The Rev. Peter Schell is an Episcopal priest and the lead pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. His wife, Rondesia, is also an ordained Episcopal priest. On a road trip from Washington to Florida, Peter a white man, and Rondesia, a black woman, were traveling with their interracial family and had their first family experience of what truly appears to be racist police harassment. In the car with the couple was their 2-year old son, and Rondesia’s brother.
While driving on the first leg of our road trip to Florida, with my wife, my son and my brother-in-law, I noticed a white dodge charger in my rear view, tailgating me. After a couple minutes, I moved into the left lane to let him pass. He followed me. Then he turned on the flashing lights of the, now revealed undercover car. I pulled to the shoulder.I’ve been stopped by police before (always for traffic violations that were my fault.) However, several things immediately seemed unusual about this stop.
One. Two officers emerged from their car, and approached ours from the passenger side, where my brother was sitting. The lead officer knocked at his window, and asked first for his license, not mine.
Two. After checking my license as well, and the registration of our rental car, and after the officer informed me he was only giving me a warning for changing lanes without signalling (He was correct,) he asked me to step out of the car. While his partner stood by our car, he walked me back to their patrol car, and asked me what I had in my pockets (keys, a wallet, and my phone.)
Three. He asked me to take a seat in their car, and closed the door behind me. He took his seat on the driver’s side, turned and began to ask me questions:
“How do you know the other people in that car?”
“They’re my family: my wife, son, and brother in law.”
“Where are you going?”
“To Florida on vacation. We might stop in Augusta, Georgia, to visit my wife’s father.”
“Where does he live in Augusta?
“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.”
“Where did you come from?”
“What time did you leave out?”
“Around eleven, I think.”
“Why did it take you so long?”
“There was traffic all the way from Quantico to Norfolk.”
“Where did you rent the car?”
“From which rental company?”
“I don’t know, my brother rented it.”
“Are you driving straight through to Florida?”
“No, we’re stopping in Fayetteville for the night.”
“My son is two. He needs a break.”
“Is your license valid?”
“If I checked your vehicle, would I find anything illegal?”
“No marijuana, or cocaine?”
Four. As I answered, I noticed his partner was leaning in the rear passenger side window, where my son was sitting. His hand was on his belt.
Five. After asking me these questions, he left the car, and went to talk with my family. I checked the door handle, to see if I could open it from the inside and get out, in case… of something. In retrospect, this could have been a mistake. Thankfully nothing happened. It wouldn’t open, anyway.
Six. After talking with Ron and Rondesia, he conferred with his partner for several minutes. The gestured vaguely to me, and to our car.
Seven. He came back to the car. He wanted to talk again.
“Well, I’m confused. I talked to your “wife” and her story doesn’t match yours.”
I could hear the quotation marks in his voice.
“She just said you were going to Florida. She didn’t mention her dad, or Georgia.”
“We haven’t decided if we’re stopping on the way down, or the way back.”
“She also said she was visiting her cousins in Fayetteville. You said you were just going to stop for the night.”
“We are just stopping for the night. She has family there, so we’re having dinner with them.”
“You seem nervous. Why are you nervous?”
“I’m nervous because you separated me from my family. I’m nervous because your partner is hovering over them. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but there have been a lot of high profile incidents of police killing black people in the last few months. And you partner has his hand resting on his belt, near his pistol. So yes, I’m nervous.”
That’s what I thought. That’s what I wanted to say. But the angels of discretion (or perhaps those of cowardice) kept me quiet.
“No, I’m not nervous.”
He checked our information on the computer for several minutes in silence. Then he called in the details to double check. Finally, he said I could go, and reminded me to signal when I change lanes.
“Thank you officer.”
I walked back to the car, and waited for the police car to pull away. We compared details, analyzed, and then drove in silence until we arrived at the hotel.
We unloaded the car. I held my son. Rondesia and I hugged.
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“I was so scared for you.”
“I was scared for you.”
I don’t remember who said which words. But my wife spoke last.
“Well” she said, “welcome to the club.”
And then I realized. None of these things were unusual. Not even a little bit.