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First Person: ‘You’re a black man, you don’t do that!’

I arrived home really late at night and went straight to bed. When my wife got up just before 6:30 a.m., I could tell she was trying to be very quiet to avoid waking me up. She knew I had gotten home late. I could hear her going down the stairs very quietly, still unaware that I was already awake. Moments later, everything changed. I heard her stomping up the stairs and I knew she had read my text messages and I was in trouble. She didn’t care if she woke up the whole neighborhood at this point. She stomped into our bedroom. “Tell me you didn’t do that, tell me you didn’t do that! Why didn’t you call me?” she yelled at me. There was no mistaking how angry she was. I pretended I didn’t know why she was so upset; trying to calm her down, I said: “It wasn’t that bad, honey, it was an easy walk, it didn’t take me that long. You were not feeling well last night, I didn’t want to wake you up.” She wasn’t having it, and went straight to the reason why she was so upset, which I knew but did not want to acknowledge. “You’re a black man, you don’t do that! You call me, you hear, you call me!” She stormed out of our bedroom and left for work.

Ever since I moved to the United States, in the mid-’90s, I have lived in predominantly white suburban neighborhoods with very low crime rates. Most of my non-black friends and neighbors believe that I enjoy the privilege of living in such a neighborhood to the same extent as they do. When there are discussions about ill treatment of black people by police, you will hear some people say something like, “If they didn’t commit crimes in the first place, the whole thing would not have happened.” I hope my story might shed a different light on this notion that “if these people just followed the law they would not have problems with the police.” I’m sharing my story because I know that a lot of people in this community do know me as a law-abiding citizen. I will nonetheless share my rap sheet before continuing with my story. I have never been convicted, charged, or accused of any crime. I do have three moving violations in more than 25 years of driving. One of my driving violations was here in Massachusetts for, regrettably, driving a vehicle the day after its registration expired. I will talk about my two other driving violations later.

A big difference

In 1996, I was recruited, out of graduate school in Canada, to join a technology startup in Princeton, New Jersey. I quickly became friends with five of my colleagues who were in their mid-20s, as I was, and had come from various parts of the country to work for the same company. We worked long hours and did almost everything together. We lived in the same town, dressed in similar ways, drove similar cars with very similar driving habits. However, in my first two years in New Jersey, I was either stopped or followed by police more than 20 times while driving. In the same period of time, all combined, my friends got stopped two or three times! So even though I was just as law-abiding as my friends, I was more than 20 times as likely to be stopped by police. The only visible difference between my friends and me was that they were white and I was black.

A big difference between when I got stopped and when my friends got stopped was that they would have violated some traffic law; in my first two years in New Jersey, I was never told of any law that I had violated. Police would just ask me who I was, where I was going, where I was coming from, and they would then check my driver’s license and car registration to verify what I had told them. That is how it was till one day when I asked for the reason I had been stopped. It was after a long day at work, we were behind on a product launch, our whole engineering team spent all day trying to resolve the problem but had made no progress. So when I got stopped on my way home, around 2 a.m., by an officer who had stopped me twice before, I lost my patience. The first thing I said to him was: “You stopped me a few weeks ago, nothing about me has changed. I’m just trying to get home to get a few hours of sleep before going back to work. Do you really need to run my license and registration?” He said I should not tell him how to do his job and requested my license and registration. I then asked him for the reason I had been stopped. He stared at me for a second and I could tell he was annoyed. “You went through a red light, now give me your damn license and registration!” I had not gone through a red light; he knew it, I knew it.

I was angry. I knew that the only reason I had gotten a ticket that day was because I tried to assert my rights against being stopped without probable cause. “Good luck convincing a judge,” the officer told me when I said I was going to protest the ticket. I had had enough; I was going to fight this. I soon found out that I was being naïve. Even though I was willing to pay, no lawyer would take my case. They told me it would be my word against the officer’s and the judge would believe the officer. As for all my past stops without probable cause, I was told that without exact dates, times, and badge numbers of the officers involved, we could not use them to show bias. With no lawyer willing to take my case, I represented myself and lost. A couple of weeks later, I was stopped again on my way home. I was told I was going 45 miles an hour in an area with a speed limit of 40. My car’s speedometer was at 42, so in this particular case I was violating the law; however, would I have been ticketed if I hadn’t accused an officer of racial bias a couple of weeks earlier? I didn’t fight the ticket. My career was too important to me and it demanded all my attention. These people had power over me in one very small aspect of my life. I was not going to give them any more power over me by allowing them to be a distraction.

“You are a black man, you just don’t do that!” That is what my wife yelled at me before she stormed off to go to work. I was almost in tears as I thought of the context that made those words necessary, as I thought about how 20 years earlier I had walked away from a legal fight with police in New Jersey, and as I thought about what had happened the night before. I left my office, in Worcester, to drive home sometime after midnight. Just as I was about to the Harvard exit from the highway, I hit a pothole and one of my front tires burst. My car doesn’t have a spare tire so I decided to drive slowly to an auto repair shop that was about 2 miles away on Ayer Road. When I reached the auto repair shop, I wrote them a note and dropped it off with the key in the mail slot on their door. My house is only 2.5 miles away. My wife had been sick so instead of calling her for a ride, I decided to walk so I would not disturb her sleep. I had texted my family group chat when I left the office and I texted again to say I had a flat tire and I would be walking home after dropping off my car. Harvard being a quiet, relatively crime-free town, I did not think twice about walking in the middle of the night.

As soon as I started walking on Ayer Road, going away from the town center heading toward Route 2, I realized I hadn’t really thought this through. This is Harvard, where people call police for almost anything; I thought if anyone was going to see me walking at this time of night, they would most certainly call the police. That realization led to an even bigger realization: I didn’t know the protocol to follow when stopped by police when you’re on foot. At that point in my life, I’d been stopped by police while driving more than 40 times. I am very well versed on what you’re supposed to do to stay safe. As soon as an officer indicates that they want you to stop, you pull over as soon as it is safe to do so. Then, preferably before the officer leaves his or her vehicle, you (1) turn off your engine, (2) if it’s at night, turn on all the inside lights, (3) get your license and registration and place them on the dashboard, (4) roll down all your windows, (5) place both your hands on the steering wheel and wait for the officer to come to talk to you, (6) if you ever need to reach for anything, especially if it’s out of sight, make sure to let the officer know what you are about to do before you make any movement. Following this protocol minimizes the risk that the officer perceives—a risk that could cause them to fire their weapon at you. So I knew very well what to do when I got stopped while driving, but I had no clue what to do when on foot.

Bad idea

I had made a mistake. It really was a bad idea for me to be walking along Ayer Road at 1:30 a.m. I should have driven home on the flat tire but that was no longer an option because there was no way to get my car keys back. I looked at my phone and it had no signal, as I expected. I couldn’t call home for a ride. I couldn’t even use it to Google the best way to stay safe when stopped by police on foot. So as I walked along Ayer Road, I kept coming up with different scenarios of what I should do if the police stopped me. I figured they would definitely want to see my driver’s license, which would confirm both my identity and that I was a Harvard resident. I keep my driver’s license in a black wallet in my back pocket. Remembering Amadou Diallo and other black men who were killed after their wallets were mistaken for weapons, I knew I had to take my driver’s license out of the wallet. I decided to carry it in my hands. I then had second thoughts about that idea; if I got stopped, I decided I would put my hands up. What if the officer saw light reflected from the driver’s license and thought it was a weapon? So I decided to place the driver’s license in my right front pants pocket instead. I cursed whoever made the dress shirt I was wearing for not including a breast pocket because that would have been the perfect place to keep my driver’s license.

Our town of Harvard has a great police force that is caring and contributes greatly to our community. I had no doubt that if I had been stopped by Harvard police, they would most certainly have given me a ride home. However, I still worried that in the split second before they know who you are and your intentions, that misunderstanding could happen. My biggest concern was actually the part of my walk where I had to cross the bridge that passes over Route 2. State police use that overpass to turn around as they patrol Route 2. I have been stopped twice by state police within a few feet of that overpass. I was therefore relieved when I eventually left Ayer Road and turned onto South Shaker Road.

I made it home without incident that night. It was my intention to never mention my fears of a potential police encounter from that night. I was never going to let anyone know that I regretted my decision to walk home the second I took the first step. However, my wife’s reaction caught me off guard. Boy, was she upset at me! She yelled at me that morning and yelled at me even more when she got home that evening. I wanted to tell her she was overreacting, to reassure her, but I couldn’t. I could not tell her that because that lie might have made her feel better but it would have sent the wrong message to my kids. They also need to know and understand how to interact with police in ways that increase their chances of staying safe. This is especially true for my son. The sad truth is, in the next couple of years, when he is old enough to drive out of our town of Harvard by himself, he is 20 times more likely to get stopped by police than his friends. Just as I was, 25 years ago. In addition, in each of those encounters, he is 20 times more likely than his friends to end up on the wrong end of a police taser or bullet.

Epiphany Vera of Babbitt Lane is a 13-year resident of Harvard. He has been a volunteer coach for youth soccer, Math Olympiad, and middle school math team. Last year he was named National Recreational Coach of the Year by US Youth Soccer. 

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