OK, maybe Gatesgate is a bit of a stretch, but I thought I would opine on the state of race relations in the quiet white- trash suburban utopia of Loves Park, Illinois. For those of you who do not partake of mass media, click here to get up to speed. I’ll wait for you…
Good, you came back. I’ll preface my narrative by making a few qualifying statements:
I did not personally witness the arrest of Professor Gates.
I have not read the police report of Professor Gates’s arrest (and yes, the “s’s” is correct: read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White).
I am an American of European descent; in other words, white.
I’m sure that there’s blame on both sides of the Gatesgate incident. I’m sure that President Obama could have “calibrated” his words more carefully. I’m sure that racism exists within the ranks of police forces around the country, just as there are still prejudiced paddys, spooks, krauts, spics, heebs, slopes, ruskies, chinks, guineas, limeys, frogs, canucks, camel jockeys, redskins, gobblers, punjabs, noogins… whoa! I kind of lost it there for a second. What was I saying again? Oh yeah, there’s racist and prejudiced people all over, in every profession.
At about 9:00 PM on a Friday night in 1999 I was driving with my friend Alex to my then- girlfriend’s house to hang out and watch movies. There was an electrical issue with my car, a 1984 Nissan 300ZX Turbo, that sometimes caused my rear lights to fail. I had turned onto a major street from another when I saw flashing lights behind me. I pulled over, oblivious to the recurrence of the light malfunction. I should mention that, at the time, I was 19 years old and familiar with the standard “license and proof of insurance” shtick when stopped by the police. Alex was too, obviously, and we both got our wallets out to produce our ID. Being normal guys, we both carried our wallets in our back pants pockets. In order to get our wallets our of our pockets, we had to remove our seat belts (which I insist passengers in my car use). That was mistake # 1.
When the officer approached the car, I already had the window rolled down, licenses and insurance card in hand. The cop asked the same question they all do: “Do you know why I stopped you?” I honestly didn’t and said so. The policeman told me that my rear lights weren’t on and I explained that I did not know that the issue had cropped up again. I told him how the switch had been replaced once already and that I would definitely get it fixed again. “So where are you headed tonight,” the officer asks me. I tell him we’re going to my girlfriend’s house. He responds, “Both of you?” Apparently it’s against the law in Illinois for two guys to hang out with one girl: we must have been planning an orgy. I tell him yes.
The cop’s next statement floored me. He said, “I also noticed that you guys weren’t wearing your seat belts.” As I told you above, I told the officer how we had taken them off after he stopped us so that we could get to our wallets. He stated that he had seen that we were not wearing the safety restraints when he first pulled us over. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from looking at pictures of the Nissan 300ZX.
It’s at this point that Officer Friendly asks if I mind if he takes a look inside my vehicle. Being a fairly well- informed citizen, I opt to exercise my rights and tell him that I do not consent to a search of my car. My reasons were two- fold: one, I was starting to get a little irritated with this guy; two, the entire interior of the Z is visible from the window. Serpico responds with a threat to summon a drug- sniffing dog to check the car out (which Illinois law allows, much to my dismay as a strict constructionist when it comes to the Constitution). I snap back, “Get the dog, I don’t care: he’s not going to find anything.” Mistake #2.
The cop returns to his squad car, presumably to start writing tickets. While we’re waiting for the officer to return, a tow truck pulls up in front of us. The policeman walks up to the tow truck driver after a few minutes and chats with him, motioning in our direction a few times. After about five minutes total, the truck drives off. When the cop returns to my car, I tell him that if he’s going to write us some tickets he should just hurry it up so we can be on our way. He asks me if that’s what I want him to do. I reply, “No, but if you’re going to, could you just do it so we can go?”
The officer then shines his flashlight on the large, very full backpack between Alex’s feet on the floor of the car. He asks, “What’s in there?” I don’t let Alex respond: I’m pissed now. “Books,” I say. Indeed this was true. Alex had an entire bag filled with gaming books and Magic: the Gathering cards. The officer proceeds ask Alex if he can search the bag. I tell Lex he doesn’t have to let him do that. He accedes, however, and consents to the violation. The cop finds nothing but books and cards. He returns again to his vehicle.
After about three or four minutes he walks back up the the car, clipboard in hand. Here come the tickets, I think. Super Trooper hands Alex a citation for failing to wear his seat belt, a $75 fine, if I remember correctly. To my amazement, I am given a warning for the tail lights. The officer bids us a good eve and we are released. I pull away with my hazard lights on (which do work, for some ungodly reason) and proceed to Tiffanie’s house. The cop follows us all the way there, which is actually outside his jurisdiction as she lived in Machesney Park at the time.
What did this incident teach me? Don’t mouth off to cops, no matter how out of line they are. That’s what court is for. It also taught me that keeping receipts for repairs in your car is never a bad idea. Finally, it taught me not to be brown in Loves Park: Alex is of Haitian and Mexican descent.
Fuck the police, comin’ straight from the underground…