Some experiences stay with us. When I was 16, my father was driving me home from a school play when we saw flashing lights. We hadn’t been speeding. I remember my father asking the police officer what was wrong. The officer ignored his question and demanded identification.
He pointed to me and asked in a tone I had never encountered before, “Who is she?” He made a condescending remark about my costume and questioned my father again: Was he sure of “his story”? The questions had nothing to do with the rules of the road or how my father had been driving. Eventually, he checked my father’s license and, after what felt like a long time, let us go without a ticket.
I could tell my father was disturbed. We had been stopped for no reason, and he was powerless to stop the questioning or protect me from the officer’s judgments. As we drove off, I asked my dad why he had given up his license when he had done nothing wrong. He gently explained to me what so many African Americans of his generation know too well: “You don’t want to mess with the police. They can judge you unfairly and make life very hard.”
These words took on a special significance for me in recent months. Since late spring, I have experienced four disturbing stops by law enforcement. In Texas, driving with my partner, Brian Lucas, I was speeding and deserved the ticket I got. But I was also forced to stand away from our vehicle, and questioned by an officer who yelled at me threateningly when I glanced at Brian during his questioning, and who asked repeatedly how I knew Brian, where we were headed and why we were going there together.
The next three stops were in California. One evening, an officer passed us while we were talking in our parked car near a public park. He returned quickly, lights flashing. He said he was responding to citizen concerns of “suspicious persons” because of a “recent flurry of robberies.”
The third time, an officer said he was responding to reports of a “suspicious black and white couple loitering,” and concerns about “robbery.” We were sorting through Brian’s father’s garage in broad daylight. The officer asked for identification. Brian provided his license. I refused, explaining that I thought I was within my rights to decline his request. I told him I appreciated his position, but I had done nothing wrong. I told him my refusal was based on my belief in the law that protects us from unreasonable searches. I didn’t have to provide him with ID because it was clear I was not breaking any law.
Then there was the last stop, this month, which has become the subject of so many headlines. Many people believe they know what happened that day.
Here’s what I know. I was standing on the grass near a public sidewalk when a Los Angeles Police Department officer approached Brian. He said he had received a call about a couple engaged in lewd conduct and asked for our IDs. A few minutes before, Brian and I had been making out in his car; I was sitting on his lap. We were not having sex, and both of us had our clothes on.
I told the officer, Sgt. Jim Parker, I did not want to give him my ID as it was obvious nothing illegal was going on. He said I had to give it to him, and he was going to get it “one way or another.” And one way or another, he did.
Could I have been calmer, or more patient? Certainly. Still, the sergeant seemed to be trying to teach me a lesson. “She needs to know that she doesn’t dictate what happens,” he says on the recorded police audio.
Do I regret threatening to call my publicist? I was grasping at anything to make it clear I wasn’t a lawbreaker.
Do I think the officer was “racially profiling” me by answering a call? I know police have to answer calls for service. But does that render invalid my initial question to the sergeant — “Do you know how many times the cops have been called … because I’m black and he’s white?”
Would someone have called the police if it had been a white couple? Would the sergeant have been so zealous in “investigating” what was clearly not a crime? Does bias have something to do with how and why Brian and I have been stopped this year? I think it probably does. And I think that the conversations our country has been having about the role of race in minor incidents, such as mine, and life-and-death ones, must continue.
One last question I can answer: If I had nothing to hide, why didn’t I just hand over my identification? I might have ended the stop much sooner, and I certainly would have avoided the avalanche of accusations, insults, slurs and even threats that I’ve received.
But in saving myself time and pain, I would have lost something far more valuable: my right as an American to limit intrusions by police. When I was forced into handcuffs, the detaining officer said it was because Sgt. Parker ordered me to stay and I left. But the sergeant said no such thing. And California law does not require you to produce identification simply because a police officer demands it.
I objected — and I continue to object — because if we are unclear about our rights, and we continue to believe that in every case when a police officer tells you to do something, you have to do it, as I was told, we allow the police to abuse their power.
We have rights because people throughout history struggled and even died to secure them. If I had handed over my ID, I would have denied their efforts. And I would have turned my back on the 16-year-old who watched her father endure an unfair and humiliating stop by police.
Daniele Watts is an actress and producer.
Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion