Lately, I’ve been wondering how my life might have changed if those two traffic stops in Kansas City had been different in just one way. What if the four of us had been Black?
At the time, I was amused by it. But I was young, white, and in the right. What could go wrong?
We were all students in a school for airline operations, rooming together in a house in a neighborhood much like University Parkway in Baltimore. All ages, because some of us were seeking beginnings and others were changing course.
A guy who had flown to a job interview in Minneapolis left his car behind because it had a bad water pump. We spent an afternoon replacing the pump. We had to give it a test drive. We all piled in and headed for a place in the suburbs — think Timonium — where you could get a milkshake thick enough to bend a spoon.
One the way, we were pulled over by two officers of the Kansas City Police force. They were polite, courteous. One explained that we were pulled over because the Pennsylvania tags on the car were bent, like they might have been acquired in a midnight transfer.
Turns out the driver of our car was a guy named Vestal, and the cop’s wife had been a Vestal, what are the odds, right? Laughs, the conversation was cordial, and in a few moments we resumed our trip to get our shakes. We never had to get out of the car.
On the way back, colored lights flashed behind us, a siren yelped and a hard voice ordered us to pull over. We all laughed. We knew the drill. No big deal. We’d be on our way in a jiffy.
Twice in one day. A story to tell.
We pulled over, so did the cops, but they stayed in the patrol car. Lights continued to flash, and we heard other sirens in the distance. They had called backup.
The metallic voice from the patrol car speaker told us all to get out of the car, hands up, and take positions with our hands on our car.
They left us standing there, in the late hot sun, until two more cars arrived, more flashing lights, blocking the street, drawing spectators, before they got out and approached. People peered at us from their cars creeping past.
Our snickers were now tinged with a little nervousness, but we were confident that the officers would be as reasonable as the previous pair.
Not exactly. Both cops had their hands on their holstered sidearms and no sign of a sense of humor when I said we had just been cleared by officer Vestal and his partner. They took identification from all of us, not just the driver. There was none of the professional courtesy of the previous officers. These two were cold, even arrogant. I felt my anger stir; I decided it was time to shut up.
Someone must have checked with the first officers, and after making their point that they were in control and we were just lucky they didn’t find a reason to take us in, we were allowed to leave. They seemed disappointed.
I think of that day when I read stories of encounters between cops and young Black men today. How would my story be different if I had darker skin — or all of us, a car full of Black males detained by two armed white cops with attitude?