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Still Just a Spic

Living as a Latina law student in today's America is not without consequence.

Bang.

Thud.

I wince every time I hear them hit the floor. The gym is on the other side of this room, I can hear it. I hear the upbeat White people workout music— rock — playing and I hear the machines crash and the weights thud when they hit the ground. I hear them laugh about yesterday's arrest and argue over last night's game. I wonder if they know that I can hear them. I know that even if they do, they don't care.

Right now, I'm just another subject to them. This is their job and I'm just a number. I'm the “Female, White Hispanic subject, about 5’4” they called in on the radio about. I mean nothing more to them than that, as I sit chained to the wall, tears streaming down my face. I stare down at the metal bench I’m sitting on; paint completely chipped; dates, names, and initials carved into it. I wonder how many have sat here before me. I wonder how many of them looked like me.

I sit there afraid, angry, anxious. Nothing to look at but these four walls. Four white walls made of concrete brick, heavily stained brown, grey, and black where people sat both innocent and guilty. I try not to let my back touch the wall behind me — I'm wearing white. I look down at the floor. There's a drain in the middle… and a dry ring around it. I wonder if the ring is from water. Then I wonder why there would have been water there in the first place. Was it to clean up a mess? Vomit? Blood? I'll never know. No one will.

There are no cameras here.

Only air vents up on the ceiling, out of reach. Not that anyone could reach upward while chained to the wall in here.

I become paralyzed with fear and cry hysterically, but silently, afraid they might hear me and become agitated.

There are no cameras in this holding cell, no women in the immediate surrounding area. No form of reassurance.

That stupid cop comes back. The White one with the big muscles who must have been in his early thirties.

I cringe.

No cameras.

I hear the loud echo of his keys hitting the metal door as he unlocks and opens it. I dry my tears. I know he knew that I was crying, but I refuse to allow him to see me so weak. My composure is the only thing left that I have control over.

“Are you thirsty? Would you like some water?”

I'm infuriated at his politeness.

“No, thank you,” I respond, even more infuriated at my own forced politeness.

He explains what happens next. He's got to ask some routine intake questions, fill out some paperwork, come back for me to take mugshots and fingerprints, do more paperwork, and then, “We'll drive you back to your car and you're free to go wherever you want.”

Now I'm really pissed, free? I don't think that's the right word choice.

He starts with my name, as he butchers my ethnic middle and last name. Goes on to my date of birth and then, “Place of birth?”

“New York”

Confused stare.

Pause.

“You mean like New York, New York? Like right an hour from here, New York? The city?”

“Yes, I’m American.”

“That's not what I meant, sorry.”

I stare blankly.

“Phone number?”

I give him my number. It's not the first time I'll be giving my number to a man without wanting to.

“What's your highest level of education? You mentioned being a stude—”

“LAW Student.”

“How long’s that program? Like two years?”

“Six years.”

“Oh.”

“I already have my Bachelor’s degree.”

“How long you got left?”

“This year. This year I will graduate with my Doctor of Law.”

“Oh wow, that’s very impressive. Congratulat—”

Sneer.

“Oh, pfft, yeah! Thanks SO MUCH!” I say with more sarcasm and anger than I can control.

“Listen, I’m sorry. I know this is upsetting. I understand—”

I interrupt as calmly, respectfully, but assertively as possible,

“No. You will NEVER understand what it is to be a Latin woman in this country. Working hard your entire life to be as good as the White people, only to end up chained to a cell as part of a statistic”

Silence.

Now he’s uncomfortable.

“OK,” he musters.

He walks out, only to come back a few seconds later and stutter, “I'm so sorry, I forgot to ask you for your social security number.”

I give it to him. Not feeling any better that he's shaken by my words. He deserved so much more.

He leaves me there for what feels like forever. I wonder if he's being honest about letting me go home today. I know that he doesn't have to. He doesn't “have to” do anything — he's a fucking cop.

I remember the story of Sandra Bland every time another male cop opens the door to check on me. I'm terrified they'll put their hands on me, and that no one will ever know.

No cameras.

I remember that no one knows where I am right now. I never got my phone call. If they haven't even let me call my dad to let him know where I am, how do I know they're going to send me home unharmed today?

I don't.

I begin to cry again.

No cameras.

I hear the keys jingle and I gain my composure. He comes in and uncuffs my hand from the bar attached to the wall, telling me that he's uncuffing me because he doesn't think I'm a risk.

I guess that's a good thing right now.

I don't get up until he tells me to. I don't turn and walk out until he tells me to. I don't make any sudden movements, since the initial traffic stop, for fear of ending up like Philando Castile.

I fear this man.

He directs me to a room with computers and cameras.

“See the gray square? Stand in front of it and face me.”

Flash.

I see my mugshot on the screen. Eyes as light hazel as ever from crying, bags under my eyes, face flushed, and cheeks bright red hot with emotion.

“Now turn just your head to the right.”

Flash.

“Now I have to do your fingerprints, come on over.”

What is this, a fucking game show? Well, for them it's a game.

He looks at my serious but scared face,

“You've never been fingerprinted before, have you?”

“No.”

I don't know if his look of sympathy was sincere or not as he explained how it works. After putting my fingers down flat on the scanner, rolling them for a full finger profile and scanning even my palms at every possible angle, he walks me back to the holding cell.

“This part goes really fast. Do you want any water?”

“No, thank you.”

This part did not go really fast.

It felt like hours.

Thud.

I could hear them still working out next door, a weight dropping to the floor every few minutes. I feared the worst. I hear him opening a door next to mine. It was either the evidence locker room or the women's locker room where jumpsuits would be.

“He's lying,” I thought. “He's going to bring me a jumpsuit and transfer me Lord knows where.”

I heard him lock the door again and walk back away. A few minutes later I heard the tapping of his shiny cop shoes coming back and those nervous keys again.

“I'm sorry. I know this is annoying. We're almost done. Are you OK? Are you thirsty? Do you want some water?”

I shake my head no.

“Do you need to use the bathroom?”

Finally, I realized how long I'd been there in the sudden urge to pee. I also thought about the possibility of a drug test and figured, “if they let me pee now, they can’t expect me to pee later,” so I nodded my head.

Just when I started to see a human in him, he said, “Yeah, you can use the bathroom, just hold on one sec.”

He left.

I heard another door unlock and then I heard the clanging of the keys... and something else. This guy came back with ankle cuffs.

“This is going to seem excessive, but I don't want to leave you handcuffed to use the bathroom and I have to keep something on you.”

Ankle cuffs hurt. A lot.

As you pick up your leg, the back of your ankle expands and that little muscle contracts. Something you’d never notice unless you had ankle cuffs on.

They dig into your skin and then they're short so if you go forward too far, they pull on both ankles and make you feel like you're going to fall.

He escorted me to the bathroom and said, “Just wash your hands when you're done.”

I close the door gently to show that I'm not the savage that he must think I am to believe that I needed to be reminded to wash my hands after using the toilet... in a police precinct no less.

When I was done, he took me back to the cell and cuffed me back to the wall and took off the ankle cuffs.

“Almost done.”

And he was gone.

I kept my composure.

“Whatever happens next, crying isn't going to help so you got to keep your shit together and reserve all that energy,” I tell myself.

I hear people starting to leave.

“See you tomorrow.”

“OK, I'm out.”

The ball of ice in my stomach grew and my cuffed hand went numb. The anxiety was building as his keys got closer.

“OK. Can you just sign this here and then we're good to go.”

“Can I please have my glasses?”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely. Here you go, these are just—”

“The Miranda Rights form.”

“Yeah.”

I signed.

“My partner is going to drop you off next to your car. Your keys and phone and license and all that are in the car with him already. Let's go out there and I'll explain.”

He finally took off my cuffs for good and escorted me back through the front door... the same door that I had gone through in cuffs for the first ever time in my life.

I rubbed at my wrist trying to rub out the irritated red indentations and scratches from the cuffs.

I got in the backseat and he gave me my belongings. He explained how very generous he was for leaving the car there instead of making me pay for a ride; how he was such a nice guy that he gave me the lowest possible charges.

I said “thank you,” like the lady that I am, and he reminded me, “Don’t forget to buckle your seatbelt” like the child he wanted me to feel like.

I was not relieved yet though.

His partner asked me, “are you OK, Miss?”

Miss.

Buttering me up or something?

Then I saw myself in his rearview mirror and thought... “Maybe he actually feels bad because I look like shit.”

I nodded.

I called my dad... returned his 10 missed calls, and told him how I had gotten arrested.

“For what?” he barked.

“An empty jar of weed.”

“Yeah, those assholes.”

“I was speeding, so he pulled me over and then arrested me for an empty weed jar.”

He asked how I was calling, so I explained how I was in the squad car, on my way back to the car to drive home.

Instant distrust.

“Are you sure you're going home, or is that just what they're saying?”

“No, I think we really are going back to the car.”

“OK. Call me as soon as you get home.”

“OK, bye.”

I look up.

We're at a red light.

He's pulling up my license and information... sees me look up, and changes the screen again.

I'm skeptical.

I look at the camera. It's not on.

The red light is not on.

The same red light that had convinced me to get out of my vehicle in the first place. His partner had pointed at the front of the squad car when I was afraid to get out.

“See that red light? That camera is recording everything and there's a mic on me listening to everything.”

It was the only way I'd get out of the car. And now here I was, in the backseat of that same squad car, staring at a camera that faced me but that was off.

No red light.

No camera.

He did take me back to the car and even tried to open my door for me—but I was so tired and anxious to go home, so skeptical — I opened my own door and got in my car as fast as possible.

I drove home at exactly 65 mph. I noticed cop cars all over. It felt like I was being watched.

I thought about the whole situation wondering, “What did I do to deserve this?”

The entire chain of events played in my head over and over again. I felt the police presence all over the road more than ever before. I played the traffic stop over and over like a movie, trying to find rhyme or reason for my arrest.

I had been listening to the radio.

“Because you had a bad day, sing a sad song just to turn it around,” I had been singing.

I was on my way to New York City to pick up my dad and go out to eat. I was dressed for the occasion, in a white dress he had bought me two weeks prior.

I drove in the left lane, following the traffic ahead of me. I was so wrapped up in the song I never noticed the black and white Ford Explorer tailing me — not until the lights began to flash.

I pulled over, just passed Exit 12, into a safely sized shoulder. I had learned, already, from the news and from my class on Section 1982 litigation for police misconduct, to have my credentials ready BEFORE the officer came to the window. I didn't want to reach for anything in front of him. Every time I get pulled over, my heart races with fear. “How will this end?” I always wonder.

When I opened the glove box for the insurance and registration, a small jar fell on the floor — one that I didn't notice until after the officer did, and that I hadn’t even known was there. A small, half-sized mason jar containing a small twig and a bit of residue from some marijuana.

Definitely not even enough to smoke.

He came to the passenger window and leaned into the car to look around.

“License and registration.”

I give them over, not speaking until asked to.

“The reason I pulled you over today is because you were speeding. 86 in a 65 zone.”

“OK.”

“Did you know you were going that fast?”

“No.”

“OK. I'll be right back. Please remain in your seat and keep your seatbelt on.”

“OK.”

As he walked to his squad car, I put the stuff back in the glove box and looked down to notice the jar. “Fuck,” I thought to myself. When I noticed how empty it was, I figured, no big deal. I put it back in the glove box. I wasn't high. I hadn't smoked today. This isn't even my car. Shouldn't be anything to worry about.

He comes back.

“OK, so we're going to do a field sobriety test”

“Um, excuse me?”

“I'm going to ask you to step out of the vehicle for a field—”

“A field sobriety test? For what? Why?”

“Well, just because you were driving.”

*Sneer*

“Everyone here is driving, so I'm going to need a better reason than that.”

“It's just routine. At the speed you were going.”

“No, it's not. I haven't given you any reason for this.”

I look ahead of me to see a grey undercover cop car with lights flashing pull over and back up towards us.

“Why did you call in for backup?”

“It's just routine for these tests.”

“Well, I don't feel safe getting out of my vehicle with you. I don't trust you.”

“You don't feel safe?”

“No.”

I see another Cruiser pull over behind his.

I begin to tear up.

Are they going to pull me out of the car onto the floor if I don't comply? Am I going to be on tonight's news as the next subject of protests for Black Lives Matter?

“If you pass this test, everything goes much easier and you can go home today.”

“OK, I'm just going to premise this with telling you that I am a law student so if anything goes wrong here, I have attorneys.”

“OK, that's fine. You see that red dot on my car? That means the camera’s on and it's recording everything. I also have a mic on me that is recording everything.”

Thank God for that camera. It's the only reason I got out of the car.

I don't move a muscle until he tells me to.

He comes to my side.

“OK, you can remove your seatbelt,

now step out of the vehicle,

and close the door”

I'm absolutely petrified.

I'm no longer in control of the situation.

“OK, we're going to do a series of tests, one at a time. I'm going to demonstrate them, and then you'll copy me, OK?”

“OK.”

I pass all of his tests: walking heel-toe while counting aloud, following the finger with just my eyes, standing on one foot and counting seconds aloud.

Finally he says, “OK, now I'm going to ask you to turn around and walk closer to my vehicle.”

The tears well up.

I knew what was going to happen as soon as he asked me to turn around.

"Put your hands behind your back."

I feel the warm, almost sharp, metal closing around my wrist. It does hurt as much as they say. They were tight.

He took off his hat and read from within,

“You have the right to remain silent…”

His words droned on as he read me my Miranda rights. The same Miranda rights I had studied in my Criminal Procedure class.

“Do you understand these rights?”

What an insult. Of course I understand them. I know them better than he does. Didn't I just tell him that I'm a law student?

Nod.

He sits me in the back seat of the cruiser

“OK, you're being arrested for possession. I noticed a small jar on the floor of your vehicle, and it looked like there were some marijuana nuggets in there.

“That jar is empty! That car isn't even mine.”

“So you don't know anything about the raw smell of marijuana in that car?”

“It's my dad's car. He smokes in there. That's not mine.”

“OK. We're going to search the vehicle as part of New Jersey Law.”

“Yeah, I know.”

I see him go into the car.

“Do you want some bags? I got plenty,” I hear the backup officer say next to my window.

He comes back with the near-empty jar and an unused blunt wrap in an Evidence bag. He opens my door.

“OK, the vehicle was positive. So we're taking this back to the station.”

He closes my door.

“You mind if I just leave it here?”

“Sure, just move it over a little”

I see this White man get into my car and move it into the grass. He had asked his squadmate instead of me if he can leave my car on the side of the highway.

My face shows my rage, with my top lip furrowed almost completely into my nose.

He comes back. Gets in the car.

My wrists hurt from sitting on my handcuffs. I would find bruises there the next day.

“So, what's going to happen now. We're going to leave your car here so you don't have to wait for a ride and pay for a tow. You'll be able to pick it up later on today. I'm going to take you in. You're not going to jail or anything like that. We're going to do this paperwork civilly and then we'll drop you off by your vehicle and you can drive wherever you want, OK? You OK?”

Head nod.

I was infuriated. He really thought he was doing me a favor. Arresting me for someone else’s empty jar of weed, but leaving the car on the side of the highway so I don't have to pay the tow.

No.

Doing me a favor would have been realizing there's nothing else in the car during the search and letting me go. Maybe just mailing me my fine and summons. But this? This was no favor to me.

This was dehumanizing, demoralizing, anxiety-inducing, and extremely upsetting.

I work hard in school so that I don't have to go through things like this. I want to be better than the family that I was born into,

the culture that I was born into,

the skin that I was born into.

What I learned from this experience, though, is that no matter your education and no matter how hard you work, you're still just a brown person in America to them.

I'll be a Juris Doctor in a few months, but I'm still no better to them than any of my family who's been arrested.

I still got cuffed.

I still got put in the backseat of a cruiser.

Still got chained to a cell.

Still got shackled at my ankles.

Still have mugshots and fingerprints out there.

So, what was the point of it all? Yeah, I got a JD, but I'm still just a spic.

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