Columnist Tolley Jones: Driving while Black in western Mass

Published: 3/10/2021 4:04:45 PM In February, I was pulled over by local police for the second time this year. February is Black hist...

Published: 3/10/2021 4:04:45 PM

In February, I was pulled over by local police for the second time this year. February is Black history month, and that was certainly a repeat of mine. I have been pulled over by police at least once a year, sometimes more, for the entire time I have lived in this area.

As I drove away from this latest encounter, I counted them up in my head: at least 20 traffic stops locally. There is always a reasonable explanation given: an expired inspection sticker, a faulty tail light, an overlooked registration lapse. There is always justification.

Later on that day I spoke to my blond, white friend who has also lived here for the past 20-plus years. Despite also driving with an expired registration, an overlooked expired inspection sticker, a broken tail light, she said she has never been pulled over by local police. Never. Not once.

When I am driving and I see a police car up ahead, nose facing the road I travel on, I know that they will follow me. Without turning my head, I can see them notice me, my face, my skin. And they will pull out behind me. I get the same reaction at grocery and drug stores in Northampton, where browsing for too long in a deserted aisle will inevitably bring a white employee to “straighten shelves” nearby for as long as I linger.

As soon as I see that police car, my heart starts hammering in my chest. It’s the same reaction I feel when I walk out of a grocery store after failing to find what I entered for. I feel guilty, even though I know I haven’t done anything wrong. I am afraid I will be stopped.

When the blue lights flashed in my rearview mirror this last time I said out loud, “Of course.” I pulled over and waited for the officer to get out and tell me what reasonable reason he stopped me for this time. Even though it is 4 p.m. on a Sunday, sunny and too cold for anything untoward, I see two officers get out and split apart to flank my car. My 15-year-old Toyota with the unsexy chassis of a suburban mother set off some alarm bells. I’m sure that’s it.

I keep my hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, in sight. I worry about my mask – I wear one anytime I am near someone, out of courtesy. But I am Black. Will my mask make me even scarier? Will simply reaching for it provoke an escalation of response? He knocks on the door and I carefully, slowly, move my hand to push the button (inconveniently down out of sight where one might keep a gun) to roll the window down.

“I’ve stopped you because your inspection sticker is expired,” the officer says.

“Yes, the RMV emailed me literally yesterday to let me know, and I plan to get it inspected this week.”

“License and Registration, please.”

I panic. See, when I was stopped in January it was because my registration had expired back in March of 2020, when we were on COVID lockdown. The RMV alerted everyone that services were paused and everyone was grandfathered in until a later date. Unbeknownst to me, that later date had been a few weeks before. That time, I was stopped on a dark, deserted road, at midnight, with my teenaged daughter in the car. That officer was kind, and once he figured out that this was a COVID-related mistake, he let me go home with a promise to register my car as soon as possible. I registered it online 15 minutes later.

But I only had the printed-out letter confirming that I registered my car. I couldn’t remember if I had gotten around to putting the actual registration in my car once it arrived in the mail. Would this be acceptable? Would this oversight trigger further scrutiny?

I handed him my flimsy letter and my license. And then I waited, two….five…..ten minutes. What were they doing in the car? 

I attended a training on systemic racism and Black mental health last week that quoted John Cummings, the founder of the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the only restored plantation in the United States that is focused on the perspective of the enslaved. In explaining why presenting the Black enslaved perspective is important he said, “The Whites don’t know what the IT is, and until you define what the IT is, [Blacks] can’t ‘get over IT.’” 

As I waited for the two officers to again get out of the car and again flank it, just to return my license and give me a written warning, a Black woman pulled out of a parking lot ahead of me and turned left, driving toward me. Our eyes met, and we spoke generations of history without a word. She shook her head slightly, eyebrows raised. I raised my eyebrows back and rolled my eyes. We agreed. This is IT.

Tolley M. Jones lives in Easthampton. She writes a monthly column for the Gazette. She can be reached at

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Newsrust - US Top News: Columnist Tolley Jones: Driving while Black in western Mass
Columnist Tolley Jones: Driving while Black in western Mass
Newsrust - US Top News
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