In a state of shock after the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I turned to my Facebook feed, looking for community in my grief and hoping to make sense of what had happened. The statement, “He would not have been shot if he had been white,” referring to Philando Castile, appeared several times. The first time I saw it, I responded, “He would not even have been stopped if he had been white.” Think about it if you are white: how many times have you been pulled over by the police?
I can answer that question: in the United States, only once, and that was because I made a second illegal U-turn at the same stop-lighted intersection as a teenager. The policeman issued me two tickets, stating that he had been willing to let the first offence go. This is what white privilege means.
In Greece, on the other hand, I have been stopped numerous times in road blocks followed by demands to see driving licenses, registration, and proof of insurance. These road blocks tend to occur just before the Christmas and Easter holidays. Locals say that the police are collecting money for their Christmas and Easter bonuses. I always dismissed this as paranoia, but read on.
Today I learned that though he had no criminal record, Philando Castile had been stopped more than fifty times by for minor traffic offenses.
Minnesota police stopped Castile for driving without a muffler. For not having an insurance card. For driving after revocation of his driver’s license, and so on. They accused him of minor traffic issues more than 50 times, one for almost every year of his life.
More than fifty times for Philando Castile? Once, or more than once, for Sandra Bland? Never for the likes of me? What is going on here? Even President Obama has stated that he has been pulled over more than once for “driving while black.”
I have known about the “problem” of “driving while black” for many years. But I had no idea how widespread it was. Fifty times? Revoked drivers’ license? Isn’t that serious? If you watch Judge Judy you will have learned that a drivers’ license can be revoked for failing to appear in court over a minor traffic violation.
According to an email that arrived in my box from Daily Kos, targeting drivers of color for minor traffic violations, while based in racism and racial profiling, is part of a larger problem. Cities and small towns all over America are using traffic tickets to fund local government. According to The National Motorists Association Traffic Tickets Are Big Business:
No one knows how many traffic tickets are actually issued. Many local units of government deliberately hide this information so they don’t have to split their traffic ticket revenue with the state. Not including parking tickets, we can estimate that somewhere between 25 and 50 million traffic tickets are issued each year. Assuming an average ticket cost of $150.00, the total up front profit from tickets ranges from 3.75 to 7.5 billion dollars.
If just half of these tickets result in insurance surcharges (typically at least $300 over a period of three years), you can add another 3.75 to 7.5 billion dollars in profit for insurance companies. This is why insurance companies “care” so much traffic “safety” programs and are willing to donate millions of dollars worth of radar and laser guns to the police. For them, it’s simple: more tickets equal more money!
Most traffic tickets have very little to do highway safety. With this information in mind, it is clear that one small step we can take to save black lives, would be to declare a moratorium on stopping ANYONE for minor traffic violations.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But such a step is not so simple. It would require taking on vested interests not only in local governments, but also in the insurance industry. And of course it would require raising taxes on individuals, businesses, and corporations in order to fund public services, rather than scamming the public and giving the police an opportunity to harass the black community.
Another small step we can take is to sign Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s petition.
Police Officers Who Use Lethal Force Must Be Held Accountable
It is time that we put a system in place to hold police officers accountable for using lethal force and demand a Department of Justice investigation each time an officer shoots and kills a civilian.
It is unacceptable to have a justice system that barely ever prosecutes or convicts police officers who commit murder on the job. And it is unacceptable when a law enforcement official employs an excessive use of force that results in death.
These days it is easy to become overwhelmed by despair. Don’t get me started. But we can take small steps. These are only two of the many that are set before us. And who knows, they just might make a difference.
Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall. This blog is excerpted from Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, co-written with Judith Plaskow, which will be published on August 1 by Fortress Press. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.