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Commentary

Reflections on privilege after an eventful traffic stop

Commentator Lenny Shine was held at gunpoint when pulled over for driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone.
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Commentator Lenny Shine was held at gunpoint when pulled over for driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone.

I was driving my pickup truck on I-95 in New Hampshire, en route to Maine from my home in Connecticut. With a huge stack of cargo in the truck bed, my rear view was completely blocked. I’d adjusted my side mirrors to maximize views of traffic behind me.

At one point, I did not notice that the speed limit changed from 65 to 55 mph. The next thing I know, a state trooper raced up along my right side as if out of nowhere. He veered in front of me, lights flashing, siren wailing, and forced me off the highway onto the left shoulder.

Expecting a speeding ticket, I was shocked when the trooper immediately drew his gun and pointed it at my head.

"Put your hands up where I can see them and don’t move,” he shouted.

Having read about police sometimes killing unarmed people during traffic stops and what you need to do — or not do — to avoid getting shot, I moved only when given explicit permission to do so. He approached, gun drawn, and attempted to open my door.

“The door is locked,” I said. “Do I have your permission to move my left hand to unlock it?”

“Yes, unlock it,” he said. He opened the door, grabbed my left arm, and tried to yank me out of the truck.

“I am strapped in with my seat belt,” I said. “Do I have your permission to move my right hand to unlock it?”

“Yes, unlock it,” he said, and pulled me out of the vehicle. “Put your hands against the truck and spread your legs.”

He patted me down, found nothing and proceeded to handcuff me and push me into the back seat of his cruiser, questioning why I did not stop. Because I did not see or hear him try to pull me over, he concluded that I was fleeing from police pursuit.

According to The New York Times, in the last five years, 400 unarmed Americans have been killed by police in traffic stops.

As criminologist Kalfani Ture has observed, “Police think vehicle stops are dangerous.” Ture also observes that “police think Black people are dangerous.” He describes the combination of these two factors as “a volatile combination.” 

Fortunately for me, I only triggered one of those danger signals.  Simply the absence of being Black while driving and all the “danger” that apparently signals to police — this is white privilege.

Commentator Lenny Shine is a retired human resources leader and organizational effectiveness consultant. He lives in North Canton, Connecticut.

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