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Student Voices: Driving while Black

by Justin Ellerbee

Being a Black man means that I am always watching out for police. According to Crosscut, Seattle police are more likely to frisk people of color than they are white people, even though white people are more likely to have a weapon. Police fear Black and Hispanic people more than white people. Living in fear of a Black man must be a hard thing for a police officer, but their fear put me in a life or death situation.

I was driving down I-5, filled with excitement because not only did I get a job, I qualified for a supervisor position. I called my dad on speaker phone just to tell him the good news, when I noticed police sirens in my rear view mirror two cars back. Instantly I thought to myself, “There is no way he is pulling me over, I’m driving well under the speed limit.” Then I hear the police car intercom say, “Black Acura pull over, black Acura pull over.“

That was me, the black Acura, and it sent chills down my spine. Driving while Black is one of the most dangerous activities for any young Black man according to Alexi Jones of Prison Policy Initiative.  “When police initiated an interaction, they were twice as likely to threaten or use force against Black and Hispanic residents than white residents.”

Then I remembered that my license was suspended due to unpaid tickets from previous stops. This is not an uncommon situation in America. Maura Dolan of the LA Times reports that, “In Los Angeles County, Black people make up 9.2% of the population but accounted for 33% of those arrested for driving with a suspended license.” Only 14.8% of whites are arrested for the same reason, and they make up a much larger share of the population.

So, why was I driving on a suspended license? I was driving from my home in Skyway, where the minimum wage adds up to $11.25, to Seattle, where the minimum wage equals $16.39, so I could make enough money to pay off the traffic fines that were the reason for my license being suspended in the first place. I was caught in a vicious circle.

The officer yelled to me, “License, registration and insurance!!” As I reached over to the glove box the officer yelled “What are you reaching for?“ then pulled his gun and pointed it at my head.

My body went into shock. I threw my hands in the air and yelled “Please don’t shoot!”

Then my father, still on speaker phone, says, “Justin, keep your hands on the wheel. Officer, please don’t do this.  Please don’t take my son away from me.” The officer, still pointing his gun at my head, asks, “Are you Ezekial? He’s wanted for murder and you fit the description.” That’s when I found out that I was stopped for murder.

My dad’s voice came back in, “Nooooooo, his name is Justin Ellerbee. He is a college student with a full time job. You don’t have to end this young brother’s life, he hasn’t done anything, Sir.”

While the officer checked my plates, I told my dad that the car was still in drive and I would rather go on a high speed chase than lose my life like this. Lynne Peeples of Nature, a research journal, reported that Black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police. I was breathing heavy when the officer came back and said, ”Turns out you are not Ezekial, have a good day Mr. Ellerbee.” It was over.

Even though I made it through this near death experience, it never left me or my family. Now, if I do not answer the phone in three rings then either my dad, my aunt or my grandmother use their cell phone to find me and come to my location. My family is scared for my life every day that I walk out of the house, knowing that certain situations are out of my control and the system is not designed to protect young African Americans like me. I still wonder how police live in fear of a Black man without a gun.

Oh, and the job that I got? I’m a security guard supervisor in Seattle.

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