Getting Pulled Over; A Teachable Moment

Last week, while driving in Ketchum, Idaho, I was pulled over for speeding (driving 36 mph in a 25-mph zone.) The traffic stop proceeded along expected lines: the police car switched on its flashing red and blue lights as it sidled up behind me, I pulled over to the side of the road, the policeman walked over and asked for my driver’s license and vehicle registration and insurance etc. After I handed those over, I was treated to a brief lecture on the need to observe posted speed limits; I apologized, received a warning, and resumed my journey to a local trailhead. 

This little incident was watched, with considerable interest, by my seven-year old daughter, sitting in the backseat. 

After the policeman had driven off in his cruiser, and as we began driving toward our planned hike, I asked my daughter what she made of the encounter she had just witnessed. She said that she’d been a little frightened as the police scare her, but she was happy all had ended well. I asked her why she was scared of the police, and she replied that she’d heard–probably from family conversations–of the terrible things they often do to people they detain, search, arrest or imprison. I then said to her that she’d witnessed an important part of her training and acculturation as a legal subject: she’d learned an important lesson about the reach and power of the law. It was an essential part of her growing up in a ‘legal society,’ in ‘a land of laws, not men.’

For in witnessing an uniformed police officer pull over her father, my daughter had learned that her father, the supposed co-master of the domestic dominion along with her mother, one who regulated most details of her life, was subject to a power greater than his: that of the state, and its armed, uniformed representatives, the police. She’d seen her father, an authority apparently unquestioned –except by her mother, interrupted in his ventures, commanded to cease and desist whatever it was he was doing, reduced to the role of a polite, deferential subject, one only too willing to be inconvenienced by a perfect stranger who just happened to be wearing a gun and a badge. She’d witnessed a presumed regulatory order come crumbling down, replaced by a far more far-reaching, powerful, and certainly impressive one. Nothing in my parenting arsenal of the raised voice, the disapproving tone, the wagging finger, can compete with the starched uniform, the holstered weapon, the flashing lights, the dramatic intervention in a public space. She saw me defer; she saw me obey; she saw me comply. (I’m unfailingly polite with armed police; I am, after all, a brown man with an accent.) 

My daughter was in fact, witnessing a species of social construction at work: the sustenance and promulgation of an ideology of law, one essential component of which is to remind the legal subjects of the reach and extent of legal power in showy, public, demonstrations of it. All those who drove by on Highway 75 while I was receiving my little re-education learned a little lesson too; but the most important spectators were the children, legal subjects in training. Children must learn their parents, while powerful, are not the supreme regulators of their lives, the state is. Secular citizens are especially impressed by such displays of the power of the law–there is a new Supreme Force in town, and it wears a blue uniform. 

5 thoughts on “Getting Pulled Over; A Teachable Moment

  1. Hmm. There is an element of fear and resentment in our interactions with these representatives of social order. Isn’t that a failure of professionalism?
    That social ethic is supposed to regulate the crass operation of legal control – or at least that is what I have heard.

  2. Hi Keith! Thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree, professionalism in policing is a corrupt notion, largely because policing as it is understood is corrupted. That’s why I agree with ‘abolish the police’ – whatever we have right now, doesn’t work – it’s the crudest form of social and legal control.

  3. The traffic stop, performed by the officer, was more or less banal in it’s execution. What strikes me about your writing of same is that you speak of the police as if they are the force unto themselves. From what I can see, by the information you share about yourself, you are a teaching professor of philosophy at a college. I imagine that there are requirements put in place by the college to advance a specific curriculum, and adhere to some type of grading scale for your students. Yet on the face of it, to your students, you are the force in the classroom. If a student or students were unhappy with their grades, or did not like the curriculum you were following, would an answer be to abolish the professor? My point is, someone other than the officer, set the speed limit at 25 mph because it was believed the speed would serve the safety of drivers. In your belief that we should abolish the police are you thinking that members of society would simply develop voluntary compliance with practices that are safe for all? In the short citizen occupation that occured in Seattle of late, did we not see the eventual development of an unsafe and violent gathering? I think there is another ill facing society, but it seems we are going after the wrong cause. It’s not the police, they are just too easy to identify by the starched uniforms.

    1. You are constructing a strawman. Let’s use your example: if I was sufficiently empowered by my college to abuse the students without fear of punishment, as today’s police are, then I would certainly support ‘abolishing’ such a ‘professor.’ For such a ‘professor’ is not a professor at all, but merely a thug, as indeed, today’s police are, empowered by a system that looks away from their abuses. Abolish this police. Put something new in its place. Get a new word for it if you want. Or use the older one, with the clear understanding that ‘this is not your grandfather’s police.’ The police we have today is a moral atrocity. Abolish it.

      1. I like your example…and it’s a good point. You cite a good reason to abolish the professor…but should we abolish all professors and the teaching model? The deeper question is, what has happened to “your Grandfather’s police”? We cannot ignore the actions of those officers that are indeed “thugs’…but we also cannot ignore those officers doing a good job during a harsh time. I sit back and try to understand where the mis-steps occurred…we didn’t arrive here overnight. I’m puzzled, like many, what a model would look like without the police. Which tells me the problem does not lie with the police specifically.

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