Driving While Poor

Driving While Poor


Me, I’m female, poor, unwed mother, ranting college student so I don’t have a wide audience really.  Yet I seem to attract abuses that are increasingly becoming less personal to me and more and more political.


I think the common denominator among the various injustices I have suffered is my poverty.  I talk middle class, I generally get good grades, I can even dress middle class “passing for middle class” the way light skinned blacks used to “pass” as white to have a higher quality of life, yet at the same time facing the constraint of being labeled a traitor by their friends and family who were not so lucky.  I feel that happening to me, too.  The more upwardly mobile I get, like crabs in a crab pot, those beneath me pull my ass back down into the malaise with them.  And a lack of money to afford to go out and buy your basic necessities leads to a terrible malaise, even a palpable fatigue, often mistaken for laziness.


I recently got pulled over by the police for “driving while poor”.  Before I could even hand them my driver’s license the cop barked at me, “don’t you know when an officer of the law flashes his lights you are to stop right then and there?!”  I thought, well, no according to the Oregon DMV driver’s manual we are told that when approached by a police officer to find the nearest safest place to park then park there and turn off the car and roll down the window.  I did that.  But he must have seen my ancient Buick with only 3 matching wheel covers and peeling paint and suddenly thought he was the law, not its mere enforcer.


Next out of his foaming mouth, “how much have you had to drink tonight?”  What? Does he ask everyone that or is it just me?  OK. So, I’m driving a 92 Buick with only 3 matching hubcaps, a vacuum cleaner in a box in the backseat, a variety of eco-friendly shopping bags from various stores strewn about, my backpack/purse, my book bag and a bag of garbage on the front passenger seat floor.  I was wearing decent clothes and had my make up on so I was shocked at his attitude.


“My lawyer has advised me not to answer such questions”, I replied.


“Well, I’d like to meet that lawyer” he muttered as he walked back to his police car with my driver’s license.  If I actually had a lawyer he surely would have had that opportunity, immediately, on speed dial, but I thought perhaps in court I will mention the 5th amendment to the US Constitution instead.  Heady topics seem to be too high minded for small town chump cops it seems.


“Where is your registration and proof of insurance?”  I nervously fumbled above my head, searching frantically the visor envelope that always has that information ready for cases such as this.  It was empty.  I panicked.  Echoes of Nazis demanding of Jews “Papers, Papers, where are your papers” skittered under my skin.  I didn’t want to reach for my purse or into the glove compartment for fear of setting off this paranoid cop and getting shot.  I looked up at him and tenderly opened the glove compartment and shuffled through some papers until at last I found my registration, attached to the DEQ report my son had taken it in to get certified months earlier. Why does my son never put things back from where he takes them from me?  And while we are on that subject, why is he so trash challenged?  He cannot seem to locate the trash can in my apartment although it is right there under the sink where it always has been.  Why can’t he be more like his mother and keep his trash in an eco-friendly store grocery bag on the front passenger seat of his car like I do?   Whew.  I handed it to him out my slightly rolled down window.  Now, where was my proof of insurance?


“Officer, I know that if you go back to your car you can call in my license plate and the DMV computer will tell you that I am current.”


“No, we can’t do that.”


“Actually, you can.  I got pulled over in West Linn a few years ago simply because the cop ran my plate “at random” and it came back that my insurance was not current so he pulled me over, ticketed me, took my car and left me standing there.”


“Oh, so you’ve done this before then! You’ve driven without insurance!” he stepped back.  “Open the door and step out of the car.”




“I want you to do some field sobriety tests.”


What for?  “Will you take away my driver’s license if I don’t?”


“Just step out of the car.”  I looked at him resolutely so he called for back up.


Here comes another small town police officer with nothing better to do than help negotiate a tense situation.  The second cop swaggers up to the car.  “Do you take prescription drugs, ma’am?”  Oh, so now I’m upgraded to a ma’am.  And, because I am driving while poor, I must also be an addict of some sort.


“I’m not gonna answer that.”


“Look, ma’am, we just want you to step out of the car and do these 3 simple steps.”


The first officer pulls out a card and reads off to me the 3 simple, evidence gathering, intoxication implying, field sobriety tests he wants me to do.


“Will you take away my driver’s license if I don’t?”


He looked down and sighed heavily.


“I’ll do a breathalyzer” I offered.


They both turned back to the first cop’s car but the second cop flashed his ridiculously bright light through my back window and into the scene of disarray that is my car. 


“Why do you have so many purses, ma’am?”  What? So now I’m a purse thief?  


“I’m a student, this is my purse, and this is my book bag.”  He looked disappointed but walked away.  The first cop came back with a ticket for running through the stop sign and for driving without proof of insurance. 


“Am I free to go?”  He waved me on and away I carefully went, being sure to signal onto the street and judiciously turn right and get the hell out of there.


I got home and, under more relaxed conditions, rummaged through my purse and found the damned flimsy paper that decreed me fully insured.  I called the police non-emergency line and asked for the officer that gave me the ticket.  He called me a few minutes later.


“This is Officer blah blah, what is it that you want?”


“I found my proof of insurance, it was in my purse the whole time.”


“Well, just take it down to city hall and they’ll have one of us come sign off on it.  But the ticket for running the stop sign still stands!”  He started to put down the phone so I stopped him.


“Wait, do you have time to talk about how you treated me tonight?”


“I have another call.” Click.  I called back.  “Could I speak to Officer blah blah’s commanding officer?”  A few minutes later a woman called.


“This is Sgt. Linn Benton.”


“Oh, wow, like the county?”


“Yeah, like the county.  How can I help you?”  And I tearfully, gasping, told her of the terror and humiliation I had felt and how it had reminded me of all the other times I had been involved with police who were psychologically brutal and how it all was just too much.  I don’t want to live in fear of the people who are being paid to protect me.  I told her about the few times I had gone to police with sexual assault complaints and never been taken seriously, much less helped.  Not one had been outraged or even seemed to think a crime had been committed.  They all blamed it on me and filed it away.  A few even psychoanalyzed me to be sure I was insane and therefore incapable of being truly raped.  I told her about this one cop, long ago, who had been the first officer of the law I had ever talked to about another person committing a crime.  It was when I was first on welfare, with a new baby, and a shabby apartment in the bad part of town.  It was way back when I still felt like the police were there to help me, back when I used to feel entitled to their help and completely expected it. 


“So there was this neighbor of mine who was white and an ex-prostitute and she lived with her black ex-pimp and their children and one day she comes running over screaming ‘Curtis is trying to kill me!'” So I let her in my apartment and locked the door and called 911.  She looked at me like I was insane and ran out again.  By the time the police showed up she was back over with Curtis and claiming that I was just a nosy, racist neighbor calling to make trouble for them without cause.  She had no bruises or marks of any kind, I had no proof.  It was a female and a male deputy sherriff that came over to my place and stood outside my door and admonished me for falsely filing a complaint with 911 and that if it happened again they would have to arrest me.  They left.  A few hours later the male deputy came back and asked if he could come in to talk to me.  I let him in and he sat on the white, iron daybed.  He motioned for me to come over and sit down too.  I felt a little suspicious but I obediently complied.


“You see,” he said, as he put his hand on my thigh, “my wife and I just aren’t getting along.” 

I gulped. 


“You are so pretty.” 


I felt my soul sinking to the pit of my stomach.  I trembled a little. 


“If you don’t mind, I’d love it if I could just stop by once in awhile and enjoy your company.” 


I felt shattered.  I’d already been shattered when my son’s father literally kicked me out of his Army Military Police barracks and forced me to come home pregnant and unmarried.  “Let the state take care of you,” he had sneered.  The deputy looked longingly into my eyes and I felt myself slip out of my body.  Here was another man in uniform who felt entitled to my body.  After all, I wasn’t using it. 


            So the woman cop listened to my story and advised me to seek counseling.  I pointed out that the main reason I had reported that last assault was so I could qualify for crime victim’s compensation but I didn’t qualify for it for “lack of evidence”. 


“Do you think they still have police reports from that far back?”  I asked her.  Maybe if the courts can go back in time to convict me of every little thing I could use the same kind of documents to at least prove that deputy was at my apartment all those years ago. 


“Do you think he still works there?” I was starting to cry again.


“I don’t know but if he does, you should find out.”  I could hear in her voice that she had a deep allegiance to the badge but she at least put a human face on it, one woman to another who both have seen the uglier side of the law.  “Is there anything else I can do?”


“Yeah,” I sighed, “maybe you could pass it on that there’s a need out here for a new support group.  Women Survivors of Police Abuse.



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