I’m nineteen and not even halfway through Fall semester when I get pulled over for the first time. My fro is deflated from the humidity, the kinks recoiling from the atmosphere. It is September in Mississippi and a bit too warm for a flannel, but I wear one anyway with the A/C in my little black Highlander on full blast to compensate.
The blue lights go off behind us, and my heart begins to race inside my chest. There are three people in my car—myself, Reuben, and Deja. I turn the volume down so that Drake’s melodic tenor ceases to vibrate my speakers. The thought flashes through my mind that I could die tonight. I wrack my brain for reasons why I might be getting pulled over though I know they don’t need too much of an excuse.
Oh my God, Oh my God
If I die, I’m a Legend
Oh my God, Oh my God
If I die, I’m a Legend
Reuben snatches the dime bag of weed from the center console and stuffs it in their mouth just as the officer gets out of his car and strolls ominously to the driver’s side window. I reach for my wallet in the cupholder and move it to my lap, trying to reduce the range of movement that might be misconstrued for attempted malice.
I look the officer directly in the eye when he approaches my window. He’s a young-looking white boy with his hair moussed and parted on the side like he’s James Bond. The uniform almost looks out of place beneath his soft, boyish face. The officer claims he pulled me over for neglecting to issue a right turn signal. A right turn signal—that’s how they got Sandra Bland two months ago. I don’t want to be a Legend for getting killed by this cop. A right turn signal? I had turned right onto Jackson Avenue about a mile back. There were no cars behind me, that I could see when I made that turn.
“License and registration,” the officer demands. I’m fishing through my wallet before he even finishes the order. Both are current and up-to-snuff. I hand them to him through the window. He takes both in his right hand, fanning them in his fingers like playing cards, and studies them under the beam of his flashlight.
“Where are y’all headed,” the officer asks me.
You just pulled me over as I’m turning on to campus, I think, but I don’t dare say aloud.
“Back to our dorms, sir,” I respond.
“Where you coming from?”
“A friend’s apartment in Campus Walk.” We had all been at Anessa’s, another member of my small cadre, watching a marathon of Real Housewives of Atlanta in the lead-up to an explosive reunion episode. The drive from her apartment to my dorm usually only took about five minutes.
He pauses and shines his flashlight in the passenger seat and the backseat. Deja and Reuben hold up their hands to shield their eyes from the beam of light. Reuben keeps their mouth shut.
“I’m gonna need all y’all to step out of the car. There’s a distinct odor of marijuana; I need to search the vehicle.” My heart drops down to my ass.
“You don’t have a warrant,” I muster with all the courage left in me.
“I don’t need one. The smell is probable cause enough. Is there anything in the vehicle that I should know about before I search it?” I’m not sure if that’s a trick question or not.
“Not that I know of, officer.”
Then he brings his lips to the radio strapped to his shoulder.
“Dispatch, I need a unit to Jackson Ave and University for a traffic stop.”
Officer number two shows up within minutes—an older, pudgier white man, on whom the uniform fits better.
We step out of the car one by one. With presumably no women officers in the Oxford Police Department on-call, Deja and I are spared the pat-down and ordered to sit on the curb. While our backs are turned, the officer pushes Reuben up against the back of my car and pats them down vigorously, expecting to find whatever they expect to find on skinny dark skin niggas from Indianola, Mississippi. I fix my eyes on the red afro-pick lodged firmly in the back of their low-top fade that stays put as the officer feels down their five-nine frame a second and third time, making sure he hasn’t missed anything.
“Did y’all see him pat me down aggressive as fuck like that?” they frantically whisper, finally allowed to join us on the curb as officer number one commences his search of my ride while officer number two keeps watch on us.
Cars speed past in the muggy Mississippi night. I can’t help but feel judged by each and every one of them, and I’m annoyed that I’m sitting on the pavement, still warm from a long day under the unrelenting sun. “Yeah, I saw that shit. That was crazy. You good?” It takes just a second for me to register that there is nothing in Reuben’s mouth.
“Yo, what happened to the bud?” I ask.
“I had to swallow that shit,” they say with a shrug.
“Keep it quiet!” Officer number two barks.
Though I’ve only known Reuben for a month or so, I feel in that moment that our friendship will be a lasting one. Man, these fuckers know how to ruin a night. I was planning to smoke that later.
“What’s this,” officer number one asks with a suspicious amount of enthusiasm in his voice, approaching us after about five minutes of searching. I squint to see the object he’s holding between his fingers. My heart feels like it could explode when I recognize the small shape in his hand to be the tobacco pipe that I thought I’d lost until that moment.
“Where was that?” I challenge, knowing how things can magically appear at the scene of a “crime.”
“It was in your glove compartment. That’s gonna be a citation for paraphernalia possession,” the boy-officer announces triumphantly. I wonder if I’m one of his firsts.
“It’s just a tobacco pipe. That’s perfectly legal,” I say defensively, but he’s already scribbling in his handy-dandy notebook. He rips the carbon copy from the book and hands it to me, expressionless.
“You are to appear in court on October 11th for your sentencing,” he says.
“Are you serious right now? A tobacco pipe is perfectly legal,” I assert.
Officer number one doesn’t answer me. I look over to Reuben and Deja, who are both staring back at me with wide, pleading eyes that say, “stop tryna argue with these dudes before we’re on the ten o’clock news.”
“Y’all are free to go. Get home safe,” he says without looking directly at any of us.
I show up to Oxford Municipal Court on October 11, more out of fear of what will happen if I don’t than a willingness to comply with the law. I find an empty space in the pews that face the judge’s bench. I still haven’t told my mom. Depending on how things go today, I might not have to, but I don’t imagine she would be too happy about my present situation. I can hear the tongue-lashing I’d get if she knew that I’d been smoking weed since high school. Our relationship had always been need-to-know.
My first interaction with a police officer comes by way of D.A.R.E., the propagandistic curriculum that tried to convince me and my classmates that drug use made the user a criminal who would be subject to and deserving of the full conviction of the law. I am in the sixth grade—age nine or ten.
Even as a child, there’s something about the uniform that I don’t trust. Maybe it’s the way I notice Mom tense up when the blue lights sounded off behind her car with my brother and me in the backseat on the way home from church on Wednesday night. Maybe it’s the fact that I see the Rodney King episode of The Fresh Prince in fifth grade, sitting between Mom’s legs as she braids my hair. I don’t know what an acquittal is, but it’s a moment I won’t forget, and I feel that sadness through the television screen. I remember Daddy watching those mob crime movies in the living room in those days before the divorce, and I understand that “cop” does not necessarily equate to “good guy.”
But I am supposed to listen to the adults. I am under the impression that they know what they’re talking about.
I start smoking weed junior year of high school, and for the first time, I can make my mind be quiet. I don’t yet have the language of anxiety and depression to make sense of why it makes me feel better, but I know weed is illegal, and for this reason, I forgo any mention to Mom.
I do some research, and I learn about this thing called “scheduling,” this convoluted method of drug classification that puts weed in the same category as cocaine and heroin. I have no interest in the former, and I had only heard horror stories about the latter. In high school, I watch movies like New Jack City for the first time, and they are doing this drug called crack that seems to turn the user into a live zombie over time. Nino Brown says it’s like cocaine but cheaper, so the folks in the neighborhood can afford it. It’s only a movie, but I learn in my fourth-period history class that the Ronald Reagan era was a motherfucker for poor, Black folks nationwide, and then Nixon declares this thing called a War on Drugs, and suddenly New Jack City ain’t just a movie.
The air in the courthouse feels old. The stairs creak as I climb to the second-floor following signs that read “Courtroom This Way.” I enter, and it looks like any courtroom I have ever seen on television with its off-white walls and dark, wooden furniture. As I scan the room, I am annoyed that everybody in this courtroom is Black in a place as White as Oxford. Most of us look like we are dressed to go to church or something, except me. I’m wearing black jeans and a white button-down. This is my small protest.
I scoff, thinking about how “smelling marijuana” would never be probable cause enough for them to search Frat Boy McGee’s car—and they were sure to find a lot worse than a pipe if they did.
It takes forever for the judge to show up, but when he does the proceedings run more quickly than I expect. The judge, the only other white man besides the bailiff, calls people up in groups, by offense. Everyone present who had been issued a paraphernalia citation is offered the option to either consent to six-month’s probation or have another court date to contest the citation.
I take the probation. I cannot afford a lawyer, nor is there anyone to advocate on my behalf, so there isn’t much use in having another day in court. Frankly, I never want to see the inside of this room ever again, and it’s the officer’s word against mine. I already know I’m on the losing side of that dynamic. I think about calling Mom again but decide against it. I just want to go home.
Outside of that room, in another room across the hall, I meet my probation officer, a Black woman named Angel. Her face is expressionless as she slides a stack of papers for me to sign across her desk.
“Sign here, here, and here. This is to acknowledge the terms of your probation. You will report to my office monthly at the address circled here for a period of six months. You must adhere to mandatory drug screening. It is fifty dollars. If you fail at any time during your probationary period, a warrant can be issued for your arrest. All costs incurred will be your responsibility.”
I stand in front of her with my mouth agape for a second before I pick up the pen that she’s laid on the desk next to the stack of papers. I remember Mom telling me never to sign anything without reading over it, and I scan the pages quickly though I doubt I can do anything about it if I find something to which I object.
“What is this? $725 for what?”
“That’s the sum of your court and probationary fees. You’ll bring the three hundred start-up fee in addition to the fifty for your drug screen to our first meeting, which will be two weeks from today.” Though still expressionless, Angel is the only person who has looked me in the eyes today. I search for an ounce of compassion there, but find none.
I don’t know how she figures I have three hundred dollars to give to the Oxford Municipal Court, but the carrying out of the law hinges on that assumption and that assumption pays Ms. Angel’s salary.
The education that I receive in this town is paid for with money I’ve borrowed from the government. And the money that I make at my work study job allows me money for books, food, gas, and not much else. But this isn’t the case for a student body population that is predominantly white and predominantly monied. The economy of this college town is anchored in the generational wealth that stretches back to Antebellum days and generates more revenue, still, from those most vulnerable to the history that shrouds this old place like a cloak.
The second time, I am twenty-one, and it is May of my junior year at Ole Miss. I cannot believe I am about to be a senior in college. I spend a lot of time reflecting on the past three years of my life and all the ways in which I almost didn’t make it to this point. I have a job that pays nine dollars an hour—the most I’ve ever made, and a steady income for the first time in my life. In many ways, things seem to be looking up, but I’m still reluctant to be hopeful. The closer I get to graduation, the more I realize I have no idea what my future looks like.
I pull onto the highway around eleven on a Friday night. It’s late, and I’m just getting off work. Deja’s got visitors in town, and they’re crashing at our apartment. They’re mutuals of ours from back home, and I know they brought enough kush and Hennessey to go around, so I’m looking forward to smoking and drinking this night away.
I don’t see the car coming. Jackson Avenue looks to be empty, as it normally is this time of night. It happens so fast that it takes a moment to register that I have just been in my first car wreck. My vehicle is still running, and for a second, I consider driving off into the night, leaving the other guy in the middle of the otherwise empty highway. I think again and pull into the liquor store parking lot next door to the restaurant where I work. The other guy drives his white Impala out of the road and into the parking lot, though his car is in much worse shape than mine.
I get out to make sure the other guy is okay. He’s still wearing his navy-blue Walmart employee vest and appears to be fine. But calling the police is protocol, I know. My heart drops at the thought of calling them, but the other guy is already on it. My ride is fine for the most part—though smelling faintly of weed—but the guy looks like he needs a tow.
The cops arrive. A Black one and a white one. Me and the guy write statements, and they call a tow truck for his car.
“Ma’am, can you step out of the car? There’s a strong smell of marijuana coming from your vehicle.”
You gotta be fucking kidding me. Please not this again.
The cloth seats of my Highlander hold the skunky aroma of my last smoke session. I’m annoyed because this is hardly the issue at hand here, but I’m aware of how quickly things go left when cops get to sniffing around.
I get out of the car and brace myself against the cool, night air. The sun set hours ago, permitting a chill in the air, and my work shirt is still wet with the sweat of my eight-hour closing shift. I begin to shake uncontrollably with rage that I have somehow landed in this predicament. I play the events of the last fifteen minutes in my head and blame myself for not being attentive, for the smell coming from the car, for not pulling off when I had the chance. I want nothing more than to go home.
“What’s this?” Black cop asks, sounding as if he’s just hit the jackpot. He emerges from the passenger side, holding a half-smoked blunt between his index finger and thumb. I blame myself for being negligent, for leaving him something to find.
I roll my eyes, grit my teeth, and plead the Fifth.
By midnight, I am in the back of Black cop’s patrol car. The white one trails behind us. I know it is unwise to put anything past anyone, but I am surprised at Black cop. There aren’t that many Black people in Oxford at all and though, deep down, I knew better, a part of me hoped he might have been the one to cut me some slack. Tears well in my eyes as I blame myself for not remembering a crucial fact: all skin folk ain’t kinfolk.
“What y’all gone do with my car, man?” I ask, trying to take the frustration out of my voice but also desperately wanting someone to know that I am deeply frustrated in this moment. Black cop keeps his eyes on the road and says, “They’ll tow it to the impound yard. You can pay to get it back when you post your bail.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Of course, you’re not. Y’all don’t never know nothing,” I grumble under my breath, but still loud enough for him to hear. My heart thunders in my chest with audacity. Deep down, I hope I don’t answer for my nerve later.
By one a.m., I’m in a holding cell at Oxford Police Station. I am still wearing my name tag from work when the intake officer snaps my mug shot. It’s uncomfortably cold in the precinct, the color scheme comprised of gradient shades of grey.
Dear Lord, how in the hell did I end up here?
The cell is smaller than my dorm room, just wide enough for me to stretch my arms fully from the bars to the cinderblock wall. It’s as long as I am tall. A little longer, actually—maybe seven feet, I surmise as I stretch myself out on the cold metal bench that is bolted to the cinderblock wall. I slide my sleeves up my arms and slip them into my shirt, holding them close to my torso, trying to soothe the goosebumps that pock my arms from shoulder to wrist. My mind goes to Mom and the realization that I probably won’t get out of this one without her knowing about it.
God, if you get me out of this one, I’ll lay off the bud for good. This is less a bargain with God as it is a bargain with myself. I think briefly about God and whether I should even be looking for a God to make sense of this. I’m annoyed by the thought that God is somehow testing me. But I’m also annoyed that God let this happen for the hell of it. Or maybe it’s just dumb luck, and God doesn’t even concern herself, himself, themselves with petty shit like this.
“You can make your phone call now,” says the officer who comes to retrieve me from my cell.
They’ve confiscated my phone and wallet in intake, and Mom’s number is the only one I still know by heart.
Shit, I’ve really done it now.
It’s late, and I know how Mom likes to go to bed early. I cringe at the thought of waking her up over this. As the phone rings, I’m counting on her being a light sleeper tonight. After three rings, she picks up. I cut to the chase.
“Mom, I’m at the Oxford Police Department. I was in a wreck.”
“Yes ma’am. I’m fine, but they found a blunt in my car—not even a whole one—and booked me as a DUI-other. I’ve never even heard of that, and I’m not even high right now.”
She fixates on a single detail.
“They found drugs in your car, Victoria?!”
Mom is more visibly pissed than I’ve ever seen her but she arranges for a bail bondsman to get me out as soon as possible. She calls me back on the precinct line thirty minutes later and one of the officers comes to my cell to tell me that as soon as possible won’t be til seven in the morning. I hold back tears, blaming myself for causing Mom distress, and prepare to sit in this cell for the next six hours. I know she blames me for ending up where I am, and I do too.
I lay on the cold metal bench next to the cold metal toilet, unable to sleep. The cinderblock walls feel as though they are closing in on me. Rage quells the blame as I think about the ways police departments and the whole damn criminal justice system are designed to do just this. Flashes from Ava DuVernay’s documentary come to mind, a recent topic of discussion in a class I am taking this semester called Prison and the Literary Imagination. I turn the statistics and terms over in my mind: 1 in every 4 Black men, drug criminalization, the prison-industrial complex, school-to-prison pipeline—and try to remember that there is less blame to be had with myself than with the Black cop who arrested me.
I try to calm myself with the thought that my time in this cell is finite. At the same time, it occurs to me that there are people—usually Black—who get locked in this place and places much worse than this for far more than six hours, and my eyes well with tears while my brain continues to search for an answer to the question of how I’ve ended up in this cold, dark place.
This shit is crazy.
At three, I get a cellmate. A white woman, in her thirties, maybe. Pale skin, blonde hair, and clearly drunk off her ass. She introduces herself, but I don’t really listen. For the next hour, they parade a few more Friday-nighters into nearby cells. Most of them look like frats—cargo-shorted, ball-cap wearing, and stumbling over their own feet, as they are guided to their cells by apathetic looking officers.
I roll my eyes as they pass. I’m annoyed by the fact that most of them will call mommy or daddy, and mommy or daddy can probably—more than likely—write a fat check or promise a favor to the right person that will right the wrongs of their children.
This was really the best that OPD could do on a Friday night. A bunch of frats out for a drunken night out on The Square and me. Surely, there were bigger fish to fry—even in Oxford.
I think about the man and woman, both Black, who processed me hours earlier and how casually they’d scanned my fingerprints and snapped my mugshot. Just another day, just another entry in a spreadsheet to them. I imagine they were just doing their jobs.
Shit, I guess we all gotta pay the bills somehow.
The thought occurs to me that having to pay bills will compel people to do fucked up shit in order to get those bills paid, but I like to think that my threshold for what is fucked up stops just short of locking people up to fill a quota. A quota is the reason I am here, not my choice of inebriant. Another thought occurs to me that a person’s gauge of what is fucked up changes when there happens to be a check attached to it.
I lie on the bench for the next few hours in a state of half-rest. My body is tired, but my mind will not quiet down enough to allow me to sleep.
In the morning, the bail bondsman explains the charge levied against me—a “DUI-other” for possession of a blunt. The court fees alone are too much for my nine-dollar-an-hour pockets to fathom, and I am annoyed that my paychecks for the next few months no longer belong to me. The cost of the DUI alone is seventeen hundred dollars—easily double the amount of money that I made in a month’s time at the restaurant.
It’s around eight a.m. by the time all the bail paperwork is squared away, and I’m released from the precinct. I ask the bail bondsman for a ride to the impound yard, but he informs me that he doesn’t have a car. Neither does Reuben. Deja is at work. I check my account balance before I call an Uber from the precinct to the address that the bail bondsman gives me.
Luckily, I have the hundred fifty bucks in my account to get my car out of impound and the twenty for the Uber ride to the impound lot. I am nearly cross-eyed from exhaustion as I climb into the driver’s seat and head back to my apartment, driving with acute precaution because I know my license has now been suspended. The bargain I made with myself earlier that morning goes out the window when I get home. My only comfort is the joint I rolled before I went to work the day before.
As angry as she is, Mom drives up to Oxford on my court date, the last week of May. Classes are done for the semester, but I have one month left on my on-campus apartment lease.
“This is going to go on your record from now on. Every time somebody looks at you for a job, they gon’ see you’ve got a record…” Mom harangues me from the driver’s seat. I roll my eyes when she’s not looking.
“Mom, they give DUIs out like candy out here. It’ll be expunged before the summer’s over. It’s not that big of a deal,” I say, trying to mask the indignation in my voice.
This is the same semester I read books like The Autobiography of Assata Shakur and Live From Death Row in that Prison Literature class, and outside of class I continue to build my case against this thing called the justice system. But Mom believes whole-heartedly in this thing.
She raises her voice even louder. “Don’t tell me what’s a big deal and don’t talk back! You’ve really screwed up big time…”
But I haven’t screwed up at all. I am just another casualty of OPD’s own little War on Drugs.
I’m annoyed that I am sitting in this courtroom once again. I’m both ashamed and comforted to have my Mom sitting there next to me. “Ain’t nothin’ but Black folk in here,” Mom observes aloud.
Yeah, go figure.
It’s the same routine. The cattle-call, the ultimatum: probation or retrial. This time I have a lawyer, one that Mom found in the yellow pages. She advises me to take the probation.
When we leave the courtroom, we are directed to another room where my paperwork is finalized. Ms. Angel must be the only probation officer in Oxford because there she is, once again, at that table with the stack of paperwork outlining the terms and agreements of my probation period. It’s been a little over a year now since we’ve last seen one another. When we make eye contact, I search her eyes for recognition.
“Do I know you?” she asks, with Mom in earshot.
I stammer a bit and manage, “I don’t know, I’ve been told I have a familiar face.” I can’t tell if she’s intentionally fucking with me or not. I look over my shoulder at Mom, who seems to have not heard the exchange.