I think I was arrested, but it was confusing. The police never said those words or put me in handcuffs. Maybe they thought it could set off a riot. People were in the street, circling around the cars and yelling. If I hadn’t been so scared, I might have enjoyed it. The cops told everyone to go home, but they got in cars and followed. At the station they packed the small waiting area. Someone began singing “We Shall Overcome.” A few were friends, but most were not. I was surprised they cared so much about someone they didn't know. Later I understood this was entertainment: white girl arrested for driving in "black town".
My parents bought a new car every ten years and this time, instead of trading in the old one, they kept it for us kids to drive. With my older brothers away at college, the ’57 pink Pontiac was mine. Among my friends, I was the only one with a car and money for gas. I didn’t have a job, but I got an allowance. My friends thought I was joking when I told them that. “White people spoil their kids”. I didn’t argue the point. My last group of friends were the definition of spoiled. Their allowance was ten times mine and they drove new cars. They weren’t speaking to me anymore, except to yell names at me.
We had gone to a basketball game and I had a full car. My passengers were all girls because I promised my mother I would not give rides to boys. I didn’t like that, but I wanted the car.
When I got to Natalie’s house, the cops pulled up behind me. I didn’t know what I had done wrong. I felt sick and scared and wondered how long my parents would ground me this time. The policeman asked for my license but I couldn’t find it. “I brought the wrong purse. It’s at home.” The officer said to get out of the car, slowly. That’s when I started to cry.
Natalie’s mother was already there yelling at the cop. “This is a nice girl.” She got close to his face, hands on hips, spit talking, “She isn’t what you think she is.” He ignored her, opened the back door of the squad car and ordered me to get in. Without asking, she jumped in the other side. Natalie’s mom, who had watched me play cards, and dance with her daughters in her living room, had never spoken to me. Now she patted my hand. “Stop your crying, girl. I’m not gonna let them do nothing to you.”
My mother didn’t know who called, but the woman scared the hell out of her. “Your girl was arrested. The cops took her off to jail.” My father was at a meeting and she was without a car, so somebody came to get her. She didn’t say much about that except it was the most terrifying ride of her life.
The police brought my mother to the room where Natalie’s mother and I waited. Mom’s neck had red blotches and her voice trembled. Natalie’s mother said she would leave when my mother came, but she stayed.
The policeman asked my mother if I had permission to drive her car. She nodded.
“Did you know where your daughter was tonight?”
She looked at me. “You were supposed to be at the game.”
“I was, and then I drove the girls home.”
Mom nodded to the officer. “Yes, I knew she was doing that.”
Natalie's mother laughed.
The officer excused himself and left the room. I introduced my mother to Natalie’s mom. She described the whole scenario but didn’t tell mom I cried. She lied. “You’ve got a brave daughter here.” My mother smiled, but it was her polite smile. She was too angry to understand what Natalie's mom was saying.
The cop came back with my car keys and court date papers. "You can take her home."
Friends gave us a ride back to my car. They all had stories of first time arrests. They made the stories sound funny even though they weren't. We laughed, but my mother was horrified.
Alone in our car I said, “I can’t believe this happened. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.” She screamed, “Nothing wrong??!!! YOU DID NOTHING WRONG??? POLICE DON’T ARREST PEOPLE FOR NOTHING.” Her hands gripped the steering wheel. “Do you have any idea how humiliating this is? What will the neighbors think?” I turned away to hide my rolling eyes.
My father came home and listened to my mother’s ranting, and my defense. He read over the court order. The only charge was driving without a license. He was mad, but not at me. “All they had to do was look up the records.”
The next day at school kids expressed their outrage and ask when the court date was. They promised to be there. A black student activist said this was an opportunity to expose racist attitudes of the cops. Witnesses for me, could cite their own experiences. My parents hadn’t let me go South for the Freedom Rides, but I could do this.
That night at dinner my father said he called a judge who was a friend of a friend. “You had twenty-four hours to produce your license. The police over-reacted.”
“Good. In court we’re going to show how racist they are. They’ve done worse things to my friends.”
My father shook his head. “You’re not going to court. The Judge told them to drop the charges.” I acted upset, but felt relieved. As brave as I wanted to be, I was only courageous in my fantasies. Real life had not demanded it from me.
Telling my friends made me feel very white and privileged. They teased and I didn’t have a good come-back. “Will your Daddy to adopt us?” I apologized to the student activist, but he shrugged me off. “It’s not your problem.”
Thirty years later I came home and told my husband it was my lucky day. A cop pulled me over and said I was going 45 in a 30 mph zone, ran through a stop sign, and did not come to a complete stop at the light. "Can you believe it? He let me off with a warning!" My husband, who has been stopped numerous times for doing nothing but driving in his own brown skin, shook his head, “Honey, you’re not lucky. You’re white.”
I was embarrassed at my naivety and wanted to find the cop to demand he arrest me. That would have been dumb. My husband and I share income and bills. White privilege saved us both 300 bucks.