Editor’s note: EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson offered her Village Life column this month to Flint-based writer Connor Coyne, who has a good story to tell.
By Connor Coyne
Chicago in one day is always a whirlwind, but I did it anyway because in the writing life, a person will do almost anything for an audience and a mug of good beer. I had been invited to read at a literary event among old friends and I didn’t have the luxury of an overnight.
I left Flint in the afternoon and didn’t get into the Windy City until well after dark. The reading was a success, the perfect scattershot reunion.
It was one in the morning when I started my way back home. Even though I knew I’d be driving through a haze of caffeine and loud music for the rest of the night, I didn’t mind—I was in the afterglow of literary communion.
The expressway was empty as I eased out of town. I shot through Indiana on cruise control and crossed the Michigan border around two. I was making great time and eager to push on, but the gas tank was empty. I pulled into a gas station in the tiny town of Sawyer.
A state police cruiser followed me into the gas station, parking at the pump right behind me. I got out of my car and noticed the officer getting out of his vehicle as well. I smiled at him and lifted the pump.
That was when he asked me to turn around and place my hands on the trunk of my car. I did. He asked a few pointed questions about my car, my driver’s license, my license plate. I answered as best as I could, wracking my brain, trying to think if I had been speeding (no), if I had blown a stop sign (no), if the tags on my plates had expired (no). The officer finally explained my car had been reported stolen and he would have to handcuff me.
He said the cuffs would feel uncomfortable but if I tried to relax they shouldn’t pinch. I quickly realized there is no easy way to rest your arms in this position, hands cross-angled, the metal pushing into my wrists. It wasn’t painful. It was awkward.
Then another officer arrived and they escorted me to the back of a cruiser. I sat on the hard plastic seat, only half-leaning back with my hands cuffed behind me. This, too, was awkward. The second officer got into the front of the car and sat there, asking me questions about what I had been doing in Chicago and, then, what it was like to be a writer. How does someone get published anyway? (“That’s a question I’m trying to answer myself,” I told him.) The whole time the first officer was making calls to law enforcement in Genesee County. He finally came back and leaned in to talk to me.
Here’s what happened: when my wife and I moved to Michigan, we chose a personalized plate – UDOLPHO – after one of our favorite novels; The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. A couple years ago, this plate was stolen and we replaced it with an identical new one. It turns out there is no way for law enforcement to distinguish between the stolen plate and its replacement. The whole thing was a mix-up. I hadn’t, in fact, stolen my own car.
The officers shook my hands, wished me well, and sent me on my way.
Maybe from a distance the whole thing seems silly and inconsequential, but I felt shaken the rest of the ride home. Some of it was a kind of vertigo: the speed with which I had been yanked from the dreamy nostalgia of my trip to a sudden confrontation with an armed man (“That’s his gun. Don’t look at his gun. Look at him, but don’t challenge him.”) I had never been handcuffed before, nor had I ever been put in the back of a police cruiser as a possible suspect. When I heard those words – “this is a stolen vehicle” – I thought, “this is a mistake. But will they believe me? If they don’t believe me, what can I do?”
And, as my nerves gradually settled I found myself – inevitably – thinking about privilege.
Ah, “privilege.” Such a loaded word. On the one hand, the notion that we are biased by our enjoyment of implicit social benefits seems so obvious that who would argue it? And yet people do, constantly. Then again, I have also seen the word lobbed into an argument (often by “privileged” people themselves) as a semantic nuke. How is it possible to rebut someone once they have invoked your privilege? This is how use of the word often strikes me: a valid, even necessary way to call attention to bias, and one which can just as easily be misapplied in our attempts to “win” a debate.
Sweeping through Kalamazoo, through Battle Creek, through Lansing – I thought back to how powerless I felt in that police car. I also thought back on how I had been reassured by the officers’ professionalism. I thought back to many times throughout my life I had actually been doing things not entirely above board and had skated by on the benefit-of-the-doubt; surely, the fact that I had made it to 38 without being put into the back of a police cruiser was not solely because I’m an exemplary citizen. I thought back to the moment of encounter when the officer – young, white, male – meeting the driver of a stolen vehicle, saw a well-dressed young, white man.
I have nothing negative to say about the officers I met that night; they conducted themselves with seriousness and decency.
Yet I also have to wonder if that encounter would have gone so smoothly had I looked different. How it would have gone for my African-American friends, my female friends, for friends who struggle with anxiety disorders, for friends who have already grappled with their own negative encounters with law enforcement?
By the time I finally got into Flint, pulling under the arches on Saginaw Street at about five in the morning, I felt like I had figured something out. What had so unnerved me that night – feelings of surprise and utter vulnerability – was the law-enforcement system working at its very best. That the way I was treated, alone with two officers, in a desolate gas station, in the middle of the night, is the way everyone should be treated.
And until everyone is treated so fairly in their encounters with law-enforcement, we have work to do.
Guest columnist Connor Coyne is a Flint-based novelist, writer and publisher of Gothic Funk Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.