This issue of Yonder is a bit different from the form developed in the last couple of years. I needed to write something lighter and more grounded. One reason: overwhelmingly important global events, like the China-Italy agreement that will have evident consequences for the European Union and the rest of the global community and balance. In the U.S., it’s Mueller time as the special council ended its two-year Russian probe. The first indication of the report that very few people have read indicates that the consequences of this investigation for the sitting president may not be grave, but everybody is being careful to jump ahead with the conclusions since, as usual, the devil is in the details. There is a lot more to be seen.
Without noticing, Yonder has recently celebrated its fourth anniversary. This is the 289th Yonder! I had a short glance of the topics and stories written so far and I am surprised how much more variety there was before Donald Trump occupied the scene. Perhaps for this, but also because of the fourth anniversary, I decided to do a bit of a different issue this time. I was also inspired by the article that Mark Isaac wrote on the importance of the newsletters compared to the rest of social media. A prolific writer, Isaac leads a group of journalists covering technology. Have a good read and let me know what you think.
“What did I do wrong, Officer,” I asked a black-clothed young policeman when he approached my car. He climbed out of his gigantic SUV about 15 yards after he’d signaled me with his siren to stop the car. I was coming out of the dark overpass of Fort Totten Metro Station, in the Northeast of Washington D.C., pulling into the parking lot to wait for someone. At first, I didn’t think the call was for me. Unfortunately, it was. I pulled to the left side of the narrow parking lot to give the police car space. But it stopped behind me and the young policeman with a short haircut and sunglasses said to me with an angry voice: “You passed the stop sign. You could kill someone. Your driving license and car registration!”
“I haven’t seen any stop sign and I was going very slow. How could I put anyone in danger on an empty road, with no people crossing it?”
The policeman’s story was different. I blew through the stop sign, he said. I asked where the stop sign is and he only said: “Back there.” Of course, I could not get out of the car to look and see where the sign was. In my long driving career, I‘ve been stopped perhaps five times. Still enough to know that trying to step out of the car is not a good idea. So I had to take the policeman on his word. Besides, his right hand was placed on the holster of his gun. It made me nervous and, moreover, I could not find the registration. I didn’t even know what it looked like.
I was going through the papers and said to the officer: “Sorry officer, this situation makes me nervous and scared.” He snapped back: “You should not be scared unless you want to kill me!” I went numb. I was holding the pile of papers near the window so he could see them. My hands were probably shaking; my voice definitely was. Among a lease contract, insurance card and other papers, I found something that looked like a car registration to me, but the policeman told me that it was only a pre-registration notice. We are leasing our car and it is almost new, so I knew that the registration must be there. Oh, there it was, something that looked like dry cleaner receipt, except that it had DMV D.C. logo on it.
The uncompromising and tough policeman was treating me like a criminal and grabbed it out of my hands before he went back to his car. While waiting for my punishment, I felt trapped in panic like a child caught stealing a spoonful of jam. It was ridiculous, even if there was a sign I did not see. I hadn’t driven into a crowd of people. Why all this aggression? I started canceling incoming Uber requests and got out of line. Yes, I went back to Uber driving a few days ago for a couple of reasons, but particularly after I learned that Mike Isaac, of the New York Times, is writing a book on Uber, and I felt the need to do more and better.
In the end, the policeman–they never say their names, do they–came back with the pink piece of paper. “Here is your ticket; you can pay $50 or appeal within two weeks. Your choice. But you did not see the stop sign, risking killing people, because you were looking on your navigation device.” I looked at the smartphone, with the active Waze navigation app in the dashboard holder on the right side of the wheel. I felt guilty even about this. And yet, the whole world uses phones on the dashboard and I never heard that the handsfree navigators on the dashboard might be illegal. On the contrary, they were invented to get smartphones out of the hands of people while driving. Yet, I did not contradict the policeman; I knew better. But I did say that having the smartphone as a navigation device on the dashboard is the general practice of all Uber, Taxi and private drivers, too. It’s a working tool, I added, but the policemen would have nothing of it and ordered me to leave.
I made a loop in the parking lot with him driving directly behind me. As I entered the dark overpass to get on the road that led out of the parking lot, I went slowly and looked around to see if there was a stop sign. I could not see to the other side of the road, but I did see a red stop sign right in the line of the pedestrian crossing on the way out. I saw it because I was looking for it. You could not see it otherwise.
I drove back toward home. It was a sunny day and I tried to forget the event, but the policeman’s overuse of the word “kill” was drilling through my brain. It came back to me with every police car I saw on the road. And there are plenty in Washington D.C. I could not understand the violent rhetoric. Three times he repeated the word while I was sitting like a lame duck in the car, not able to move or say anything. I do not think that I looked like a terrorist, and yet I felt guilty, almost naked.
I had a flashback from the distant past when for a short period of time, I was serving in the Yugoslav Army. It was during the morning line-ups, while the officers were inspecting the cleanliness of our weapons, they inserted a long stick with alcohol-dipped cotton into the barrel of our gun. The way we had to hold the gun and the penetration of the stick was an act of violation, a deep humiliation. Punishment would come for almost everyone because there was no way to keep the barrel of a gun immaculate while carrying it in the open air all the time. It was absurd, but the power the military officers used and abused reminded me of the tactic of the policeman. It caused fear.
I drove more to encounter more people, to listen to different voices, to wash away the violence and to feel more normal. I did not talk to anyone about what happened. But in the evening, I went for a glass of wine with a very young person I am starting to know. There, in the friendly wine bar, I told him what happened. He was shocked at first. Then we started to analyze the situation and consider ways to wash away my fear, to try to understand what happened, to appeal the ticket. I could only do it if there was no stop sign, which I did not know, because I was not allowed at the time to go and check it. If there was a stop sign, I would have no chance of raising the matter of the policeman’s attitude to a judge, and honestly, I did not want to. All I wanted to do is to be able to understand what happened at that moment and why there was this violent undercurrent. After a glass of wine and a very frank conversation, I understood that I was stuck. Right or wrong, with or without my infringement on the law, those 15 minutes in the hands of the law was punctuated by tension, not protection. Why the ticket, then? Is this protection, and from what? All these questions did not lead anywhere, but as soon as I stopped asking them, I felt that I was being indoctrinated. I would become a real American by accepting this situation, by delegating absolute power to the police. Most white Americans would consider these questions a waste of time.
That pink ticket for $50 laid untouched on my bookshelf for two days. Today, I looked at it, found the location on Google maps and drove 3.3 miles to look at the place. I was going through my mind trying to reconstruct the moment. Today the weather was cloudy, while on the day of my crime there was sunshine–I remembered the policeman’s sunglasses. When I drove toward the overpass on the narrow road, I could not see the sign until the moment when I drove into the darkness. And there in the distance, four yards to the extreme right, marking the beginning of the pedestrian crossing, was the stop sign. Again, if you were not looking for it, you would not see it, because your attention would be focused on the road and the crossing, paying attention to the people crossing it. That’s what happened on the day I was stopped by the policemen. I did not stop because there were no pedestrians at the crossing and because the sign was not in the line of sight.
And yet, the sign was there. It stood like a mark of absolute and arbitrary power and not like a traffic sign trying to regulate the rules of the road. It was there not to be seen, but to collect fines. Unless the person who put it there was genuinely an unqualified moron, it was clear the police love it because it enables them to exercise their near-absolute power.
I wonder if it was the same dynamic before 9/11. And I wonder, if I’d had an American flag on the back of the car, as my friend once told me he uses, I would be treated better. I have no idea. Things are typically not that deep. I wanted to investigate the idiot who put that stop sign at that spot but I realized it was there, well, for idiots like me. I did not know that trap like I don’t know some of the other traps that allow the city to collect money. And the policeman’s aggression? I think it was more the consequence of police training, giving the new generation of police opportunity to be arrogant and violent.
I also talked to some of the taxi drivers parked in front of the overpass, waiting for passengers. Every second taxi driver in line had gotten a ticket like me and in the same way. Then they learned the trick. So this time, it was me, the Uber idiot, who fell into the trap, then learned. Something different must have happened on the other side of the entrance into the dark overpass. Somebody must’ve done the investigation and then forced the authorities to put a warning sign before the tunnel, indicating that there was a stop sign following, in the darkness. Look at the photos from both sides of the tunnel and you will see what I mean. And yes, I am appealing to move the stop sign out of the tunnel or make it visible in any other way.