There is a phrase in our lexicon that manages to sum up one of many complex and damaging issues dealt with by the African-American community, and that is 'Driving While Black.'
In one pithy phrase, easily shortened in to an acronym that riffs on the charges for drunk driving, you can get across that sometimes simply being black (or brown) is believed to be probable cause for all manner of petty harassment by some law enforcement officers.
I got to experience this first hand while traveling with an old friend through the inner parts of Florida and it really opened my eyes to the reality of always being a suspect to some, for something well beyond your control.
First, a little bit about Larry. Larry was a huge man. I come in right around six feet and three inches but Larry had a couple more on top of me, narrowly skirting under the door at an even 6' 6". He had that natural strength and high metabolism that would have made him buff even without working out, but a stint with the Marine corps as an MP and a long time job as a furniture mover served to melt away any excess fat and give him an endurance that was hard to beat.
Mentally, Larry was just as capable, having an affinity for all things electronic and working towards his degree in Computer Engineering. He could do more math mentally than most people could work out on paper and once he knew a name and a face, he would never forget it.
The biggest thing about Larry though was his heart. On top of all the brawn and brain, he had a smile that was warm and welcoming. His manner was easy going and charming and his laugh was infectious. If you can imagine Webster's boyish giggle on Mean Joe Greene then you'd have a pretty good idea of what Larry was like.
So Larry and I are driving from Melbourne on the center east coast of Florida to Tallahassee, which is just inside the panhandle portion of the state. Instead of taking the longer but higher speed route from I-95 to I-10, we decide to turn the trip in to a bit of an adventure. We're only going to take the smaller highways and stay off the Interstate as much as possible. We wanted to see the orange groves and cattle ranches give way to the unspoiled natural scrub pine and see if we could find some old towns with some new faces. We were college age guys with a car and some money, and nowhere to be for a couple of weeks.
We did get our taste of Old Florida, but it certainly wasn't the one we were looking for.
After stopping for lunch in a small town that still had an operating Piggly Wiggly grocery store (where we stopped to get some ice cold bottles of Nihi Grape) we put on some tunes, popped the moon roof up for maximum sunroof simulation, and cruised down the tiny highway cut out of the heart of the dense sub-tropical foliage.
I may have been speeding, but I don't remember. I'm not a fast driver but good music and fresh air tends to have that effect on me.
I do remember seeing the red and blue lights in the rear view mirror and Larry reaching forward to turn down the radio as he slid lower in his seat. "Get ready for a DWB." he said.
Not knowing what he meant, I asked and he explained "You're going to get pulled over and you're going to get a ticket for driving with a black person in the car. Its called Driving With Blacks, watch."
I pulled well on to the shoulder and unbuckled my seat-belt to make getting my wallet easier.
Larry hissed. "Put your belt back on man. Don't make it any easier on them."
I did it, but I was still confused. I had only been pulled over once before and was left off with an admonishment to slow it down. I wanted to make it easier on the police, whatever it was. Police officers were the men and women that you went to when you were lost or hurt and were there to protect you. That's what I'd always been told and had believed whole heatedly until that day.
The man that approached the car was every bit the caricature of the Fat Southern Sheriff. He had heavy jowls and a belly that overhung his gun belt by a good few inches, reflective aviator-style glasses and a Carlsbad hat with shiny star.
"You know how fast you boys was goin?"
The way he spit out the word "boys" should have tipped me off.
"Well, I need to see your license and your negro friend there needs ta get out the car."
At that, Larry stiffened but his shoulders immediately slumped forward and he became very compliant. While I have no doubt that Larry could have handed Sheriff Porkflaps his ass, this was authority we were dealing with. The sheriff proceed to cuff Larry and have him stand in what I now know to be a distress position, wrists cuffed together with arms over your head and no relaxing your arms. Try it. After a few minutes you'll feel your muscles start to ache. After 20 minutes the pain becomes extreme and when you couple that with standing in the full force of the Florida summer sun you get something akin to torture.
During this time, Porkflaps did everything he could to find something to charge us with. I guess I wasn't speeding after all because it was never mentioned. Neither of us had any priors. The car was searched but nothing was found. Our ID's were valid. The car was registered, paid for, and in my name.
Then something happened that I thought only happened in moves. The sheriff walked behind my car and started kicking the tail light till it broke. He made sure all of the plastic was gone and the bulb itself was smashed.
"Looks like you got a light out son. That's a safety hazard. Gonna have to write you a ticket for that."
I was livid. Authority be dammed, this guy was going to get it. Larry, in his limitless grace gave me one look and a quick shake of the head that shut down any plans I had, and after signing the citation and glaring as hard as I could, we were allowed to be on our way.
Years later I still get upset remembering the look of shame on Larry's face as we left that horse's ass behind us. In one short event this strong, proud, generous, gracious military veteran was reduced to nothing. The old Florida was alive and well that day with its ugly dehumanizing racism on display like so many cypress knees in a foetid swamp.