. The magnitude of their authority in my mind was more than enough to command my respect and fear. I had what to lose and they had the ability to take it.
The officer came to my window. Nervously I passed all my paperwork over to him. My hands shook in his presence. He was tall and strong. The sun bounced off his sunglasses and Louisiana shaped badge, forcing me to squint. The sharp light contrasted with his dark blue uniform and matching straight brim hat.
He glanced through my paper work and then looked into the car. My friends and I sat in silence, waiting. He took a step back. I noticed his right hand rested on his firearm. I’d never seen a gun so close before. It looked weighty and important. “Could you please step out of the vehicle Mr. Bishop,” he commanded.
I felt like I might wet myself with fear. Confused and nervous, I moved to obey without question. As I pushed the door open and stepped from the car into the hot street, my mind raced through all the possible infractions he might know about. I couldn’t find anything in my list of stupid teenage activities that might warrant me stepping from my vehicle. Nor was there anything that might elicit him to touch his gun.
“Come to the trunk with me, son,” the officer said. His partner was out of the car as well. They looked like twins. The second officer leaned against the patrol car casually. I could feel his eyes on me from behind his silver, mirrored sunglasses.
I walked slowly to the back of my car. I wanted to speak but I didn’t know what to say.
The officer faced me. There were beads of sweat on his brow and a white ring around the underside of his hat’s brim. He took off his sunglasses and put them in the front pocket of his shirt. His eyes were deep blue, like his uniform. He looked past me through the back window into the car and then back at me. “Listen, son,” he said. “You don’t have to be afraid. It’s going to be okay. We’re here. The best thing for you to do is be honest. Do you understand?”
Internally I panicked. Externally I nodded and said, “Yes sir” just like my mamma had taught me.
“Good,” he said with a comforting smile. “Now you can tell me. Did those black boys kidnap you?”
I wanted nothing more than to appease him, to please him so I could leave without getting into trouble. I didn’t want my parents to know I’d been pulled over. I didn’t want to lose the privilege of driving.
But his question was so strange. I didn’t understand. I stared at his lips and ran the words through my mind. Did. Those. Black. Boys. Kidnap. You. I felt as if I was in back in French class pretending like I’d done my homework the night before. I kept saying them over and over in my head, hoping maybe they’d start to make sense. Did. Those. Black. Boys. Kidnap. You. Did. Those. Black. Boys. Kidnap. You.
“Listen son,” he said again reassuringly. “You don’t have to be afraid. You can tell me. They’re not going to hurt you with us here. Did those black boys kidnap you? Are they forcing you to drive them somewhere? It’s alright now. We’re here. You can tell us.” He sounded so compassionate. He was filled with concern for me.
I focused on the words again. A switch flipped in my brain and lights sputtered on. I looked back over my shoulder into my car. All my friends were black. It hadn’t occurred to me. It wasn’t that I hadn’t noticed. Of course I’d noticed I was often the only white kid around. I noticed it like I noticed when I was the only one wearing green, or when I was the only one who didn’t have peanut butter and jelly for lunch, or when I was the only one in the hallway that couldn’t remember my locker combination. I knew they were black and I was white, but being with them was as natural for me as eating breakfast in the morning, or sleeping when I was tired, or breathing. They were my friends, my teammates, my family. Like most teenage boys, there were few things I wanted more than their approval and camaraderie.
I looked at the officer. Sorrow began to build in my heart. “No sir,” I said plainly. “We’re just going to get ice cream.”
“Are you sure, son?” the officer said cocking his head at me with suspicion. “You don’t have to be scared. You can tell us.”
“No sir,” I said again. My teenage self didn’t completely comprehend why tears filled my eyes and a rock of sorrow lodged itself in the base of my throat. Now I know. Now I understand. It was the first time I’d witnessed evil dressed in authority.
“No sir,” I said a third time, pushing down my tears. “We’re just going to my house for ice cream.”
The officer snorted a laugh. “Alright,” he said putting his sunglasses back on. “Go ahead then.”
“Thank you sir,” I said. Then I turned my back on him and walked to the driver’s side door. I wiped my eyes hoping my friends wouldst see my weakness.
When I returned to the safety of my front seat, the questions and razing began. Unsure what else to say, I told my friends the truth. “He wanted to make sure I was okay,” I said, still shocked by the encounter.
My car filled with silence, and pain, and the tension birthed by injustice. We sat in the heavy air for a moment. I searched their faces. I was sorry I’d said anything. I wondered if I should have lied. Then I noticed the history behind their eyes and realized that while this experience was new to me, it was well known to them.
We watched the patrol car pull away. As the officers drifted out of sight, I turned the key and started my red Oldsmobile.
“What’d you tell them?” my friend next to me asked.
“I said we were tired. But that we’d feel better with ice cream,” I replied with a smile. I put the car into gear and we moved forward together. With each turn of my tires ease, joy, and brotherhood were restored to the car. And slowly we began to tease one another again about the summer workout we’d just left.
Your friendly, neighborhood, self-appointed Bishop of the CTB.