My parents thought I was at theater practice, which is where I should have been. Instead, I went to pick up my boyfriend, Clarence, from his school in a neighboring city. He’s intelligent, tall, African American, a football player, and the sweetest gentleman I have ever met. I didn’t tell my parents I was dating anyone; I knew they would be upset if they found out. Clarence had just gotten out of football practice, and I couldn’t wait to spend the rest of the day with him. We were on our way to my city when my car began slowing down; I couldn’t get it to go faster than 15 miles per hour. Scared, I pulled over on a residential side street. I turned the car off, hoping it might cool down and miraculously start working again. To take my mind off the problem, I talked to Clarence about school and what I had learned that day.
On the inside I was having a panic attack, but on the outside I was trying to keep calm. Millions of concerns were going through my mind. I couldn’t call my parents for help because I had Clarence with me and I was not where I was supposed to be. To make matters worse, when I glanced in the side mirror, I noticed a police car slowly approaching.
Trapped like an animal in a zoo, I sat there frozen. The officer got out of his vehicle and approached. I had never been pulled over before, so you can imagine how nervous I was.
I rolled my window down, and the first thing the officer said was, “Do either of you have a license or ID?” He didn’t bother to ask for my registration. I gave him my license, and Clarence gave him his school ID. After taking a hard look at our photo IDs, the officer walked to the back of my car and placed them on my trunk. I watched as he used his cell phone to take pictures of our IDs.
When he returned, to our surprise the officer told us to get out of the car. I knew we had done nothing wrong, but I wasn’t going to question his authority. I was only 16. I was scared my parents were going to find out. I was scared of getting in trouble for driving another minor. Clarence and I had no idea what the consequences would be if we questioned the cop’s authority.
The officer opened the door to the backseat of his patrol car and told me, “Take a seat.”
“Am I being arrested?” I stammered in disbelief.
“Detained,” he replied, without explanation.
From the back of the cruiser, I watched my boyfriend put his hands on the roof of the vehicle and get patted down from shoulders to feet. I saw the disappointment in Clarence’s eyes as he was treated like a criminal for no good reason. He never smoked, drank alcohol, or broke the law. At that moment, it was painfully obvious to Clarence and to me that he was being treated this way because the officer saw him as just another African American male. The incident reminded me of Trayvon Martin, who was profiled as a criminal because of his appearance, and was gunned down violently despite no justifiable cause. In that moment I was more concerned for Clarence than for myself.
My boyfriend and I sat quietly together in the back of the cop car. Clarence’s head was down and his legs were shaking; he was terrified. I noticed a tear run down his face. I felt helpless to comfort him. Suddenly, he burst out, “Why do they always treat us like this?”
I was at a loss for words. We were still clueless about what we had done wrong. We noticed another police car pulling up. He called for backup, I thought. We’re going to jail. But why?
The first officer opened the door on Clarence’s side and asked, “Can we take a quick look in the car?”
But it’s my car … I thought, but I kept my mouth shut.
Clarence responded, “Yes. Go ahead.”
I said hesitantly, “Wait, don’t you need a warrant?”
“No, I don’t,” the officer replied curtly.
I didn’t want to push him, so I agreed in the hope that he would soon let us go. Although I knew there was nothing illegal in my car, Clarence and I still watched anxiously as he carefully went through all my things. The only possessions the officer found were my school books, my backpack, and my nephew’s toys in the trunk.
The officer came back to us and said, “There was a robbery in this neighborhood recently. Y’all were at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He did not apologize. I don’t know if he realized he scared the living crap out of two innocent teenagers for no reason. But he let us go. Thankfully my car started and was safe to drive. I felt a huge burden lift off my shoulders. There are no words to explain our relief in the moment.
On our way back home, we rode in silence. We have not discussed that experience to this day, two years later. Clarence was traumatized. For young African American males, this kind of treatment is all too common.
When I reflect on this event, I get frustrated thinking about how different the scenario could have gone if Clarence and I had been educated about our rights. People tend to be passive to authority figures out of fear or ignorance. In some instances, police officers act entitled, as if there are no limits to their power. How could the officer detain me and search my car when I did not commit a crime or show any sign that I had done so? I felt an invasion of privacy and property, and my boyfriend was racially profiled, which has become the norm in America.
I am a firm believer that the duty of the police is to protect and serve for the good of the people. But I do not believe that we should allow them unlimited power over the citizens they are meant to serve.
I have never forgotten the officer’s words when he said that we were at the “wrong place at the wrong time.” So if only I had parked in the next neighborhood over, then I wouldn’t have been wrongfully accused, detained, and had my vehicle searched by the police? Ironically, “wrong place at the wrong time” are the same words people used to explain the killing of Trayvon Martin. In truth, there are no words to justify such acts of injustice.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.