On July 17, I was scheduled to drive from my home in Daytona Beach to cover a Black Lives Matter rally in Sanford, about 45 miles away. Because of a traffic stop, I never made it to my assignment that day.
Shortly after I came off Interstate 4, I noticed several Sanford Police Department patrol cars following me. I was pulled over by a female officer at about 6:50 p.m. as I was nearing Red Barber Park, the site of a rally which was to end at Sanford Police Department headquarters.
Stopped for no reason
The female officer, who looked to be Hispanic, was the first one to approach my car. Standing behind her was a White male.
She said that she ran my license plate and the report came back that my license was suspended. I explained that I have to drive for a living and I don’t drive illegally. I have never had any problems with speeding tickets or parking tickets.
(I found out the next day that there had been an error at the Department of Motor Vehicles office and that my license had indeed been suspended.)
I rolled all of the windows down in my car so that the officer had a clear view. When I tried to explain to her that I was there to do a job, she didn’t care.
I was told that I should call for a ride home and arrange for my car to be towed 45 miles back to Daytona Beach. If I tried to drive home, I would be arrested. She then pulled off and left me sitting on the side of the curve, waiting for a AAA tow truck.
She never told me why I was stopped.
This experience made me pause and think about the other Black men and women who were killed when traffic stops went bad. I could have been another statistic – another Philandro Castille, who was killed in Minnesota last month – or other Black males who have been victims of “Driving While Black.’’
Lying in wait
As I sat in my car and waited on 13th West Street for the tow truck, I noticed the nose of a police cruiser sticking out of a driveway about 50 yards from my car. I looked in my rearview mirror and I could see the front of another police cruiser sticking out of a driveway. There were another two more cruisers riding up and down 13th Street.
If an African-American turned left onto 13th traveling east to a stop sign, a police cruiser would follow the car down the street. If the car driven by a Black person turned left at the stop sign, the cruiser would turn right.
I watched the police perform this practice for an hour and a half until AAA showed up. I knew then that I had been profiled by the police.
As a photojournalist, I have covered the National NAACP Conference, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the Emanuel AME Church murders in Charleston, S.C., a KKK rally in Columbia, S.C., the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, and the funeral of Muhammad Ali in Louisville, Ky.
In all of my travels, I have never experienced such disrespect and such disdain.
Last month’s traffic stops in Sanford reminded me of the stories I heard during my time in Sanford covering the George Zimmerman trial after Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. When I spoke to people one-on-one about how local Black citizens were treated badly by police, I could see their fear of being caught talking to the press.
One man told me about his six sons. As each one became old enough, he would let him drive his old truck. Sanford police knew when they saw the truck, it was one of his sons. He recounted how he had lost years of sleep for fear of the Sanford police killing one of his boys.
There are so many young Blacks across the country who are treated like I was – stopped for no reason at all. I now have to go to court to and appear before a judge to fight a $164 ticket.
I should not have been stopped. I was simply on my way to do a job taking photographs for the Florida Courier newspaper and chronicle what turned out to be a peaceful protest.
As I sat waiting for the tow truck, I was disappointed and angry. I followed the law. Yet it didn’t matter. While I don’t advocate the killing of police officers as we have seen in Dallas and Baton Rouge, I can understand the why many young Black men in this country are frustrated and fed up with the way Blacks are treated.
You can’t build a house on a broken foundation. There will never be trust between the police and the community as long as the police keep avoiding cleaning their own house first.
Something has to change, and it’s not just us. This experience makes Black Lives Matter more personal.
Duane Fernandez Sr. is an award-winning photojournalist who has worked for the Florida Courier and for the Daytona Times newspapers.