If you don’t think race and class matter in policing, consider the case of Denise Nappier in Hartford, Connecticut. She was stopped and detained by the police the other night for driving a nice car in a housing project. She is a woman of color. The cops claimed that she could not produce proof that she her car was registered and that she misused state license plates. So they towed the car away. Ms. Nappier was issued a summons and walked three miles to her home.
This is the sort of routine thuggery common in and around housing projects. Drive a nice car while black? That’s probable cause to stop. What’s she doing in a new Crown Victoria?
Nappier is no ordinary ghetto momma, however. She is Connecticut’s state Treasurer, one of the top elected officials in the state. She’s got clout.
So her case got special attention from Hartford State’s Attorney Gail Hardy. Hardy tells the press she plans to drop the charges.
What about all the other pretextual stops and harassment that goes on night after night in housing projects? Do only the powerful and well-connected catch a break?
The cops stopping Nappier clearly got caught playing fast and lose with the law. The officer who ordered her car impounded claims that once Nappier was stopped, a check of the Department of Motor Vehicles showed that her car was not registered. Hence, the charges.
But here’s the first question, and this is a question that ought not to be ducked: Why was Nappier questioned in the first instance? Was it because she had the temerity to drive a brand-spanking new Crown Victoria, the car of choice in cop-land, in a housing project?
The Fourth Amendment used to prohibit police from stopping folks for no reason at all. But police officers know how to lie and cook up reasons the courts will bless for even the most outrageous abuses of power. Giving pretextual reasons for an unlawful stop is an art form in some police departments. An eager federal judiciary blesses most of this swill by granting qualified immunity to police officers when they are sued for violating the rights of the people they are paid to protect. A police officer’s best friend is a man or woman with a gavel and a predisposition to justify just about anything from the 20/20 hindsight of a courtroom.
We tolerate this for the most part because we don’t care. A friendless black man or woman humiliated in the dark of night doesn’t move most of the white world much. We want the darkies kept under control in those projects. And keep them out of the suburbs. What’s a little head-cracking and gestapo-love so long as it keeps us feeling safe and secure? The color line is a live and well in the United States.
But that line is supposed to keep "them" away from "us." When the line falls along a fault we the privileged too easily recognize, all Hell breaks lose. Nappier, while black, is also middle class and professional. So she catches a break and the case against her is dumped. Just like the case against another black professional who got street treatment, Henry Louis Gates, had his charges dumped when it was discovered he was no ordinary black man, but was, instead, a Harvard professor. Nappier got trapped at the intersection of race and class. She was stopped and humiliated for being black; she’s now being given a pass because she is middle-class and professional.
The three police officers who stopped Nappier ought to be required to answer for her conduct before a jury in federal court. They had no reason to stop Nappier. They cannot explain why when the say they checked her registration, a valid registration the DMV reports, they did not determine she lawfully drove her car. When she showed them the special registration she had as state Treasurer, they ignored her. But then again, why sue? Lawyers for the police officers will explain this was all an innocent mistake; there was no intent to violate her rights. I am willing to be a judge would sign off on this threadbare question-begging and let the officers off the hook before a jury ever laid eyes on the officers.
Jim Crow is alive and well on the streets of our cities. We just forget to call him by his proper name. Nappier got to meet him the other night, strutting his stuff where he walks most nights, in a housing project where we let him do what he needs to do so long as he doesn’t do it too openly.