It was the state trooper's eyes that worried me most. They were wide and filled with fear.
He advanced on my car with an awkward gait, like a man walking on a ledge: one hand on the black handle of his holstered gun, the other held out beside him, flat and steady. He was balancing himself, I thought with a sudden chill, so he'd be ready if he needed to draw his weapon and shoot.
I was sure this was no ordinary traffic stop. I couldn't have been going more than a couple of miles over the limit when the trooper signaled me to pull over on I-70 East near Salina, Kan. I've been stopped for speeding before, and I know what the stride of a confident police officer looks like. Not like this. Not like a tightly wound commando. That's why I'm convinced that I was pulled over because I am black.
Long before setting out to drive from Los Angeles to D.C. for a new job at The Washington Post, I worried about being stopped. "You know that's gonna happen sometime," a Latino friend had told me. This trip, in my nine-year-old Acura Legend coupe with its California plates, would take me 3,000 miles through white middle America, and it seemed particularly daunting.
I thought I knew a bit about how to handle a situation like this, though. As a reporter who had covered race and ethnicity, I'd read and heard many stories about racial profiling, about black men who were choked, shot, even killed by jittery cops who target minorities on the false assumption that we are all automatically suspect. Now I felt that spotlight was on me, and I wanted to defuse the situation. "He's scared, too," I thought to myself, looking at the trooper in the rearview mirror. "Don't give him any reason to go off."
So, as white drivers sped by me on that clear blue early September morning, in sport utility vehicles, campers and cars fitted with bike racks, I gripped my steering wheel and froze.
"You know why I stopped you?" the Kansas state trooper asked when he stood, finally, at my door. He was tall, white, almost fatherly. I wanted to know his name, and I found it on his shirt pocket: K. Rourke.
"You were a bit over the speed limit when you passed me," he said. But that wasn't the only reason he gave for pulling me over: "You didn't signal when you changed lanes."
I fought an urge to roll my eyes. He had to be kidding. A fraction above the limit? Not signaling? I felt my fear giving way to a surge of anger and forced two words into my head: Calm down.
"Officer, at least four cars passed you before I went by," I said.
"Don't you blame somebody else for what you did!" Rourke came back.
I wasn't making excuses. There had been no good reason to single me out. Every driver who has ever taken a long stretch of road knows what it's like. You're in a line of cars traveling together slightly above the speed limit. Then, up ahead, you see a police car with those chunky black letters spelling out STATE TROOPER, the way we all saw Rourke's car cruising along in front of us. It's comical, really. You all slow down, like ants in a column.
But there was nothing funny about what happened next. As we drove along, I noticed a sheriff's patrol car on the edge of the grassy median. We were moving slowly enough for me to make out the deputy's expression. When he saw me, his head snapped up, and his eyes locked with mine. He pulled into the traffic behind me, and I lost sight of him for the moment.
It was then--with one cop in front of me and another somewhere behind--that I started to think about what to do in case I was stopped. My California driver's license was in the left front pocket of my shorts. I dug it out and glanced at my brown face, framed by shoulder-length dreadlocks, and my relaxed smile. I put it on the passenger seat. Just in case.
Call me paranoid, but I began to feel like a moving target.
I followed a Chevy, which trailed a Toyota, a Honda and another Chevy--this one a green Blazer.
The Blazer's driver seemed impatient. After a few minutes of playing "follow the leader," he made what I thought was a risky move: He pulled alongside the trooper and gently accelerated past. The other cars followed.
I had a choice to make, and I thought it over. I'm a good guy. I've gotten two speeding tickets in 20 years of driving. But I'd been on the road for four days, and the creeping pace was killing me. "Should I?" I wondered. "Why not?" So I moved into the left lane, drew even with the trooper and, like everyone else, eased by.
It was a mistake. The trooper pulled right behind me. I changed to the right lane, hoping the guy would pass me. He pulled in behind me again--and his lights began flashing. A few moments later, I noticed the sheriff's deputy had pulled in behind him.
Rourke asked for my license, registration, insurance. I handed them all to him. With an eye on the boxes and other belongings in my car, he started making small talk.
Where was I coming from?
Los Angeles, I said.
It seemed to me like an opportunity to disarm him, to show him who I was--just an ordinary guy with a good job moving East for a better one. I tried speaking as if we were on a coffee break. I told him about my former job at the L.A. Times. About how my life was changing. And I reached into one of the boxes in the back and pulled out a welcome letter from The Post. When Rourke asked for an address, I showed him the letter from an agency that promised to provide me with temporary accommodation.
"Uh-huh," said the cop. "That's nice. Any reason why you're moving to so many places in so little time?"
That ludicrous question was it for me. There seemed to be no hope of winning this guy over. I wondered what was going through his head: Black man? Dreadlocks? Most likely a drug user. Maybe a drug dealer.
My dreadlocks are the first thing you notice about me. It took months of decision, of encouragement by a former girlfriend, to start them. Rastafarians aren't the only people of African descent who sport dreadlocks. Ancient Egyptians wore them. Warriors in Madagascar wear them.
I wanted to celebrate a Masai tribal tradition, so I had a Kenyan woman twist them as they do there. But this didn't seem like the time or the place to talk about that.
"Now tell me the truth," the cop said. "You wouldn't happen to have a gun or any drugs in there, would you?"
"No, I don't," I said, feeling my anger peak.
"You wouldn't mind if we searched the inside of your car, would you?"
Damn right, I minded.
I felt myself becoming the enemy that I suspect the trooper had imagined. My eyes were slits, and behind those slits were ugly thoughts. I wanted to smack Rourke. Let him know what I thought of him. Now I understood why wrongly accused black men fly off the handle. Why those dashboard cameras catch them leaping out a car door toward cops, shouting at them, swinging at them.
"Don't you need a warrant, or at least probable cause?" I countered.
"Well," Rourke persisted, "the deputy I'm with just happens to have a police dog with him and we're perfectly within our rights to have the dog sniff along the outside of your car. Would you mind?"
I protested, but it didn't matter.
The deputy, a blond guy with a buzz cut, stepped up to the window from the back of my car, where he'd been watching. He asked me if I was trafficking drugs. If there was even a seed to be found, he told me, the dog would "scratch up" my car."
I rolled up my window in his face.
The dog sniffed. Within minutes, it was over. Rourke issued me a written warning for speeding and failing to signal properly. "You're free to go," he said.
Free to go.
For black men like me, there's no such thing. If I were free to go, I'd have been miles ahead with the other drivers who'd passed the trooper--the white drivers.
Looking back, I think I was a fool. Who did I think I was? I'm not an ordinary American citizen. I should have known better than to have passed a cop car. I should have learned the lesson my mom tried to teach me the first time I was stopped by police, as a 12-year-old in St. Petersburg, Fla.
In those days, my best friend, Michael, was white. Our favorite playground was the Gulfport Municipal Marina. One day, Mike, always bolder, climbed a fence around the dock and walked onto a yacht while I looked on. Someone noticed us and called the police. The cop who showed up chided Michael and ordered him home; I was taken to the station in the patrol car. My mom and stepfather tried to explain to me the reality of what Michael could do, and what I could not.
Twenty-seven years later, I still hadn't learned. It took Rourke to drive what my mom said into my head.
As I shifted into drive, Rourke leaned in close for the last time.
"Have a nice day," he said. "And no hard feelings, okay?"
Darryl Fears is a general assignment reporter for The Post's Metro section.