I was driving down Plattekill Avenue on the north side of the university where cars are parked at an odd angle and the speed limit is 30 mph because students and faculty are always crossing at crosswalks, or in between crosswalks, often on their phones, or chatting to friends. Last summer, two pedestrians were hit and badly injured. New, brighter crosswalks with flashing lights and neon signs have been installed, but not everywhere, and the SUNY New Paltz Campus Police and the New Paltz Police are vigilant.
This is my new neighborhood. I'm learning what it means to drive everywhere, to be attentive at all times, to keep to the speed limit, to watch the signs change from 30 to 45 to 55 mph. The periphery of the campus is a speed trap, too, and I warn visitors that the cops hang out, they wait, they give tickets. I did not want this ever to happen to me. It's my neighborhood, I obey the law, I'm learning the rules and culture, I want the students and faculty to feel safe and be safe, I want to feel safe and be safe. I know that, hypothetically, a police force protects as well as enforces. But is this true all of the time? Regardless, I did not want to be stopped by the police in my new neighborhood, ever.
I wasn't late, I wasn't in a hurry to my teaching gig at another SUNY campus, about thirty minutes away, but Plattekill Avenue is a shortcut to Route 32 North. I stopped at a crossing for a couple of students, but then inadvertently rolled through the STOP sign a few feet further on. The sun was out, I was daydreaming, thinking about a book I'm getting back to, about a weekend hike on the River to Ridge Trail now that the weather is warming and all the snow and ice have melted. I was listening to music, I was in the right side of my brain. The campus police car pulled up behind me, lights flashing.
I had just been on the campus a few nights before at a meeting sponsored by the Black Student Union about a police brutality allegation and an upcoming trial—the town in an uproar—and the ACLU lawyer's advice to the students and all present— black and white alike: never resist, do what you are asked.
There had been a white supremacist march down Main Street last summer—acrimonious , dangerous—and then, a few weeks later, a black student had been smashed in the face by a cop and lost all his teeth. A committee had formed of concerned parents, concerned citizens. The police are aware, as the line goes in "Homeland." They are aware, on alert, on tenterhooks. They do not want to be accused, they want to do their jobs. But smashing a black student in the mouth is not doing their jobs.
White haired and olive-white-skinned, I had nothing to worry about, not really, but the fear of those young, earnest, students at the meeting had stayed with me. The African American men are especially vulnerable, the lawyer had said, which is nothing new in our divided, beleaguered nation. But why should I feel so vulnerable? Because that boy who had been smashed in the face could have been my son, or anyone's son.
The cop had been hanging out; it felt like an entrapment, but I had to stay quiet. This wasn't a moment to resist or to complain. Even though I had only gently rolled, and there was nothing around, no other cars in sight, I had broken the law.
The young, handsome cop got out of his car and stood just behind my shoulder and to the left, his hand on his holster. This is what he has been trained to do, I thought. It's not a time for questions. I am not here to interview him about the use of force or gun control, we are not friends.
I rolled down my window. I knew better than to reach for the glove compartment without instructions to do so, and I said, "Hello, Officer, did I do something wrong?" Where had I learned to be so obsequious, so respectful? I was thinking of my daughter's African American college boyfriend when I said this and what his father, a court officer, had taught him. He carried a badge in his wallet his father had gotten for him, but even that was not protective and I was scared when my daughter was in the car with him.
"You rolled through the stop sign," the officer said and smiled.
"Oh dear, that's not good," I said.
Then he asked for my papers and I gave him all my papers. He told me to sit tight and he went back to the car and took a few moments to run my license, insurance and registration through the computer. I also heard him recite my license plate into a two-way radio. I was now in the system.
I thought about my African American friends, I thought about my daughter's college boyfriend, how these moments of waiting must be the most tense, the most scary. This cop was alone, he was young, he was friendly, but I am white-haired and olive-white-skinned. Neither of us felt threatened so we smiled and spoke quietly and respectfully to one another. He warned me to be careful but didn't give me a ticket. He said, "Thank you, Ma'am." And I thanked him. He turned off his flashing lights and went on his way. And I went on mine, braking fully at every stop sign on the way.