I’m a black woman who was arrested while out with my white male friend. The cops said it was a case of mistaken identity, but eight years later, I find that hard to believe.
I like my name. Danielle Bell. It rhymes. It is charming when I say it in my Southern accent, or so I’ve been told. But on one particular balmy Louisville evening eight years ago, it was not a good time to have my name.
It was my last night in town before I returned home to Brooklyn and I was craving derby pie. I rode shotgun in a pickup truck with peeling white paint alongside my friend, Nathan. Back then he owned a vintage clothing store and had a Bonnie Prince Billy beard. On the way to the restaurant we drove too far and had to turn into the entrance of a very wealthy, very white neighborhood to get back on track. Suddenly we heard a police siren coming from an unmarked SUV, signaling for us to pull over. Before the arresting officer made it to Nathan’s car, two more unmarked SUVs and a police car joined them.
I no longer remember the cops’ faces. I do remember that one wore a CBGB T-shirt, clearly not his usual getup, but perhaps he was going undercover as “punk” in order to blend in on Louisville’s lively Bardstown Road. He looked ridiculous.
Their first question was addressed to Nathan: “How do you know this woman?”
Nathan explained that he owned a store nearby and that I shopped there, that we were friends. Registration was up to date, but the vehicle was searched. They found nothing. Nathan handed over his license and I my college and military IDs (my father is in the National Guard). The cops made small talk as our names were run through the computer.
I was asked if I’d lived at a number of addresses where I’d never lived. I gave them my parents’ respective addresses. I also explained I’d been in New York for the past six years and that the address on my college ID was where I’d lived the longest.
I was annoyed, hungry, and sweating. I wanted them to hand me back my identification so I could get my damn slice of pie, Ã la mode! Then I was told to step out of the vehicle.
The second both my feet hit the ground I was slapped into handcuffs, tightly. I demanded to know what this was all about.
“That will be explained to you at the jail.”
Naturally, I thought of my nana, a civil rights activist and local celebrity, the kind of person a black calls when they get their ass kicked by the cops or when a country club refuses to admit them. This is a woman who once told a cop, “a cracker” (her words), that his mother should have swallowed him. I demanded their badge numbers and told them that I was no fool, that the reason we had been pulled over in the first place is because I am black and he is white and we were riding in his car at night. (It is often whispered in the South that when a white man is seen with a black woman it is because she is a prostitute, or, at best, his concubine.) They told me I was playing the race card. “I ain’t racist,” CBGB said. “My wife is black, so don’t try that with me.” I gave them my grandmother’s name and told them to expect a march of some kind very soon.
“I know exactly who your grandmother is, ” said one of them with a smirk.
I became less bold once in the cop car. Watching Nathan pull off, I was filled with fear and grief. Should something be done to me, there would be no one to witness it. I could be dead and they could say whatever they wanted. They would be acquitted. No wonder then that while I waited for the cops to return to the car I tried to slip out of the handcuffs, or that I let out a series of screams no one would hear.
For his part, Nathan got off easily, unless you count the added weight to his (already considerable) load of white guilt. They did say he failed to signal — he is adamant that he did not. He drove to my father’s house to inform him at midnight I had been arrested. I was later told he was in such a state that my family felt as sorry for him as they had for me. He was one of the good ones.
The warrant for my arrest stated that I had attacked another young woman. My last fight had been in the sixth grade with a boy; I did in fact win the fight, but this was something else.
At booking when asked my religion I said agnostic and was given a dirty look. I made my one phone call to my grandmother, because I couldn’t remember anyone else’s number. I hated that I would be waking a 71-year-old woman in the middle of the night, but she was used to such things. She pledged to get me out of there. I was taken to my cell, which was referred to by the authorities as a dorm.
It was a windowless cement room. The floors felt as though they were carved from ice. No fewer than 15 women were splayed out on the ground. There weren’t enough cots and blankets for all of us. I feared the blankets that were there would give me lice; luckily they were all taken and I was allowed to freeze until someone took pity on me and loaned me a jacket several hours into my stay. I had given her my lunch of rubbery beef, stale white bread, and a mushy combination of peas, carrots, and green beans. For dessert: two lemon cream cookies, all served at the improbable hour of 10:30 a.m., only two hours after an equally disgusting breakfast.
I hoped mostly I would be out in time to catch my flight, return to Brooklyn, and attend a friend’s party. But it was hard to be invisible in the jail, in large part on account of my sky-high, candy-pink Agent Provocateur peep toes. They became the inspiration behind my prison handle: High Heels.
My fellow inmates liked my shoes and they liked me. They even believed my incredible tale of mistaken identity, which was refreshing. And, before I could even opine, a young white woman said to me, “And you know what that was all about to begin with.” We all nodded.
Others shared their tales — from what I could tell, all the same shit. Bored cops arresting women who looked “suspicious,” or maybe just poor. I was struck most by a woman for whom the police had initially been called on a domestic violence dispute. She was very gentle with the most bruised and battered arms and legs. Rather than take her to a woman’s shelter or a hospital, they ran her name through the computer and found a warrant, and sent her and her plum-colored limbs downtown.
Around 6 a.m. I was informed I had a visit from my lawyer, aka my dad. Reviewing the warrant he found that my namesake was 5-foot-6 — considerably taller than me even in my now-famous heels, though in the cops’ report I, myself, am listed as that height. The other Danielle Bell, along with some other jerk, battered one Natasha Sullivan*. In front of her kids, no less. Not really something I would do. I was also told Nathan’s official citation was for a missing rearview mirror, not failure to signal.
On my way back to the dorm, other inmates in a different cell saw my shoes through a window in the door and gestured to them with smiles. I sat in a corner and tried to sleep.
In total I only spent 12 hours in detention, which is eight more than Henry Louis Gates. And, like him, have since had all charges dropped and my record expunged.
But things got even stranger moments before my official release, when I was taken to a room (alone and without counsel although they knew my father/attorney was outside the jail waiting to see me) to meet with the legal adviser to Louisville Police Department, the deputy of corrections, and Natasha Sullivan’s caseworker. They were all very apologetic, effusive and saccharine in the way Southern people often are. They apologized for having inconvenienced me. I asked if they were also sorry that I had been racially profiled. No, they explained, this was a matter of mistaken identity, a mix-up. They were adamant that racial profiling did not happen in Jefferson County.
They escorted me outside, apologized to my father, mother, and grandmother. This was their way of making nice. My dad told them that that was all fine and good but we’d also file a complaint to internal affairs. With a twinkle in his eye he wondered aloud, “Who would mistake this little girl for 5’6″?” In an hour and a half we went to court, where Natasha Sullivan would testify in front of the judge that I was not her Danielle Bell.
I recognized Natasha’s face from somewhere. Turned out she went to my high school and graduated the same year as me — 2000. She was a quiet girl, I think. By then she had three kids, smooth skin, hazel eyes, and dyed red hair. She felt bad about it all. I thanked her for leaving work to testify on my behalf. “They did me real dirty,” she said of her attackers. They beat her head into the concrete, pulled out chunks of her hair, some beef over some boy. Her mother, a solid-bodied blonde woman with weathered skin and an arm tattoo, was also there. She told me she came in case I really was Danielle Bell. Thank god I was not!
(It was in the courtroom we found that not only did they have a photo of Danielle Bell on file, but also that she’d been arrested in recent months and still not served her warrant. We looked nothing alike.)
The lawsuit I’d planned never happened. The lawyer said that while I was clearly the victim of racial profiling it would be hard to prove it, along with malicious intent. Moreover, this was the same county, like so many others, that had acquitted white cops accused of murdering innocent, unarmed black men. It would best to move on. I saved my plastic jail bracelet.
*Name has been changed.
This essay originally appeared in slightly different form on Does Black People Has To Drink Kool-Aid. Edited and reprinted with permission.