My Experience With Profiling24 July, 2009
As I read different posts regarding the incident between Harvard Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department, I keep seeing references to profiling. In the interest of fairness, I might as well tell you about my personal experience with profiling.
Back in 1985, I spent a couple of weekends up in New England looking at colleges (I had decided I wanted to go to a small college, in a smaller town, in New England, within day trip distance to Boston, and near a good ski area). At the time, my vehicle was a 1970 Volkswagen Microbus Transporter. At the time, I also dressed in (normally) tie-dyes, a ponytail, and a Greek fisherman’s cap.
As I traveled through Western Massachusetts on the Turnpike, I spent a great deal of time in 3rd gear at 35 miles per hour as I struggled up the hill. With the flashers on. Watching fully loaded tractor-trailers pass me.
As I went up one hill, I popped out my cassette of Wynton Marsalis playing Hadyn’s Trumpet Concerto in E minor and slid in the Door’s Greatest Hits. And jammed the volume way up (to overcome the sound of the VW engine, I had a 400-watt system in the Microbus). I lit my pipe (some nice black Cavendish tobacco). And noticed the flashing lights of a Massachusetts State Trooper.
I swore. Then I doused the flashers, signalled, and pulled over. He walked up to the vehicle and leaned down to look in the window. Yes, he leaned downto look into the window of a VW Microbus. This guy was huge. No neck. Firm jaw. No fat. I silenced the music.
He asked for my license, registration and insurance. I handed it over. I sat in the bus and finished my pipe.
He disappeared for fifteen minutes as he called in my information. Then he walked back up and asked where I was going (Brunswick, ME), where I had been (at friends in Russell, MA), was there anything in the vehicle which he should know about (no). Then he asked permission to search my vehicle.
“Why?” I asked.
“Do I have permission to search your vehicle?” He asked again.
“Why?” I repeated.
“Kid, you have a choice. You can give permission to search your vehicle, or I can, in about one hour, get a warrant from a judge, and we can search your vehicle without your permission. But it will take three hours. Which will it be?”
“Officer,” I stated, “I have neither given nor denied permission. I am asking why you wish to search my vehicle?”
“Well, kid, I think you have grass in there. You look like you smoke grass. You smell like you smoke grass. And no nineteen-year-old kid smokes a pipe.”
I gave permission for the search. Three more vehicles showed up. I sat on a Jersey barrier while they emptied my vehicle. I was amazed at how much trash I had accumulated. They pulled out the front seat and checked the spare tire. They pulled out the back seat and were quite surprised to find a 70 gallon fuel bladder (the guy who rebuilt the bus (out of three others) didn’t like to stop for gas) and debated slicing it open. They searched places which I did not know existed.
The only thing they found was a mouse nest with two live baby mice and three adult (live) mice.
He did not apologize for the two hour delay. He did tell me to turn my music down.
I got pulled over three more times on that trip. When I went to college driving a Nissan Sentra (and with short hair), I never got pulled over. Even when speeding.
In retrospect, I suppose I fit a profile for, at the least, a recreational drug user. The Microbus, the ponytail, the tie-dye shirt, the Greek fisherman’s cap, the pipe, the Doors. If I had set out to look like a sixties holdover marijuana smoker I doubt I could have done any better.
Profiling may not be fair. Profiling is often racist. Profiling can also be accurate. Maybe not right, but accurate.
Looking back, I am proud that I kept my cool. Scared shitless, but I didn’t do anything stupid.
I miss that red VW Microbus. And yes, I did have a rake and a shovel in the back (big vehicle, why empty it when I was the only one going on the trip).