Yesterday evening, after leaving Kam's place in Oakland and putting a bunch of stuff into my car in the dark, I sat in my car at the curb in the rain and tried to use my phone to find a nearby gas station. (I should note that Kam's place isn't far from one of the areas where Ferguson-related protests were going on the other day; also, unrelatedly but maybe also relevant, there was a breakin in the neighborhood recently.) The light inside my car didn't go on, so it was just me in the dark with the glow of my phone.
I had been in the car for about two minutes, and spent about thirty seconds using various apps to look for a gas station, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a car had pulled up next to mine. I figured they probably wanted my parking spot. I kept poking at the phone.
And then the car next to me shone a small car-mounted spotlight in through my window.
Which led me to assume they were police, though they hadn't said anything. I rolled down my window, letting in some rain. I couldn't tell whether the other car was a police car—it had some kind of logo on the side, but in the dark and rain and with the spotlight still on me, I couldn't quite tell what, and I didn't know what Oakland police cars looked like—but it seemed very likely. After a brief pause, their passenger window rolled down, revealing a police officer in the driver's seat. He asked me something. I wish I'd written down exactly what, but it was something like “What are you doing?” or “Can I help you?” or something along those lines—polite, but I think with an undertone of “You're behaving a little suspiciously.” (My guess—though this is only a guess—was that he saw someone sitting in a car at the curb without interior lights on and was worried that I might be trying to steal the car.)
I told him I was looking for a gas station. He directed me to one several blocks away. I thanked him, and he pulled forward out of my way, and I made a three-point turn and attempted to follow his directions, only it turned out there was another gas station much closer so I went there instead.
But I couldn't help thinking that my skin color and the fact that I happened to be wearing a button-down shirt probably saved me a fair bit of trouble in that encounter.
Possibly not. The cop was black, and I was parked outside of a Baptist church; it's entirely possible that he would've been polite even if he'd seen a black man in my situation. (For that matter, it's possible that he wasn't a cop at all; he was wearing a policelike uniform, but I've now looked up what Oakland police cars look like, and the car didn't look like one, so maybe he was (for example) working security for the church, and only stopped because I was parked in front of it. But I'm assuming he was a cop; that was certainly my impression at the time.)
But the fact remains that I didn't have to worry about trouble even before I saw him. I knew without thinking about it that I, as a well-off white guy, would most likely be treated with respect, and that I could safely roll down my window and be casual and relaxed about the encounter. I didn't think about whether my hands were visible or whether I was making sudden movements. I didn't worry about whether I had some kind of proof that I owned the car. I didn't wonder whether the cop was out looking for someone who they might think looked vaguely like me. I didn't wonder whether I would survive the encounter. I have a certain amount of anxiety around authority and rules and being suspected of breaking rules, but that was mild; I was a little embarrassed to have behaved in a way that someone had found suspicious, but it was completely safe for me to assume that everyone involved would quickly recognize that there wasn't a problem.
I'm sad and sorry that so many people don't have the luxury of being able to make that assumption.
PS added a bit later: I'm oversimplifying a little in this entry. I have white middle-class friends and family members who've been hassled by police; I know that race and class markers are not the only relevant factors. But I think it's important to acknowledge that they are, quite often, major factors.