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James Michael Brodie On February - 15 - 2011

On a Cloudy Day

By James Michael Brodie

One night, years ago, I was driving down a quiet road at night with a couple of friends. Seeing a silver barrel hurling headlong toward our windshield, the driver, as if choreographed, swerved left then right, avoiding the oncoming projectile as if swatting away a fly.

Only later did the near gravity of what we avoided sink in.

I have always somehow managed a sense of innocence about my ability to transcend attitudes, misperceptions, and stereotypes. And that may have saved my life – particularly on Feb. 2, 2011 at 4 p.m. Only later did the gravity of that day sink in.

It was a cloudy day.

I am returning from a car dealership in Glen Burnie, Maryland to the auto dealership where I work in East Baltimore. I wasn’t always a car salesman. Until I was laid off in May, 2010, I was a journalist working in Washington. But not unlike many in this down economy, I saw a good position go away. I still had a family to support, still had bills. Still had to survive. And there is no shame in hawking automobiles. It is honest work.

So there I am, heading north on Interstate 95, through Baltimore’s Ft. McHenry Tunnel. I come through without incident, pay my toll, and within 10 seconds I am being flagged over by a police squad car, lights ablaze.

I begin running scenarios through my head about why I am being pulled over for a traffic stop on the Interstate. My dealer tag? We have magnetic dealer tags, assigned to each salesperson, that we affix to the back of the cars we use. I am driving a car that my boss had ordered me to pull from our lot to run my errand, and I had not been comfortable with how well my tag stuck to the compact car. Perhaps it fell off.

As I’m sitting, pulling my license from my wallet, I am thinking, “No problem.” I have my car dealership dress shirt on; the car has one of those car dealership placards in the tag holder; and the number on my dealer tag – and the word “Dealer” – clearly identifies it as such. I calmly grab my driver’s license out of my wallet and roll down the window.

“Stick your hands out of the car and step out of the vehicle!” shouts a voice from behind me. I think this an odd request, as the police usually require you to remain in your car for a normal traffic stop. Clearly, I am a little confused. Ok, he wants me to get out. So I do, and proceed to walk back to the officer brandishing my license in my left hand, smiling.

“Freeze! Turn around and face front!” comes the next command. I stop, still not understanding why I am out of the car in the first place. This is the first time I notice that there are two cars behind me. It is also the first time I notice that the officers are crouched behind their car doors with their guns trained on me.

I turn and face forward as I had been instructed; noticing at that point that there is another squad car in front of me – officers with guns drawn.

I am ordered to walk backward toward the officers to the rear, facing forward the entire time. As I back away from my car I notice that the tag I had feared dropped off was clearly affixed and visible, but I do notice the right rear tire is flat. Perhaps this is why they pulled me over? Perhaps they were trying to warn me about a flat tire?

Then why the guns?

At a certain point I am told to stop. I do. They yell for me to drop to my knees. “Why am I dropping to my knees for a flat tire?” I think but don’t utter.

Confused, and not knowing why I am being asked to do this, I comply. Then, for the first time in my entire existence, something happens that confuses me even more. I am placed in handcuffs. Guns are still drawn. Yelling continues. The words run together.

So here I am – in handcuffs, on my knees, on the side of the road of a major Interstate highway, and I still have no clue what I could have done. And what am I doing? Running through scenarios from cop shows, trying to figure out what they are saying to me, trying to match their words to those mouthed my Munch on Law and Order or on of those CSI types. They ask me if anyone else is in the car – I’m trying to sync that question up to some obscure dialogue.

Finally, I am told what I am being held for.

“The car you are driving has been reported stolen.”

That’s impossible, I tell them, trying to identify myself as a car salesman and that the car I am driving is part of my inventory. I have a brief flash of wondering if this is some sort of practical joke being played by my often-sadistic managers. The thought passes as the officer explains that the tags have been reported stolen.

Light bulb moment.

A few months earlier, I had sold a new car to this elderly man, who had, it turned out, written out a check to pay for the car with a check on a dead account. At that time, clearly none of us knew this, but within a few days – and after one of my coworkers did a quick criminal check – we figured out that the gentleman had just pulled a scam on us, and that we were the fourth victims of such a scam. One dealership actually took him to court.

It took us a week to get the man to return the car. No one ever called the police to let them know the tag I had been using since then for customer demo rides was still considered hot.

And there I kneel on a cold Baltimore highway, attempting to explain this to the officers, who have since put away the hardware.

I am moved inside a squad car, where one officer begins to explain the reasoning behind my detention: the flattening rear tire, the “stolen” tag. He instructs me to have my dealership contact the police to inform them of the disposition of the prodigal tag. I know I will be exonerated once they call the dealership and speak with my boss. Still, the idea that at 53, I am sitting with my hands secured behind my back is troubling. Later, I would be able to synthesize why.

Had I listened, I would have heard the officer tell me that the tags the tire and the driver fit a profile, thus their show of force. At 53, college graduate, husband, stepfather, published author, teacher, and journalist who only a year ago sat in the Press Gallery to cover President Barack Obama giving his first official State of the Union address — all mean nothing.

I am simply a profile.

The “thumbs-up” signal comes from the lead squad car – the one parked in front of mine, and the officers release the cuffs and offer to change my tire. Hands are shaken, Rodney King jokes are exchanged, and laughter can be heard. We joke about a man pulled over in the same spot, who broke free and lunged off the 30-foot-high bridge to the grass below, only to break his ankle and be arrested anyway. A silly thing to do, I think.

One officer jokes that while they have been busy with me, a truck with illegal paperwork of some kind or another has just passed by, and how much in bonuses they could have made had they nabbed the driver.

Within a few minutes, an official-looking truck pulls up and a rather large man whooshes by on the way to replacing my flat tire with the donut I had retrieved from the trunk.

“I know you,” I say to the passing man.

“You should,” he says. “You tried to sell me a truck once.”

“I must have done a bad job,” I reply.

“No, it wasn’t you,” he smiles. “You guys just didn’t have what I wanted.”

He had bought a Dodge.

Only hours later, after speaking with my aunt, my brother, my wife, and two buddies who grew up in Philly did the near gravity of my situation becomes apparent. So caught up was I in the intellectual aspect of experiencing something new, it never dawned on me that the guns trained on me by Baltimore City Police officers might actually go off had I made one move or another in the wrong direction.

We were only a short time removed from City cops gunning down one of their own, an officer undercover. Mistakes had been made with one of their own. I was no cop.

My brother in Colorado took my story in stride, offering that, as part of the Black History Month activities, I had been honored with an honorary “DWB,” a Driving While Black. It is at his insistence that I am penning this narrative.

My aunt took it well at first, satisfied that in the end no harm had come to me. She even joked that she now had two “criminals” in the family – a bank robber and a car thief. We kidded one of my cousins when a photo of a recent Baltimore bank robbery suspect looked a little like her. She clearly was not the culprit, and the real robber was caught.

My wife took it not well at all. Her mind raced to every negative scenario. You do that when you have taught in Baltimore City Schools for more than 30 years, and have seen your fair share of funerals of young people gunned down over misunderstandings with the authorities. To her, it was anything but funny – that if something had gone wrong, she would never have found out the truth, and that her husband would have been reduced to a statistic. It suddenly dawned on me that I had literally dodged a bullet.

One Philly brother, who now lives in D.C., was incensed, and argued that he would have yelled and railed against the offending officers and demanded to know why he was being bothered. We both agreed that in that case the ending might have been quite different than mine. Having worked the reporter beat in the City of Brotherly Shove under Mayor Rizzo, his outrage was understandable. Too often, convictions of Black suspects in that city are subsequently overturned when it is discovered that the evidence that sent those people to prison had been fabricated. Innocent men and women have even been killed and had their names soiled with crimes they never committed.

“I’m sorry, he said, “but after all that I have seen, I simply hate the police.”

My other friend, now living in North Carolina, but who grew up in Philly and worked with me in Washington, told me point blank, “If it had been me, I might be dead now.” A man with two bad knees from reconstructive surgery, he likely would have refused to bow, and like my other chum, would have demanded answers much sooner than I had in my innocence.

He also had seen detention up close and personal, having been forced out of his car, onto a street corner and shackled by D.C. police for charges that turned out to be little more than the punch line to an old Franklin Ajaye joke about being and pulled over by Los Angeles cops and charged with being a “Nigger on a Sunny Day” before his punch line jokingly plea bargained down to a “Cloudy Day.”

On Feb. 4, I was welcomed to a club that all Black men know about and that precious few go without entering. Looking back now, I wonder how many Black men wandered unknowingly into the business end of a police officer’s gun – never knowing what they did, guilty only of fitting the profile.

He buddy in North Carolina reminded me of a night in the early 1990s when we were pulled over late at night in Bucks Country, Pennsylvania, by police officers who claimed we were speeding. We were surrounded by six squad cars, lights also ablaze.

A white woman walked by our car with her child and looked to one of the officers for an explanation.

“Don’t worry, ma’am,” he told her. “We’ve got this under control. You got to show them who is boss.”

In that instant, our degrees, professional accomplishments and good standing in our communities meant nothing. We were just three niggers on a moonlit night.

One false move and Feb. 4 could have been my last day.

James Michael Brodie is an author and writer living in Baltimore.

Written by James Michael Brodie

Writer/author -- I am a journalist who has written about education and other issues. I am also a former teacher in Baltimore City School System, grew up in Colorado. Have written a few books on Black history, and have 20 years experience as a journalist. As for politics, I guess I am a liberal-leaning Independent. I prefer conversation over shouting matches -- and feel free to call me on that when I fall out of line.

46 Responses so far.

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  1. foxisms says:

    While in the end things appear to have worked themselves out for you individually, this is a sad commentary on human nature in the times we live in.
    It’s a handicap a Caucasian can imagine perhaps, but never fully comprehend due being fortunate enough to never have to live through it.
    We all have such a long way to go to even approach were we all should have come to by now.

  2. Khirad says:

    It’s funny how such situations take a while to sink in, and don’t fully until after-the-fact.

    Thank God you are safe. I’ve never been in such a situation.

    Sure I had fit a profile with bumper stickers and long hair, but in my case, they were right and I can’t get too indignant about it -- even if it was a speed trap. And were I black, they might have escalated it. I had no gun drawn on me. The cop was just a super asshole, that’s all.

    In Tucson there are groups that are documenting, and trying to record as many police stops as they can after SB 1070. I think it’s Coalición de Derechos Humanos, but it might be another organization, I can’t recall.

    Driving while black, flying while Muslim, breathing in Arizona while Mexican… post-racial America indeed.

  3. PocketWatch says:

    Been thinking about this all day.

    I am about as Caucasian as they come, so I cannot speak to or even comment on what blacks and Hispanics go through. I won’t even pretend to understand.

    I had a somewhat similar experience years ago, though.

    At the time I was a Senior Service Engineer for a computer company, and that meant driving all over the state of Wisconsin at all hours. I drove a silver Chevy G-10 van with no side windows, a box on wheels. In it were boxes of parts and racks of equipment and manuals, plus some overnight luggage.

    I was headed west on I-94 between Tomah and LaCrosse at about 3AM headed for a Holiday Inn and some much-needed sleep in LaCrosse. The road was lonely, and it was sometime in January.

    I didn’t think much about it when the blue flashes showed up behind me. I was on cruise control at the speed limit. I figured a busted tail light or an obscured license plate from dirt and snow.

    As is my usual practise when getting stopped by police at night, I hit all the interior lights, so that they can see in.

    I was a little puzzled when the cops asked me to step out without coming near, but it my policy to NEVER argue with guys that have guns, so I stepped out.

    In seconds, I was facedown on the shoulder at 17 below zero with a cop kneeling on my lower back. Cuffed, pushed into the back of a squad, and noticing that about 12 squads had come out of nowhere. A real “Holy Crap!” moment.

    It turned out that there had been a string of bank robberies late in the day farther south and the information they had was that the bad guys were headed north in a …. silver G-10 van. They had actually tracked me for miles and had shut down part of the freeway to isolate the vehicle.

    It was profiling of a sort, but not the personal kind.

    Anyway, it gives me a teeny, tiny glimpse, I guess, and I don’t know what to say other than that. DWB is a crime IMO, and yes, police commit crimes, whether it’s coded into law or not.

  4. AHud says:

    JM!

    Thanks for sharing your story! I’ve gotta admit that I was with your wife on this one! No, I didn’t take it well at all! I know looks can and [mostly] are confusing but, just by your sheer demeanor a “light bulb” should have gone off! Many (not so good) thoughts were running though my head as I read your piece! In the end it just reminds me how precious life really is! Your story should be required reading for all…especially young African Americans! Again, thanks for sharing your experience and your story!

  5. Redemption Song II says:

    Brodie,

    Welcome to the Planet and thank you for sharing your story. I sometimes look at my snaggle-toothed first grader and feel momentarily saddened when I think fleetingly of getting him through adolescence to young adulthood as a black male. Indeed, I feel that the battle has already begun…the negative stereotyping of black males in education almost take my breath away.

    Peace,
    --Redemption

  6. KQuark says:

    I gotta admit every time I open this thread to comment. That image makes me start to panic a little inside.

  7. FrustratedPA says:

    JM, thank you my friend for sharing your powerful story. I am sorry that it happened to you however, there is much to be gained from sharing it.
    Unfortunately, I do know the reality of DWB. I have not only intructed at police academies but defended Black men in Court who were the ultimate victims of racism. I always brought up racial profiling and DWB in my classes. Always controversial, always hotly debated but that is the forum to do so. We need to have the open and honest debate without being afraid of “racist” tags or “race card” thrown about loosely. Eric Holder is right, stories like yours have to be shared with audiences who may never understand the reality that this occurs on a daily basis. Police officers are far from perfect, too many are not properly trained and too quick to act without judgment. Nevertheless, in a country with millions of guns, how do you not feel paranoid every time you go out to do your job?

    One of the hardest things I ever did in my career was advise a man to take a plea because he was a Black man who would never get a fair trial in the county he was nabbed in. It was 10 years ago and I still feel the impact. Instead of 8 years in prison, he got 18 months but despite the “good deal” the reasons were abhorrent. He would never have gotten a fair shake with the jury and my duty was to advise him of not only the law and facts of the case but the reality of the system.

    What is ironic is that I have seen your photo and you are a very non-threatening looking man. This white woman looks far more shady than you can ever look! A Black President cannot undo hundreds of years of racism and prejudice although too many folks think it can.

    • jkkFL says:

      From his photo, and comments, I thought he might be a Professor, or a Judge.
      Mr Brodie, you have much to offer all of us- please continue to share your thoughts.

    • KQuark says:

      Keep up he great work.

      You can’t train people not to be racist but at least you can train people to follow proper procedures.

      On of the big problems with racism compared to studying most other beliefs is that large groups of people don’t tell the truth when survey. So in most cases you only have anecdotal evidence of racism.

  8. Abbyrose86 says:

    Oh my goodness Brodie…I’m so glad you are okay and everything got cleared up.

    Thank you for sharing this story. It is important that stories such as this ARE brought out in the open. They can’t really be told enough. Too many people just don’t realize.

    (BTW, I know this isn’t the important part, but it was so well written, I just feel the need to let you know that I’m in awe of your writing abilities!.)

    • JMBrodie says:

      Thank you, my friend.

      • jkkFL says:

        Now I know why I have always admired your writing! Both here and ‘there’.
        Every time I think- look how much progress we’ve made, something comes along and jerks me up short. What will it take for us to realize that people are just people?
        There are good ones, bad ones, stupid ones, and smart ones. And they come in all colors, genders and nationalities.
        Please, please keep writing for us. You are clearly gifted, and I, for one, would sit up and wait for your next one to be published!

  9. choicelady says:

    Welcome to the Planet, JB. I second MTW’s sentiment -- WASPs simply never HAVE these problems with the police. We aren’t profiled ever -- we’re the “norm” which means DWW is never going to be an issue.

    I’ve had my own problems with the racist Philly cops though. Years ago, in the middle of the civil rights years, I worked in Philly, lived in a transitioning neighborhood, and got assaulted by two white men for being with the “wrong” person. The cops would not take a report, would not do ANYTHING since the perps were gone and we were mostly unharmed. Their sneering disregard for me, for being a “race traitor”, was over the top apparent. It was, for a young middle class white woman, a shocking, eye-opening experience. Long a supporter of civil rights, I was shoved into the world of racial fear -- just a taste, just a moment -- to finally comprehend that violent racism was not just a Southern problem and to understand how deeply embedded it is. NAively believing people would honor my right to pick my own companions and friends, I discovered it was absolutely NOT true.

    But I could walk away. I could go around the corner and be OK in white society. My friend never could have that security, not even now. What happened to you is better than then -- the cops were not so brutal and contemptuous -- but you still were profiled. I never am or ever would be. I trade on that -- my white middle class respectability not only gets me out of jams but gives me credibility with police. The only time I’ve been arrested is for justice and intentional; otherwise nope. I’ve been pulled over for expired tags (the sticker was riding around in my purse -- kept forgetting to put it on) and simply cautioned since I had it with me. Had I been a Black woman instead of white? Probably would have had a citation. A Black male? Probably would have had the car tossed.

    My stomach is curled in knots with the fear of what could have happened to you. Yes, attitude matters. But the set of circumstances 99 to 1 would NOT have happened to me to put me into that situation where my attitude is what let me live. I share your wife’s horror of ‘what could have been’ and how on the edge your safety was.

    I have good friends who are police officers, and I know the dangers they face, but our society has set up an “us v. them” scenario in which YOU will always be “them”. There are not words to say what all of us here feel about what happened to you. Most of us will not walk in your shoes ever. But we walk with you in heart. We hope our presence and our witness helps a little. It will never make it OK.

  10. Mightywoof says:

    Hi jm -- first, welcome to the Planet!

    I read your article about 2 hours ago and I couldn’t reply -- I was shaken by it but cognizant of the fact that it is not an isolated one. I’m as WASP as they come so I have never had to walk in your shoes -- the most any of us WASP’s can do is walk by your side in support.

    There is a troubling aspect to policing -- it is the only force in a democratic society that has almost unlimited power at the point of first contact with the public -- any abuse of that power can only be addressed after the damage has been done. Police are necessary in any society but they should and must be held to a higher standard by virtue of the very power they wield. Unfortunately, and with the greatest of respect to the vast majority of police men and women who are good and decent people, the rotten apples are there (although, thankfully, they appear not to have been in your case) and what galls me is the thin blue line mentality that seems to require that all police stand shoulder to shoulder and resist investigation of one of their own. It is happening right now in Toronto over the G8/G20 Summit last year.

    I have no serving police officers in my family history and I’m only a member of the public with a keen sense of right and wrong and it appears to me that the general disrespect police receive is because of their perceived disregard of rights, the approach of a police officer (in big cities anyway) that every member of the public is a criminal until proven otherwise. I’ve only ever had a couple of interactions with my local police force -- once to simply sit in on an interview with a friend on her domestic abuse situation and the other time when a police car alongside signalled to me that I had a tire going flat -- both interactions were extremely pleasant and non-threatening and unfailingly polite

    There is no easy answer to the uneasy relationship all of society should have with those who are chosen to police us and it’s far too easy for those of us who are white to walk away from a problem that we will never have.

    I’m sorry -- my thoughts are rambling and muddled this morning -- I can only say that I’m glad you survived your scarey experience and that you have shared it with us

  11. JMBrodie says:

    Hi all. Thank you for the kind words. Please forgive the typos. Next time I will have my wife proofread before I post… :-)

  12. BigDogMom says:

    Mr. Brodie, so glad to see you here, great writing, chilling story…As a white women I have never experienced “DWB”, but I have heard a very similar story from one of my clients.

    A black man in his early 60’s, who has owned a successful Auto/Marine Upholstery business for close to 30 yrs….his only crime was a broken rear tail light and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, leaving a very exclusive “all white” yacht club in a very exclusive “all white” town.

    After my client told me his story, he laughed and said, if this had happened in the town we all live in, he probably would have been stopped by one of the cops who are in the Marine division part-time during the summer. Told his light was out, then asked, “Can you come over and look at my boat, I need a new cover, what kinda of deal can you give me?”

    So, here in my neck of the woods, it all depends on which town you are stopped in…it should be this way in this day and age, but it is.

  13. UpstateSC says:

    JM, thanks for the post about your experience, and the reactions to it. In spite of the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, we still have a long way to go in this country to reach the point that MLK dreamed of: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

  14. KQuark says:

    I hear ya.

    I lost my white’s only club card a long time ago when I married my beautiful African American wife. It’s a total different world in social situations. I could literally tell you dozens of stories since we’ve been together almost 20 years now.

    The only good part is things have gotten better, well kinda they definitely regressed a tad for a little while after Obama was elected. White people around us who let us be for years all of a sudden would blurt out some racially charged nonsense usually about Obama, especially around my wife. Like they just had to let out that they were not happy and African American was elected president.

    • UpstateSC says:

      KQuark, you are right in that they aren’t happy about Obama being elected, but think that because an African American was elected that it’s OK to be a racist, or to openly show their racism. That’s not how they would put it, but would say something like “now that a black man is president, there is no such thing as racism in America anymore.” Someone actually said something like that to me after the 2008 election!


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