An Excerpt from Marginal Eyes, Chapter Thirteen:
“Stand against the trunk and spread your legs,” the officer behind me directed. As he grabbed me roughly around my mid-section to adjust my stance and started to pat me down, Tommy lit into them.
“Hey, man, this is bullshit. What are you guys doing this for? He didn’t do shit!”
Although I was glad to have someone else there, Tommy’s aggressive reaction made me even more tense. I knew that he hated authority and that, at least in terms of his temperament, he was perhaps more of a liability than an asset in a situation like this. On top of it all, we were near a major street corner, and the ever-busy road was full of gawking drivers, who watched as I was held up against my car like I was dangerous. The officer frisking me reached around to my chest, checking my skin-tight, sleeveless shirt, apparently for something I might have hidden in such a place.
“Why is your heart beating so fast?” he asked sternly.
“Because I’m afraid,” I replied simply.
“I’m going to have to take a look inside the vehicle,” the other officer said.
“Fuck no, this is bullshit,” Tommy protested. “You guys have no right to do this!”
Tommy was indignant, and thank God he was a big light-skinned fellow, or I don’t know how the officers might have reacted. But, knowing Tommy, I was also afraid he was being so obstinate toward them because he had stashed a bowl of weed inside my glove compartment and didn’t want them to find it. Things could start getting worse pretty quickly.
“All right. Just put the plates on the right way,” the officer behind me said, as he finished his search and walked back to the squad car.
“Thank you,” I said reflexively, my body shaking violently.
Tommy tried to commiserate with me, as I switched the plates and drove us to rehearsal, but there was really no rhyme or reason to the situation. I came up with excuses for the officers’ behavior, thinking maybe it was how I had been dressed or shaved my head or that they were just a couple city cops doing their best at a dangerous job. Over the years, as I grew up, I had stopped responding with anger when accosted by others, because I couldn’t keep up that much anger, and I was generally on the losing end of situations, in any case. Now, as a result of that conditioning, I fully rationalized and even made myself responsible for what had happened.
The reality is that, whether or not the cops had a plausible reason to stop and frisk me, I was publicly humiliated because of my appearance. If Tommy or anyone else who looked like him had been doing the same thing, the police might have slowed to give a helpful or at worst a jeering, “Hey, your plates are on the wrong side,” as their squad car passed. But to these cops or the person who called them, I was a possible car thief. That may or may not have been due to a personal prejudice of either the police or the caller, but it was certainly at the very least a prejudice of our culture.