Walking to the store near my house one night in Smyrna, GA years ago, the local police flew around in the road sideways next to the sidewalk where I was walking with their blue lights and strobe lights flashing. I put my hand up over my eyes, didn’t know what was happening and thought maybe a crime was in progress without realizing that apparently they thought I was the crime or criminal. Since I had seizures at that time, my hand was over my eyes and then I turned away but the front grill strobes and blue lights with their strobes on each end on top of the police car were bouncing off the guard rail making it just as bad. The officer demanded that I show him my id and where I was going as he screamed at me from the car insisting at the same time that I turn around and remove my hand from my face.
Sadly, I was only around the corner barely a block from where I lived. The street was wide and new with two lanes going each way and a wide landscaped median in the center, well-lit and well-trafficked. About the time, I told the officers that I had seizures and couldn’t look at his lights, another police car came racing up with its lights going and stopped about five feet from me and only a couple feet from the other one. There was nothing but bouncing, flashing, strobing lights everywhere. The second police officer got out of his car, standing at the door – the first officer stood in the door of his car screaming at me to show him my id and tell him where I was going. I didn’t have an id with me, just a few dollars to go to the Quick Trip down the street and buy some donuts and a pack of cigarettes. I was dressed properly, had shoes on, wasn’t drunk and had not been drinking or doing any kind of drugs for nearly 20 years. Not only that, about every other night I was making that walk to get donuts, this time it was around 12.30 at night but often it might be around 2 am after I had been working awhile, painting or writing and needed to just get out and walk.
But, in fact, I walked everywhere, which was not common in the early 2000s of suburban metro Atlanta areas including Smyrna. Yet, the police constantly saw me walking to meetings, to the grocery and other stores, to the nearby Wal-Mart (although it was 3 miles to walk it, I did), and to the local coffee shop where many spoke to me whenever I was there. It did not make any sense to me that I was being demanded to have an ID for walking up to get donuts. It didn’t make sense that the cruiser slammed around sideways in the road with his headlights within inches of my walking space on the sidewalk. I did not know anything that made sense except that my extreme and reasonable fear of having a seizure right there on that sidewalk would cause a definitely bigger problem than I already had standing there about to have one. My heart was beating in my ears, there was nowhere to turn where the lights weren’t assaulting me which meant it was only a short period of time before having a seizure was almost certain. And, I was absolutely sure I hadn’t said or done anything that would have been considered criminal or crazy or wrong or out of the ordinary.
Finally, after explaining the problem I had with the lights – each officer standing there in the doors of their strobing cruisers and them having called in the stop of a person walking down the street and what street it was, they demanded my name and to know where I lived and asked again where I was going though I had already told them. When the first officer told the dispatcher my name, I could hear the laughing over their radio from where I was standing, but the officer went on with the statement that I claim to have seizures and could they have permission to turn off the lights so they could talk to me. Then, he had to talk to the commander who did know me well from the coffee shop before this officer could be assured that I was allowed to continue on my way or go home if I wanted without showing my ID. He had no cause to have stopped me, no reason to have come at me with blazing lights, nor to have called for backup considering I was unarmed, not belligerent, not drunk, not crazed, not stoned, not a criminal and not doing anything wrong.
They turned off their lights and both officers explained how I couldn’t go out of my house without an ID with me because they could have arrested me and how if the Commander hadn’t spoken up for me, they would have. They said there had been no call about me from anyone, they weren’t looking for someone who had just committed a crime down the street or around the corner – because I asked them once they had their lights turned off. And, neither of them had their weapons clipped in their holsters – both had unclipped the holsters when they stopped me early on in the process and I know because I heard the sound as they were first standing there. Because of the hour, they had not had more than a few initial seconds of the blaring police sirens – just enough to make my heart race believing they were about to shoot somebody and then it turned out it was me.
This event would have been enough to have unnerved anyone, but it could’ve destroyed my opportunities for any freedom, mental or physical because of having a seizure or it causing me to have a heart attack or stroke right there on the sidewalk. Let alone that – getting shot for public walking without an ID to the nearby store would’ve definitely made living, paying my bills, painting, writing, helping others, learning anything into an impossible set of options.
Now, that apparently was not enough. Over the next three weeks from that night, I was stopped on that same road three other times with the same tactics except that from the point the Smyrna PD saw it was me, they would flick the lights off with a quick call to the station to make sure it was okay to do that while allowing me to keep my hand over my eyes till they got them turned off. But, they still stopped me walking each time, demanded my ID and to know where I was going and where I had come from and why I was walking to or back from that same store. One time, I had to show them the donuts and pack of cigarettes in the bag and what was in my pockets which was my housekeys and some change – but what right did they have to ask when nothing I did was wrong nor crazy or out of the ordinary and I had been around many people throughout the evening each of those times who could attest to it. No one had called, no crime nearby had happened – the only thing I had done was to walk to the store after midnight o’clock.
To be honest, on the fifth or sixth time this happened to me – after four of those had been in those first three weeks – I asked the officer why he wouldn’t know me since I walked up and down that street going someplace nearly every night and certainly every day to get to the bus stop down near that convenience store or about a mile in the other direction. He said the officers were being shifted from precincts on the other side of Atlanta in swaps that meant none of them could know who was supposed to be in the area or were regularly in the area or lived nearby or anything. There was no way he could have known I was standing within a hundred feet of my house or that every patrol officer using that same road as a speed trap during the rush hours had seen me walking by to somewhere and knew me and knew of me. It didn’t matter.
I’m a short white woman, about 5 foot 4 inches. I don’t carry a gun. There is not some mile long history of crimes I’ve perpetrated. It didn’t matter. It is America. Would these officers have shot me in these interactions without realizing they shouldn’t have before doing it? YES, abso-fucking-lutely. In every case they were trigger happy ready to shoot with their weapons unclipped in its holster and even the little hairs on their arms were standing straight on end electrified by the adrenalin rush of that hair trigger ready to kill me where I stood. If I had not removed my hand from my eyes – if I hadn’t said exactly the things I said with some measure of humility and fear – if I had gone into a seizure or my speech had begun to slur because a seizure was beginning – they’d have shot me and ended my life that moment without any regard whatsoever while stealing me from everyone I love and that loves me. It would’ve meant nothing to them – not one of them. I know it beyond a shadow of doubt. My life meant absolutely nothing, not one thing to those police officers who would’ve ended it without even a thought after stopping me for walking on the sidewalk to the store down the street.
(And I didn’t mention it in the story above, but each of those officers addressed me rudely – not nicely as if I had done nothing, but as they would have if I had just damn well killed somebody or robbed them and was the worst kind of piece of shit criminal they had ever encountered – so it was a wonder, I didn’t end up getting arrested on any stupid, petty thing they could’ve come up with. People don’t know this, but having put my hand up over my eyes and standing still but turning away from the flashing lights of the police cruiser, they could’ve arrested me for resisting or being uncooperative – whatever they call that in GA police law even though it was not intended to be that.)
In fact, I’ll just say it – but anyone who has suffered from traumatic brain injury, stroke, heart problems, other mental disabilities, post traumatic stress disorder, seizures, autism, epilepsy or any speech affecting disabilities like aphasia, and others – needs to have phone numbers of advocacy points of contact besides family and family attorney on speed dial.