The long arm of fear

One of the biggest fears I’ve had since starting my gender transition nearly three years ago has been the fear of violence.

My experiences with people as a woman have mostly been great; just a couple of drunk assholes who said stupid things and got a very unladylike verbal barrage from me in return. But as receptive as much of Fresno seems to be to the LGBT communities on some level, I know there are goobers out there who wouldn’t mind inflicting some physical violence, especially to a T. So I usually keep one eye open behind my head at all times.

And that fear has gone hand in hand with the fear of being stopped by a cop. Especially a Fresno cop.

And there’s good reason. I had never encountered a problem with any of them individually, and a couple of them have even been nice to me, but the city’s police department has a long, even proud, legacy of brutality — of homeless harassed, of people beaten, of people killed, some unarmed. Not all cops fall into this category, naturally, but the preponderance of documented evidence, let alone the hearsay, suggests a mindset of “We are above the law,” “We are the law” or “Fuck the law,” take your pick. And despite public attention and outcry — even national attention, after the video of two officers beating a homeless man last year made it to CNN and the blogs — it continues.

It’s very much an us-vs.-them mentality here — not much respect for the cops, just fear. And that’s among the innocent. And in a city with a very right-wing, old-boy establishment, I could only speculate what would happen if the wrong cop stopped me — a person who doesn’t fit the description of “normal” — and maybe he and his buddies decided to have a little fun … I’ve actually had daydream nightmares about this. I just keep my head low and stay away from trouble.

Well, since I’ve had to come up against most of my fears the last two years, guess what finally happened a couple nights ago?

I went down to the Tower District Monday afternoon to do some writing at Revue (I finished my previous two posts), then walked next door to Landmark for the Monday Night Football halftime trivia contest. (An easy $30; thanks much, guys …) No drinking for me, just an appetizer as I watched some of Da Bears and Packers. My friend Heather met me there later on, and we hung out with a couple friends.

I was tired and decided to leave early, around 10ish, and took her home first. I made the left turn onto the cross street before Heather’s street — pretty routine, not sudden, actually a little slower than usual, since I didn’t want to hit the drainage depression too hard.

Suddenly I saw a car whip around the corner into my rearview from the opposite direction. That can’t be …

Blinding blue and red LEDs.

What the fuck?!?

I crawled to a stop about halfway down the quiet residential block.

I looked at Heather — what the fuck did I do? And he came around that corner pretty damn fast, too, like I was a real criminal.

“Oh no — the fucking cops!” I moaned softly with trepidation; what else could I say?

Heather looked at me, puzzled; what else could she do?

I had my hands up on the wheel — a good practice for any traffic stop, so they can see you’re not carrying. The cop came to the window. He wore a baseball hat and what appeared to be a vest. Like most of the cops here, he had no name or badge number I could see.

“Good evening.”

“What did I do wrong?”

“You didn’t use your turn signal.”

That was bullshit — I had my signal on about a half-block from the turn. That’s how I usually roll.

“I know I had it on.”

“I’m not about to debate it,” he cut me off in a quick, no-nonsense delivery. “I need to see your license, registration … (pause) and your car insurance.”

Fuck.

I had read something in Parade magazine on Sunday about what to do and what not to do when a cop stops you. One of the things I read is to not argue with him. Chances are better that you’ll get off with a warning, since the last thing these guys like to do is fill out the paperwork. But how about a transgendered motorist? Still, I shut up and opened the glove box.

“And can you shut off your car, please?”

I went to DMV a week ago for my new license, with the name, photo and gender change, but it’s still in the mail, and it’ll probably be another week before I get it. In the meantime, I had my paper provisional license. Out of the right corner of my eye, at 4 o’clock, I saw his partner, also in a baseball cap, with his hands off his waist. I pulled the license out of the glove box with the other papers and hoped he wouldn’t ask the next question:

“Do you have a photo ID I can see?”

Actually, I would have been in my right to say no — after all, it’s not my fault California leaves us high and dry with a provisional license for two weeks, unlike other states (like my home Connecticut) that give you your license right there at the DMV branch while you wait. But I didn’t want to piss off the bear, so I drew and let out a huge breath and reached in my purse for my old license with the boy photo. Here goes nothing …

And for extra measure, he turned to Heather: “Can I see a photo ID from you?”

Me? OK; I understand that. Heather? What the fuck?!? I thought this was an alleged turn without a signal. What did Heather do to warrant him running her ID? What type of lawless law enforcement is this? She didn’t say anything, just reached for her card.

“Are you all right?” he asked me.

What the fuck do you think? I’m transgendered, you pulled me over for no fucking reason, you have a gun, a club, a Taser, Mace, a bulletproof vest and a Charger with a Hemi, and a buddy who has the same, and there are dozens more just like you, and I have nothing. You think I’d be just a little bit nervous?

“I’m just a little worried. I have a clean record and I didn’t do anything.”

“And how do you pronounce your last name?” he said to me.

“Freed.”

“OK, I’ll be right back.”

He went back to the car, and thus began three of the longer minutes of my life.

“I can’t afford this,” I told her softly, thinking of the money. Traffic stops in Fresno are a great unreported racket — even if you beat your ticket, as I did the first year I was here, you have to pay the exorbitant fine up front just to get a court date (whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?), and the city ties up your money for months, drawing interest on it. And here I am, unemployed, and not really wanting to give up a chunk of what’s left of my severance, even temporarily.

But deep down, I was thinking of what would happen when he saw the provisional license with the F on it, and the old ugly photo of me on the card with the M on it. Would he and his buddy have us get out of the car? Would he flip me around, pat me, cuff me, beat me? Worse? Would his buddy pitch in to keep the suspect in line? And would they call in reinforcements? I’ve seen as many as six cars roll up on someone on a weekend night right across the street from Revue. If I could be pulled over for a trumped-up turn signal, what else would they do?

What could I do at this point? Shut up and enjoy the ride, right?

But Heather, concerned for me but calm, had some perspective.

“He’s looking for somebody,” she said. “That’s why they took my ID. Somebody called in something, and it was probably someone in a white car. That’s why they pulled you over. They’re looking for somebody specific.”

I looked at her skeptically. What else but to expect the worst?

“He’s not gonna do anything to you,” she assured me. “There are witnesses. You think he’s gonna do something to you with someone else in the car?”

All we could do was wait. And actually, it did occur to me that he didn’t ask me where we’d been or whether we’d been drinking — common questions to be asked in this city of heavy drinking. But I took a lot of deep breaths. That’s what a culture of fear will do.

He returned.

“OK. Here you go. Just make sure you use your turn signal.”

That was it. Back to the black-and-white.

Heather thanked him. I said nothing.

So I guess they were looking for someone else after all. Who knows?

All I know is that I made it unscathed through my first encounter with a Fresno cop as a female. And as violated as I felt for being pulled over for no real reason, nothing happened.

This time …

I’m hoping there won’t be a next time.

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3 Responses to “The long arm of fear”

  1. Diana Mercer Says:

    Aren’t California cops sooooo different than the cops in New Haven, Connecticut? Thanks to their Community Based Police Program (in New Haven) we were FRIENDS with our local cops, we’d invite them to our neighborhood gatherings, and they’d stop by our house to tell us about the Block Watch meetings.

    The climate is so different here in Los Angeles! And sounds like Fresno too.

  2. George Says:

    Safe journeys Fran…………All things considered it appears to be much more important in Fresno to be able to read the signals as opposed to be making them.

  3. bob Says:

    deeep breath deeep breath.oooommmmmmm oooommmmmooooommmm oooommmm.hey fran i think that i fo0rgot my mantra……..love garvin

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