Why I Was Afraid to Drive

This station wagon taught me a lot about the police…

I know it’s hard for many of my friends to appreciate the severity of the tension and helplessness that many African Americans feel towards law enforcement. To Americans of European descent, especially those in the upper socio-economic classes, the fear and antagonism directed towards a police force that is, by and large, hard-working and committed to their protection seems misplaced and perhaps even misguided.

It would be disingenuous of me to conflate my experiences in Utah as a brown-skinned Arab-American with the experiences of a black-skinned African-American in an inner city. However, in my 34 years living in the United States, I’ve experienced a tale of two very different worlds.

My first decade here (roughly my early teenage years into my early twenties), was socially and financially stressful with every penny we earned going to our tuition which guaranteed our visa status. It meant that our family of five shared an old, brown station wagon from the seventies that my parents purchased for $2,800 (I still remember that number — it seemed like so much money for us at the time). I didn’t enjoy driving the car because I would get stopped on a semi-regular basis for absolutely no reason when I was alone in it. I would be told it was because [insert random excuse here] and asked where I was going and where I lived. It usually delayed me by 20-30 minutes as I sat idly in my car as they checked the plates and my driver’s license. I found myself gaining an anxiety every time I’d see a police car; I could barely think when they would follow me.

So, I preferred to ride my bike or walk everywhere. But that didn’t stop the encounters: one weekend night, I was stopped walking home from the University on accompanied by three of my friends, all of whom happened to be foreign students and minorities. Two police cars and four officers surrounded us; two of the officers, who were covering us from behind, had their guns drawn as the other two questioned us. I had made the mistake of picking up a short tree-branch stick I found which, in my nervousness and shock at the police’s surprise arrival,  threw onto the ground for no obvious reason. That became the subject of their stop; they kept asking me to be quiet but I genuinely didn’t realize I was shouting. My friends later told me that I was, in fact, speaking much louder than I normally would, likely because of the fear and resulting adrenaline rushing through my body. Things could’ve easily gotten out of hand, but I was lucky. I was 16 years old.

Even as a 20-year-old graduate student with a research assistantship, I hated staying at the lab late because I knew I’d get stopped in our old station wagon on my way home frequently exhausted and so ready to go to bed. I came to accept it: I was a brown-skinned young man driving an old station wagon in a very Caucasian part of town. It was hard to feel safe. It was hard to see the police as my protectors. It was hard to feel like “this” was home.

Even as I write this, these stories already seem so foreign to me. I don’t have to drive an old station wagon with a broken taillight. I can now wear business attire. I don’t keep a beard, and I have a bald head — thank goodness shaved heads have become so commonplace. No longer do I look out of place driving home.

I haven’t had a single bad experience with a police officer in two decades; I’ve always been treated with respect and dignity. But I’ll never forget my experience as a young man. And I can only imagine what it must be like for African Americans who can never, ever escape those experiences no matter how successful, how well-dressed, and how polite they are.

I believe that the vast majority of police officers are hard-working people doing a very difficult and dangerous job. Like everyone, they’re prone to stereotypes and biases that they must overcome. The bar is and must continue to be very high for them as our protectors, especially given the amount of authority and lethal power they wield.

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