School Climate & Safety Opinion

Panic, Shame, and Cuffs: An Account From an Arrested Black Teacher

By Marilyn Rhames — November 04, 2014 9 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I sat there in the back of a police car, in tears. Hands cuffed behind my back. My wrists hurt with the slightest movement. How did things go so terribly wrong? Why is this happening to me? The cop lady is telling me to calm down, that I’m not under arrest.

If I’m not under arrest then why am I in this cage? Why did you make me get out of my vehicle ... and pat me down in the street ... and shackle my arms? Why am I surrounded by police? Do we really need three squad cars here? I am not a threat to anyone! I am a teacher, not some criminal!

It was a brisk Saturday morning on Nov. 1, but the sun was out. I had a 10 a.m. Teachers Who Pray board meeting to preside over. On my way to Chicago’s Kennedy-King College campus, I caught a flat tire. I tried to put air in the tire at a nearby gas station, but that did not work, so I had to turn back home, driving slowly.

Good thing I got an early start.

I parked my husband’s car and pulled the minivan out of the garage. Not yet a mile away from home, I pulled out my cell phone to let the Board Treasurer know that I had a flat tire but I was on my way again and should get there right at 10. Then I saw the blue lights in my rear-view mirror. I let my friend know I was getting pulled over, and I got off the phone.

The cop lady asked me why I thought she pulled me over. I told her that I might not have made a complete stop at the stop sign. She told me that my stop was fine, but I was on my cell phone. I said I had the phone on speaker, and she said it didn’t matter—I am not allowed to hold a phone while driving. I thought to tell her that the hot coffee I hold while driving to work every day is more of a traffic risk than my speaker phone, but I decided to just say “OK.”

I gave her my license and insurance card and waited for her to write me a ticket. She came back 10 minutes later and ordered me out of the car.

While I was out celebrating my 40th birthday with my family and friends, I should have been renewing my driver’s license. My birthday was three weeks ago and I had no idea that my driver’s license was expiring on that day.

The Illinois DMV website says it sends out renewal notices in the mail, but I’ve lived in Chicago most of my life and I’ve never once gotten notified when my driver’s license was about to expire. It needs to be renewed every fourth birthday. Many people unknowingly let it expire and find out about it from friendly department store cashier. In fact, the cop who arrested me later admitted that one year she let her license expire and she had been driving around in her police car! A bank teller had flagged her.

So there I was—the mother of three on her way to a meeting to discuss the success of our recent third annual Teachers Who Pray conference and strategize about how to spiritually support teachers in 2015—in handcuffs and being pushed into the back of a squad car for having a driver’s license that was 22 days expired.

I am not a criminal. Why can’t you just write me a ticket? I can just walk home or call my husband to come pick me up. Why must you publically humiliate me? I asked.

The cop lady tried to calm me down, telling me it’s “not a big deal,” that there wasn’t a crowd of onlookers watching me.

You’re taking my freedom away from me—it is a big deal, I tell her. Don’t you have better things to do than lock up a teacher who otherwise has a spotless driving record?

Just following procedures, she said.

Well, my friend who lives in the suburbs forgot to renew her license just after her birthday. The cops just gave her a stern warning. My coworker’s aunt in the suburbs got stopped with an expired license, and they detained her on side of the road until her husband came to pick her up.

I live in the ‘hood. I am a Black woman. What kind of treatment do I get? Handcuffs and taken to the police station in a squad car and told that it’s “no big deal.”

Still cuffed, the cop lady marched me into a side door near the rear of the station and sat me down in a holding room. She released my right hand from the cuffs, but shackled my left hand to the wooden bench onto which I sat.

It’s 10:30 a.m. and I hear my phone ringing in my purse, which the cop placed on a nearby chair. My Board is wondering where I am. It pains me that I am told by the cop that I cannot answer my phone.

Police officers are passing my room, looking in at me. I suppose they wondered what crime I committed, but it’s possible that they didn’t really care. I think about all my Black and Brown brothers and sisters who have found themselves in similar situations for something just as minor. A simple, harmless mistake. No mercy. No grace.

“Just following procedure, ma’am” is the response that is supposed to make me accept my circumstances.

The cop lady is extremely nice, too nice. She spoke in a soft, sweet voice and kept smiling, which only made the horror of the situation even more eerie and surreal. A cop-friend of one of my friends told him that her niceness is part of the new “policing strategy” in Chicago—a part of the “hug a thug” campaign. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy have apparently devised this passive-aggressive strategy that pressures young officers to drastically increase their arrests, while training them to do it with a smile.

As I sat there, my emotions battled with my intellect:

Perhaps this is exactly what should happen to hardworking, law-abiding teachers and mothers like me who forget to renew their driver’s license on their 40th birthday! It’s my fault ... I deserve this. Wait ... that’s just crazy!

For the 12th time, I tell the arresting officer that she’s making me very late for my Teachers Who Pray meeting. She tells me that she admires my organization and as a police officer, she knows that a teacher’s job is extremely hard. In fact, just the other day, she had to arrest an honor student at a nearby high school.

The boy was being bullied and his teachers weren’t listening to him when he told them that he needed help. So to stop the bullying he brought a gun to school. He let another boy handle the gun, and then that boy passed the weapon off to another student. Finally, a teacher confiscated the gun and called the police. Now all three boys—including the honor student—have adult felony charges against them.

She said she hated to see these kids just throw their life away. Who’s going to hire a kid with a felony weapons charge on his record? Yeah, we need Teachers Who Pray.

I agreed. Then pondered the irony that I, the founder of Teachers Who Pray, was sitting in police custody and in handcuffs. By the looks of it, I, too, was a criminal.

Why would the Lord allow this to happen to me? Is this His way of humbling me? Maybe He wants me to identify with the oppressed even more?

I thought about Michael Brown. Did he feel the same panic I was now feeling when he was initially approached by Darren Wilson, the police officer who ended up killing him?

It’s 10:50 a.m. and the cop lady rushes into my cell with the finished paper work. I’ll have to face the judge in court on Nov. 26—the day before Thanksgiving. If I don’t show up, there will be a warrant out for my arrest, she tells me.

Then she adds that she is supposed to confiscate my license but that would make getting a renewed license more of a hassle. Instead, she gave me an I-bond, a promissory note I signed to say I will show up for court or pay $1,500. She told me multiple times that this I-bond was a favor, so eventually I gave her an awkward “thank you.”

The cop unshackles me and gives me an I’m-really-sorry-I-had-to-arrest-you kind of smile. I pull a Teachers Who Pray flyer from my purse and give it to her. She asks me if that’s me teaching in the picture, and then she compliments the way my locks of hair are pinned up on the side. I tell her that she can find a link to my Education Week blog from the website on the flyer. (I hope she is reading this post right now!)

She walks me to the front desk and offers me a ride in the back of her police car to my van (which I am unable to drive).

No thanks.

I quickly call my Board Treasurer and tell her what happened. She is so upset she abruptly grabs her coat and tells the Board to sit tight for 20 minutes while she goes to get me. They wait and pray, wondering what in the world is going on.

I arrive to my meeting at 11:10 a.m., fighting back tears of hurt and humiliation. I thank the Board for their patience and explain that I was late because I was arrested for driving with an expired license. I tell them that I heard them ringing my phone but I was in handcuffs in the back of a squad car ... I heard them calling while cuffed to a bench in a holding cell.

They were shocked.

The white members of the Board were aghast and sympathetic. They said they couldn’t image that ever happening to them in their neighborhood. One reminded me that the same racially biased criminal justice system will one day greet my African-American son, who will be one year old later this month. Her statement sent chills up my spine.

Another friend later added that being a police officer is probably the safest profession for my son. He could give back to his community by treating people with dignity, plus the brotherhood that comes with being a cop would protect him from being constantly harassed by the police.

The irony of that statement still baffles me.

Just because I am a teacher I am not better than anybody else. Just because I hold two masters degrees doesn’t mean I am above the law. But on Saturday, I felt that I was a victim of the law. I felt I was beneath the filthy foot of law, which was pressing against my neck and putting my face in the mud.

I grieved the loss of innocence I didn’t even know I had.

The cop telling me that “it’s really not a big deal” just let me know how normal it is for a Black person to be stripped of their dignity by unjustly being locked up. The cop, who was herself a Black woman, maybe age 30, wasn’t a racist, but she works day in and day out in a law enforcement system that expects her to show little or no mercy to Black people who live in my socio-economically struggling neighborhood.

She could have used discretion, like the cops in the suburbs. But discretion is not for citizens who look like me—educated or non-educated. Discretion mostly applies to people with white privilege, which I am guaranteed never to have. After all, the cop who arrested me had a quota of tickets and arrests to meet. So as I cried demoralized tears, she was likely feeling a tinge of success.

Yesterday, a friend took my kids to school for me, and then she took me to the DMV so I could renew my driver’s license. While I cannot avoid ‘driving while Black,’ I will make sure I am never ‘driving while Black on an expired license.’

Some say it’s a miracle that I made it to age of 40 in Chicago without feeling disenfranchised by an officer who claims to serve and protect me. At least I am still alive to tell my side of the story ... too many others aren’t.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.