Fear, Paranoia, and Relief: Dealing with the Police as a Woman of Color

I'm a small Asian-American woman who's been treated like a "suspicious person" more times than I can count, and it's left me with unshakable paranoia around cops.

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30 June 2015, 7:57pm

Photo by Flickr user Sharon Mollerus

From the outside, the pawn shop has the chipper demeanor of a 50s corner drug store. My boyfriend John and I are running errands in Lewiston, the second-largest city in Maine, and we've arrived here to shop for the things that are difficult to find in the woods.

As we pull up and park, so does a police car, coming from the other direction. It stops on the far side of the narrow street right behind a battered pickup truck. Unconcerned, John turns off the engine. One officer emerges from the squad car. He bounces across the street, heading towards the shop, and then turns his head, looking at us sharply.

Irrationally, I hold my breath. John's too busy tucking away his gloves and sunglasses to notice. I exhale when the cop turns away and strides forcefully into the shop.

The corner storefront is all windows, making it easy to see what's going on inside. The cop is talking to a chalk-faced young man whose deadpan expression gives nothing away except a general mistrust of law enforcement.

"There seems to be something going on," I say.

"Maybe," John offers cautiously, as he leans on the steering wheel and cranes around me. "Sometimes cops just like to visit the pawn shops so they know what's new."

The second officer emerges from the squad car. He, too, gives us a long, hard look. It's difficult not to feel a tad disreputable, sitting in my scabby little Saturn in front of a pawn shop with a large, bearded man who is hoping to pick up (another) used gun just because he can.

After all, hunting season is in full swing, and John won't shave until it's over. Today, he's decided to wear his flabbiest plaid shirt, stained jeans, and a pair of really old work boots. No coat, but he's tugged on one of those awful acrylic knit caps with a hard baseball-cap bill. Mainers won't put on winter coats until the temps drop below zero, but they'll wear a hat as a concession to the weather. Even the Lewiston cops had obeyed this rule: They'd both been in short sleeves as they'd emerged from their squad car, looking perfectly comfortable as they crunched across the snowy sidewalks wearing standard-issue hats and gumshoes.

I'm bundled up because my blood is thin. John's people go back all the way to the Mayflower, but I was merely born here, the child of immigrants who came to Maine in the wake of the Korean War. I've got on kid-size purple snow pants and a down vest in hunter's orange over a fleece anorak, and a fleece cap announcing DEAD DOWN WIND that came free with purchase of a scent-free wash used for deer hunting.

Suffice it to say this is not a good look for chance encounters with the police.

Reasons to be uneasy, via VICE News: Cops are still disproportionately arresting people of color for marijuana-related crimes in Colorado.

Making things worse, the two of us have been sitting in the car long enough that it's starting to look weird. We're not packing up a baby or calming down a cat or rummaging in the glove compartment for a hidden bar of Hershey's. We're just sitting and looking over our shoulders, which makes us look like we dropped by to unload stolen stuff in the manner of petty thieves.

Which we are not. Seriously.

I'm trying to decide if it's a good idea to get out of the car and go into a shop where the cops have been called. Being a tourist at a crime scene is the epitome of sticking your nose in where it doesn't belong; innocent bystanders never get involved—that's how you know they're innocent. So say my cop dramas, I explain to John, who snorts skeptically but isn't really listening. He's too busy considering scenarios as he looks around, his brain filtering cues that remain invisible to me.

Just when I'm ready to tell him to drive off, the shop door flings open and the policemen emerge back into the cold—just the two of them with empty hands and no suspect in tow. Neither of them are wearing mittens, I note.

"Must have been a routine visit," John comments neutrally.

Then the second cop turns and faces us, scowling. He's in his late 30s, buzzed head, heavy eyebrows, and a military air. Staring us down through the windshield, he makes that whirling motion with his finger: the universal cop signal for, ROLL YOUR WINDOW DOWN BECAUSE I WANNA TO TALK TO YOU.

Photo by Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker

Sauntering over to the driver's side, the cop lowers his face to the window as I watch his brain register the fact that it's being rolled down the old-fashioned way. When my car was new and shiny, its utter lack of any extras—including a radio—announced: "Grad student!" Now that the purple paint is peeling off the hood, it screams: "Poor person!"

Leaning over, the cop peers into my car and asks perfunctorily, "How you folks doin' today?" (Translation: Are you lowlifes getting up to mischief?)

With an easy, unhurried air, John places both hands on top of the steering wheel. The gesture looks natural—he drapes them without a trace of tension, his fingernails clipped short and clean—but he's doing it on purpose because it's what he always tells me to do if I'm stopped by the cops for any reason. John doesn't smile or try to make chit chat. He just replies, "Fine, officer" with the kind of deferential calm that comes from being a large white man talking to another large white man when it's zero degrees outside and neither is shivering because they're both layered in muscles.

With an almost imperceptible nod, the cop stops paying attention to him and squints at me—a small Asian woman frozen awkwardly in place. As he gives me the once-over, I do my best to seem relaxed but not smile, because being friendly under these circumstances might seem suspicious to a humorless lawman who is looking for something illegal. As far as the police are concerned, that something may very well be me given my unfortunate tendency to look as if I can't speak English until I open my mouth, at which point too much English comes out. To his eyes, I'm also wrapped in bizarre layers of down puffiness that could be hiding...a knife? A rabbit's foot? What if I'm a mail order bride being delivered to the wrong address?

In a wrestling match against a man, public opinion, and the law, Scheherazade knew she would lose. All women know this, but women of color expect this.

Like an antsy little kid who needs to pee, I'm sitting on my hands because it's safer than talking with them. Once they start waving around, I'm liable to start saying things. Like a lot of small women, I use talking as a shield. This technique half-worked for Scheherazade, the Vizier's daughter in One Thousand and One Nights who managed to stall her execution for almost three years but got knocked up and gave birth to three children while she multitasked, telling tales to the Sultan.

In a wrestling match against a man, public opinion, and the law, Scheherazade knew she would lose. All women know this, but women of color expect this. It's what experience teaches us.

I've been mugged at gunpoint in broad daylight, had my satchel slashed open on a bus, my apartment ransacked and burgled and so on, but there were cuts and fingerprints and statements taken by the police. Even if every case went unsolved, a trail of paperwork confirmed that a crime had taken place, and nobody doubted that reality. It wasn't until I was hauled off by a racist customs officer at the Canadian border that I was subjected to the abstraction called "institutional violence," which was far more terrifying than a drug addict coming at me with a knife because, suddenly and without warning, the law was no longer on my side.

The law was in my face and yelling at me. Spitting on me. Threatening me with upraised hands poised to strike me across the face because...I don't know why. I still shake at the memory of being interrogated, yet there is no proof that it occurred. It is merely what transpired.

I am a minority female. My word is never enough to convince the skeptical.

Then 9/11 happened, and uniformed officers began patrolling the airports wearing militarized gear, and I was pulled again and again into small smelly rooms, probed by rude hands and asked senseless questions by men exuding hatred of my kind—that kind being a single female who is not white, speaks fast, travels alone, and therefore fits their vague all-purpose profile of a "suspicious person."

Hostility makes me nervous. Alas, that nervousness tends to make law enforcement think that I am hiding something.

A theater of the absurd: If you obey their orders, your compliance confirms your guilt. (Of what, though?) If you ask questions, they scream at you. If you attempt to leave, you are fleeing from an officer of the law.

Everybody knows how that scenario can end for people of color.

So when men get close enough to breathe on me, I'm defensive. Hostility makes me nervous. Alas, that nervousness tends to make law enforcement think that I am hiding something. So they start peppering me with questions, making me more anxious and tense until I get worked up and angry about being spoken to rudely when all I am doing is sitting in a public space—here in my car, perfectly legal in every way—and I don't understand what's going on and why are you treating me like a criminal? At some point, things will go all pear shaped, and—

Just then, the cop spots my backseat.

Because my car is a junker, John likes to use it for the sorts of errands that require dickering. The back seat offers a tableau of the id in winter: a plumber's elbow trap with a tube of sealant, a valu-pak of cigarette lighters, an economy box of stick matches, a small pink gun case for my Walther left at home, assorted unwashed winter woolens flecked with bits of hay, a couple of crumpled cans of Diet Coke, a dozen frozen water bottles rolling around that are showing no signs of thawing, and balled-up burger wrappers from Wendy's. In other words, it's just like the back seat of a car belonging to one of those pathetic perps who show up on COPS with dime bags stashed in their dirty underwear.

At least there's no way that can happen to John today: He's not wearing any underwear.

The cop raises an eyebrow and opens his mouth to say something, looks at me, and stops. I give him one of those Wallace-and-Gromit grimaces, hoping that this will convince him I'm really a claymation dog or possibly a free-range Muppet. Either way, I am Teller to John's Penn, doing my best to seem affable but remain mute. Because anything I say can and will be used against me. I don't want to give them a reason and a rope to hang me.

On VICE News: Video Shows California Police Tackling Pregnant Woman to the Ground During Arrest

After several long seconds, the cop returns his attention to John. "That your truck?" he asks brusquely, waving at the old Chevy parked within spitball distance on the other side of the street.

John glances at the truck and shrugs nonchalantly. "Uh, nope," he replies, in tones that suggest he's replying to the question Do you want fries with that? after ordering a McCoffee at the drive-thru.

The cop looks at the back seat again, pauses, thinks, and pauses again. Looks at me. Looks at John. Pauses, thinking, his scowl growing deeper. He's starting to get cold now, standing outside in freezing temperatures in short sleeves.

Photo by Flickr user Elvert Barnes

I am still sitting small and hoping that he used to watch Sesame Street when he was a kid. But in some part of my secret heart I'm also half hoping that he'll order us to STEP OUT OF THE CAR PLEASE and tilt at me so hard that John has to defend me, even as I'm irked and dismayed by retrograde feelings of vulnerability in the first place. I've learned to let him talk when men in uniform are involved, because he is my secret weapon. Despite his appearance, John is a straight-arrow lawyer who has faith in the law, practices law, respects the law, and obeys the law to the letter as he sits, waiting without rancor or ego, not fidgeting, twitching, or wiggling his toes impatiently at his valuable time being wasted. Meanwhile, I am doing all three, because I am bursting at the seams with inappropriate questions. What's he looking for? What's he looking at?

Which is why I get in trouble, John says: Because I treat the law as if it's a matter of prepositions. Of course it's a matter of prepositions, I huff. The entire point of the preposition is to connect a person to a sentence, which is exactly what the law does.

John turns his head slightly and blinks at me, warning me to remain calm.

I'm getting madder by the minute but in that very female way of sitting stone-faced with every pore screaming, No, I will not explain why I'm upset with you right now. I pout. We've had this argument and been through this before, because he's been with me on recent trips when I've had to answer questions in order to cross borders. John's counsel is worth serious money, and I'm not so willfully stupid as to ignore sound advice that rich people pay for. But just because he's also my boyfriend doesn't mean I have to be happy about asymmetries of authority and the fact that I have no power of my own.

Inhaling deeply in exasperation, the cop pulls back and grunts. It's the sound of a man who's just realized the glowering woman speaks English but is giving the man the Silent Treatment, and the reason he knows this is probably that he's been getting enough of that at at home and has no idea how to fix it.

He looks at the both of us and grumbles, "OK, you folks have a good day."

Then he straightens and turns, making that whirling motion with his finger again, signaling WINDOW UP, 'CAUSE WE'RE DONE. In five short steps, he's across the street and behind the wheel of his squad car, where his partner is sitting on the passenger side, peering at the old blue truck in front of them and taking down license plate numbers and other information.

They look over at us, catch me looking at them, exchange a few words, shake their heads inscrutably, and resume taking notes.

I look at John. He looks at me. Parallel universes, sitting side by side.

Paula Lee is the author of Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns and Game Meat, which won the gold for travel books at the 2014 Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) awards. Follow her on Twitter.