Driving while black in Virginia

Photo by Olu Famule on Unsplash

It was 2008 or so. I was in college. One of my younger friends on campus didn’t have a car and wanted to go to a party in Norfolk, VA. We lived and studied in Hampton, VA at the time which was about a 20 minute drive away. She asked if I could give her and a friend a lift. I obliged.

We got down to the Granby Street area where all of the bars and clubs were a little after 10 PM. I had no intent to go with them. I just wanted to drop them off and get back to the other side of the bay where I had other plans for the evening. As I pulled up to the venue to let them out, we sat street side for a moment to discuss their plans for getting home. I wanted to be sure they were covered. They said they were.

Once they were in line for the event, I drove off. I may have gone 300 or 400 feet before red and blue lights were in my rear view. I immediately pulled over. “Do you know why I pulled you over?,” said the cop — who was white.

“No, officer,” I said.

“You pulled off without headlights on,” he said.

I apologized anticipating admonishment on the dangers of driving without lights on at night or a warning at the most.

“Driving without headlights is usually a sign of intoxication,” he said. I told him I hadn’t had anything to drink that evening. I literally hadn’t drank. I was 100% sober.

“Well I’d be more comfortable knowing that for sure. Please step out of the car,” he said.

At that point in time 4 police officers were surrounding my car with a host of bystanders nearby in line for the venue, including my friends. I was nervous and scared for my life, honestly. I felt like I could not resist without the prospect of being harmed or worse. So, I obliged.

They had me do this silly sobriety test, which I passed pretty easily, but while I was occupied, the other 3 officers took it upon themselves to search my car without my consent. One of them screamed with enthusiasm, “We’ve got one!”.

My stomach dropped through my body. I knew I didn’t have anything of value to a police officer in that car. I wasn’t driving with liquor or any illegal substances, so one of two things had happened — either someone had left something in my car without my knowledge or something had been planted. Neither of those realities presented a good outcome for me that night.

“You’re going to jail boy”, one of the officers screamed at me holding a bag of rather large pills in his hand that were stored in a plastic Ziploc bag. He was also white.

“You better hope the illegal substance tech is on the clock, or you’re going in until Monday”. It was Friday night. They needed to confirm what they were holding in their hands was legal. If they couldn’t, well I’d be in the city jail until Monday. By this time I was handcuffed and on the ground face down with a boot in my back.

The tech arrived about 10 minutes after they discovered the bag. City Hall was near by so my guess is the office where this tech worked was nearby as well. “These are vitamins,” he said.

I’d just been humiliated, diminished and assaulted over a bag of — vitamins. To add insult to injury, some were clearly marked — “Vitamin Shoppe”. They un-cuffed me and told me to keep my lights on. They never apologized.

I eventually learned my roommate had left the vitamins there by accident after a roadtrip we’d taken earlier that week. You may say I had a bad day, but for me, it was just another day of existing while black.

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