Today’s confirmation of a woefully inept and unqualified Secretary of Education has left many people shaking their heads. Especially because it was revealed that DeVos had made significant financial contributions to the campaigns of many Senators who voted for her both in her confirmation hearing and then in the Senate floor vote. “How could this happen?” many people wondered. “How can this be legal?”
It is definitely a part of white privilege to be surprised by any of this, as people of color have long known that the system is rigged. And so have I, because I was once accused by a policeman of hitting him with my car. Even with my dad as a witness, I went to court and lost.
Back about half a lifetime ago, I was engaged and living at home until the wedding. My dad and I commuted together to New York City, where I had my first job out of college as an editorial assistant at a large publishing company. I was the one driving us from the train station that evening, when we came across a policeman cleaning up the cones from some road construction that was obviously finished, as there were no construction vehicles or personnel still around. Just the cop and his cones.
We needed to drive about 20 feet and make the left into our neighborhood, but the police officer pointed us to the detour, which forced us to make a right turn and drive 6 1/2 miles out of our way in a circle around town to get back home from the other direction. Rather than obey his hand gesture, I put down the car window and questioned him, since the construction was done. I told him we lived “right there” and asked why we couldn’t just proceed directly home. Angry at being questioned, he again told me to take the detour, at which point I told him it was asinine. In court papers later, he said I called him an asshole.
We took the detour and after we got home, my dad called the mayor to complain. The next day, a policeman showed up at the house, trying to find out who had been driving the car. I was at work, but my sister unwittingly gave him all of my information. I then received a summons for reckless driving and hitting an officer with my motor vehicle.
To make a long story shorter, my dad (who felt badly about calling the mayor, which likely escalated the whole thing) hired a lawyer who did nothing for me. Somehow, the police officer had X-rays from the hospital that night that showed an injury to his leg. I appeared in court wearing a long skirt, a buttoned-up blouse, and even a cameo brooch, certain that I looked as innocent as I was.
I don’t remember if my lawyer advised me to plead guilty or I was just found guilty. I lost my license for the month leading up to my wedding, and also received 7 points for violations. For years I lived in fear that I’d be pulled over and the police officer would see some code that said I’d hit another police officer with my car. Typically, the very few times I’d been pulled over, I’d been “let off” without a ticket. I doubted that would be the case again.
What did this teach me? Well, many things, including a distrust of the police that I hadn’t possessed until that point. (I did try to never pass this down to my kids, and I was never one of those parents who used the police as a threat to make their kids behave.) I also gained a cynical viewpoint of the court system, and local politics. In New Jersey, the municipal court judges are appointed either by the town mayor with the consent of the city council, or by the municipal governing body. These judges aren’t voted in, so where does their allegience lie?
I think I also realized just how much of everything is political. If my dad hadn’t called the mayor to complain because he knew him, the incident most likely wouldn’t have escalated beyond the initial encounter. But he did, and I can only guess at the sequence of calls and actions that happened after his call and before the officer showed up at our house the next morning. After all, somebody got somebody else to get X-rays from somewhere–I’d never even come close to hitting the cop, let alone with my car.
So, yes. When people ask me, “Can you believe–” whatever the unbelievable political action of the day is, I can and I do. I believe anything can happen, without sanction, even here in the United States of America. Especially here in the United States of America. I believe that things have the very real possibility of getting worse than they are. (But, as a cynical optimist, I also believe that they can get better.)
Maybe it’s not so much that so many people are now learning the system is rigged. I think we all knew it, but it didn’t bother us until it began working against us. It’s not just politics; it’s the politics of power. And not one of us likes feeling powerless, even when we are.