Cresting a mild slope on a stretch of New Jersey highway, I glimpsed an ominous black-and-white SUV in my rearview mirror. I couldn’t yet make out the big, blocky text branding this car as law enforcement. Nevertheless, my palms, gripping 10 and two, slipped in their own sweat. I was in the left lane, going a little over the speed limit, but far from the fastest on the road. The SUV approached slowly; I turned up the music and tried to focus on the road ahead. Why would they pull me over? I’m doing literally nothing wrong. I took a series of “deep breaths” that wouldn’t have passed muster in even the most lenient yoga class. They don’t need a reason to stop you. A series of high-profile, deathly encounters with the cops banged on the door to my mind. They barged into my head, chattering, reciting statistics and protest chants.
These incidents of police encounters weren’t surprising guests in my mind. I am well-acquainted with them from marching in a sweaty and furious mass through humid city streets. I was 11 when Trayvon Martin was shot, and the threat of racist violence freed itself from the pages of history books and entered my newly formed concept of the zeitgeist. In church not long after the murder, I remember staring at the ivy-patterned carpet as the pastor spoke of pain and terror and how to overcome them with His help. I revealed my atheism to my parents a year or so later.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, Eric Garner and Michael Brown were killed at the hands of police. “Police brutality” entered my lexicon. I’d heard the phrase before, but never so vividly and frequently in school assemblies, lunchroom conversations, on the news. In high school debate we discussed reparations, broken windows policing and mass incarceration. In afterschool diversity meetings, I learned about intersectionality, “I” statements, colorism and institutional oppression. In November, Tamir Rice was murdered. With my newly acquired tools, I labeled the event “police brutality,” which had to do with “implicit bias” and the racism streaming surreptitiously beneath and among every societal structure. I cried and watched other people cry and read calls for reform, anti-bias training and protest.
In my Prius on the highway, I resurfaced from retrospection and noticed that the car behind me was verifiably a police car. It inched closer. When have I even talked to a cop? When did I become so afraid of them? In a lecture during debate camp one summer, in which the topic was related to police brutality and civil unrest, a counselor had played Bronx rapper KRS-One’s hit “Woop! Woop!” in an effort to make us, overly ambitious and bookish high school students, aware of the dynamic between law enforcement and communities of color. Woop! Woop! That’s the sound of da police! I think a wave of giggles rippled through the classroom, but that may be a fictional figment of uncharitable memory. Woop! Woop! That’s the sound of the beast!
When I first started taking the subway to high school alone, my parents gave me the typical parental safety spiel. My mother, who is Black, never told me to go to the police if I was in trouble or lost. “Find a woman who looks nice, like a mom.” My childhood subconscious established a tendon connecting “mom-like” to “Black, middle-aged woman.” I never acted on that advice, but when I felt uncomfortable on the train in my short, pleated uniform skirt I’d covertly scan the crowd of commuters for a woman fitting my mom’s description.
At the time, I wasn’t inherently opposed to going to the police. Raised in an affluent and primarily-white neighborhood, I grouped police with firefighters: people whose job it was to do difficult, dangerous work to keep the rest of us from being burned or pickpocketed. Still, whenever a small crew of officers shouldered their way onto the A train, I noticed the tense side-eye. I found myself unable to keep my eyes off the guns hanging at their waists. Pure weapons, made to injure and kill, they were inextricable from both their intended purposes and their owners.
Aside from a few high school parties ended by the police, my distant-yet-dark relationship with law enforcement remained unchanged through graduation. My biggest fears during high school — aside from being uncool — were mostly related to my parents’ rules and chemistry grades. Even when friends passed me paper-bagged bottles or other suspicious substances in the park or at parties, I was blithely oblivious of the prospect of legal repercussions. We’d oink at police just out of earshot and pass around gossipy anecdotes about the unfortunate few who’d been ticketed for public drinking, but the shadows of “police brutality” never encroached on my social circle of primarily white and wealthy girls.
Within my first quarter at Stanford, the shadow came closer when I received the first of a species of GroupMe messages: “Police on Santa Teresa.” This warning phrase frequently echoed throughout Norcliffe and the surrounding dorms. Eating lunch in the dining hall, doing homework in the lounge, pregaming for a party in my dorm room, at any time police could be outside. My friends in Stern and Wilbur rarely, if ever, got these messages. It seemed that, whether it was the proximity to Ujamaa or to some other unspecified point, the part of campus that I called home was under heightened surveillance.
Biking on Santa Teresa, on my way back from the Daily building at the post-print-deadline witching hour, I was stopped by a police officer for the first time. I’d forgotten my bike light. The officer stood with one foot on the curb and one on the road. He asked me if I had a bike light. I told him I’d forgotten it in my room. There were no cars on the road, no other bikes. He asked for my Stanford ID and, mysteriously, for my height and weight, and told me to attend a bike safety course. He wasn’t aggressive or mean or violent. He was just doing his job, which, unfortunately for the both of us, included stopping exhausted, freezing students trying to get home to do some last-minute work.
Stewing and shaken by this unfamiliar experience, I returned to my dorm room and relayed the story to my night owl friends. They expressed sympathy (and confusion about the weight thing) and we all went to bed. I missed the bike safety course, and the next one, and ended up paying a fine the following fall. (Dear reader: just suck it up and go to the bike safety course.)
The year continued, the cops kept coming to Santa Teresa, and I tried to remember my bike light. Reflecting on this experience as the police SUV behind me slowly began to fill my mirrors, I realized that it’s not that I’ve ever personally had a bad or violent encounter with the cops. No, it’s that I’ve never felt safe when cops are present. It’s that my early understandings of police were of the lifeless Black bodies, the vigils, the protests they left in their wake.
Whether on the subway in New York or on a bike on campus, the appearance of law enforcement in my periphery is never welcome and often unnerving. I know I’m not alone in this. Further, I know I’m among the most privileged given my relatively rosy encounters with cops. This worries me more as I consider the future of housing at Stanford.
How will the on-campus police presence change with the new neighborhood system? Will the cops remain on Santa Teresa? Or, in ResEd speak, will inhabitants of Neighborhoods R and D experience a heightened police presence? As we make draw groups and weigh our options, policing should be made as transparent to us as the number of two-room doubles. Feeling comfortable in your on-campus community means, for many of us, fewer GroupMe warnings and sudden police encounters. Cops don’t mean comfort to more than a few of us.
On that New Jersey highway, I signaled and merged right. The police car passed me, my heartrate matching its speed, and sped on, clearing the lane as it went.
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