I am a white woman and, therefore, have “white privilege.” Although, I didn’t know that until I was in my 70s and started hearing the phrase. With all the Black Lives Matter protests since George Floyd’s death, we’ve heard the phrase a lot lately. It got me thinking, and I tried to remember interactions with the police throughout my life. As far as I can remember, they were all civil. I was never afraid of the police. I thought of them as a source of help in time of need, and I still do. That must be my white privilege talking. As a kid, though, they were scary up close.
When I was in elementary school, we lived in middle-class neighborhoods in or on the edge of cities. My first contact with the police was when a policeman visited my first grade class. I was impressed with how big he was in his uniform. A little scary for me. We lived on the outskirts of Vancouver, WA, and a few years later, a police officer came to the door one evening to tell my dad to go pick up the trash he dumped off the side of a back road. This officer as I recall was big and scary too in his dark uniform. Before he left, he thanked my dad for leaving the address on envelopes and boxes, making it easy to find who did it.
I remember the whole situation. We had a bunch of stuff to drop off at the dump. Because it was out in the country, my folks thought we would make a day of it and go for a drive. So the whole family was along. As kids, we were about seven, eight, and nine years old, and I was the oldest. After awhile, we seemed to be driving in circles; my dad simply couldn’t find the dump. So he found a remote spot instead, and we all pitched in, dropping bags and boxes of stuff over the bank. After the police officer’s visit, we went back the following weekend and retrieved it all. It took awhile to find the exact spot. And it was hard work to haul all that yucky stuff up the bank and put back in the trunk of the car. It didn’t help that it had rained. What a mess! That whole experience made such an impression on me, I still remember it..
When I was 13, we moved to the Kern River Valley, a relatively remote area about an hour and a half northeast of Bakersfield, CA, in the southern end of the Sierra Nevadas. We moved into a small community of company housing at a power plant when my dad started working for Southern California Edison. There were two communities of company housing along the river near each end of the valley, and we lived a few years at each of them.
The law enforcement in the valley in the 1950s was minimal. There was a local rancher/part time constable who I think took care of the entire valley. That seems an impossible job, but I don’t remember anyone else. And there was a deputy sheriff, from an adjoining county, who was in charge once you crossed the county line and headed upriver. This deputy’s family had one of the best steak houses in California quite a ways upriver––McNally’s on the Kern. And in a back room, illegal gambling took place. Everybody seemed to know about it and nobody seemed to care. He was also the father of one of my friends. So I knew him mostly as her dad.
One time when I was in high school and on a double date, which did not include his daughter, I saw him in action as the deputy sheriff. Four of us, two couples, were parked at a wayside upriver. Deputy Sheriff McNally came cruising up to check out our car. He gave each of us a big “Howdy” cause he knew each of us. He told us it was probably time to head home. And his parting words were, “See you in church tomorrow, Judy!”
My next remembrance was a year or so later, I cut my finger on a broken glass in the soapy water where I worked at a summer job as a dishwasher/waitress in a small breakfast place––Cozy Corner Cafe. We couldn’t stop the bleeding. So the other waitress ran to another restaurant looking for the constable. She found him. Our constable had no special uniform. He wore his ranch clothes, including his cowboy hat and boots. No police station either. His office was any of two or three restaurants in Kernville—the largest of the towns in the valley. And he used his own car because, you guessed it, no police car. So he came roaring up to the restaurant in his big, blue and white Buick with his portable light on top flashing away. He also had a siren. Off we went siren blaring to a nearby town that had the only doctor in the area. What a thrill! I loved it! My finger needed a few stitches and then he took me home. I can still see the scar.
Those were my connections to the law when I was growing up. There may have been more, but these are the ones I remember.
From the time I was a young woman all the way through middle age, I was pulled over a few times for traffic violations. Here are the ones I remember.
One day in the 1980s I was coming home from work in heavy traffic in the San Jose area. A car in front of me sat at an angle trying to get into the left-hand turn lane and blocked my lane. As soon as the car moved, my light turned yellow. I shot through the intersection, not realizing a police car was on my tail. He pulled me over and told me I had run a red light. I told him that it was yellow and that if he was behind me, he must have been the one to run a red light. Of course, I got a ticket, but no body search, no breath test, no handcuffs, no beating, no jail time.
In 1985, we had moved to Florence, OR. In the mid-1990s, a young policeman pulled me over for going 37 mph in the 30-mile zone. He asked me what in the world was I thinking to be going so fast? I told him that I was thinking about what I was going to fix for dinner, and that’s what I thought about every night on my way home from work. He gave me a long lecture on keeping my focus on the road and gave me a ticket. He looked all of 20 and was so patronizing. I just wanted to slap him but refrained from doing so. He was just doing his job—albeit, just a bit too sure of himself!
In 2000, I was cruising along the speed trap just west of Veneta going about 70. It is the one place along Hwy 126 between Florence and Eugene where the 55-mph speed limit is really enforced. And it’s the only place where the road is actually straight for miles. I suddenly realized that I needed to slow down and got my speed down to 64 before a police carl zipped by. He made a U, came up behind me, and pulled me over. I held my tongue and didn’t say how relieved I was that he didn’t catch me going 70. I was very pleasant. He was very no nonsense as he wrote out a ticket for $210.
Fast forward 15 years, and I’m a senior citizen with gray hair. Now, I not only have white privilege but old-lady privilege going for me. Here’s what I mean.
I was heading home from Gold Beach one February where a friend and I had attended the South Coast Writers Conference. I was pulled over because my tires were touching the fog line too often. I think he thought I might have been on something. After he told us why he pulled us over, my friend in the passenger seat explained that whenever I talked, I used my right hand. She told him how I would take it off the steering wheel and the car would veer slightly to the right each time. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. So the officer told her to make sure I kept both hands on the wheel and wished us both a good day. My friend was also a senior citizen and white.
A few years ago I was coming back home after doing an afternoon program in Port Orford about the historic coastal bridges. It was winter and getting dark. When I got close to Langlois, I didn’t see the slow to 30 sign and drove into town going 40. I slowed as soon as I realized where I was. But there was a police car already on my tail and pulled me over. The officer was very nice and simply told me to be more careful in the future. I felt I had really gotten away with something, because no ticket.
Just last spring, I was coming back from a trip to Gold Beach, where I made 16 stops (some going and some coming home) delivering books. I left Florence about 7 a.m. that morning and was returning about 7 p.m. and it was dark. I was tired and so relieved to be back in Florence safely. That’s what I told the officer after he finally got me to pull over.
At the end of the bridge as you enter Florence is a sign that says 30 mph. I continued on at 40, not realizing that I should have slowed down and not noticing that I had a police car on my tail. When the officer saw that I wasn’t slowing, he turned on his lights. I didn’t notice the lights either. He expected me to pull over, instead, I speeded up to 43. This irritated him, and he turned on the siren. That, I did notice and pulled over one lane to let him by. But, of course, he followed me. So I turned on a side street and pulled over, and he was right behind me.
He was very patient and pleasant as he told how he tried and tried to get my attention. And I told him about my long, tiring day. He gave me a brief lecture on paying attention to the speed limit signs and strongly advised me to check my rear view more often. And then he let me off with a warning. I was so, so surprised that he didn’t write me up!!
Evidently, being white as well as old is like doubling down on white privilege. Who knew!