Have you ever made an abrupt lane change on the freeway while driving a rented moving truck?
For me, it happened on the afternoon of Jan. 2, 1993.
I had entered the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. An electronic sign flashed a message saying "absolutely no trucks" beyond an imminently forthcoming point on the section of interstate proceeding toward downtown Washington.
As a rube moving into the city and a bit on edge anyway, I thought to myself, "I'm in a truck. And 'absolutely' seems a clear word."
So I darted right across multiple lanes and to an exit ramp into Arlington, Va., by which I wound up on the snail's-crawl of a scenic route eventually taking me into Washington via the Key Bridge into Georgetown.
No policeman pulled me over and called for a drug dog and detained me handcuffed in the back seat of his squad car for 90 minutes while he and other officers rifled through my moving items.
Marion Andrew Humphrey case's is different. He was in a U-Haul. He was on Interstate 40 in small-town Arkansas. And he is a young Black man.
He's a third-year law student who was driving his moving truck on Thursday, Aug. 20, from Fayetteville to Little Rock where he would complete his law-school studies virtually.
He's the son of former Pulaski County Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey. He's a Davidson graduate who'd been doing a part-time law clerk's internship at the firm in Fayetteville of another Davidson grad--Conner Eldridge, the former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas and the failed Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2016.
Humphrey says an Arkansas State Police car had been following his southeast-bound route for miles, then pulled him over in the Russellville area on the assertion of Trooper Steven Payton that he'd made a suspicious driving move by starting to take an exit and then abruptly not taking it.
Again, to interject: Have you ever started to take an I-40 exit in Russellville and then pulled back abruptly?
For me, it happened that time I realized the exit I was about to take was not the one for C.J.'s Burgers.
I did not get stopped, declared nervous-looking, subjected to a drug dog, handcuffed, crammed into the back seat of a squad car or searched.
Humphrey wrote on Facebook of his entirely different experience as it happened.
As he told it, he couldn't get the driver's window down on the unfamiliar rented vehicle, so the trooper made him get out. The trooper told him he looked nervous and, on that basis, called for backup and a drug-sniffing dog, which came to the scene and barked.
That prompted the trooper to handcuff Humphrey and place him with his hands behind his back in the back seat of the police car while he and other officers went through Humphrey's moving items, finding nothing.
The trooper eventually sent Humphrey on his way, not with an apology, but with the trooper's seeming rear-covering of a warning ticket to drive better.
Humphrey declares himself traumatized. He has been in touch with Eldridge, who has filed Freedom of Information Act requests for details about the detaining officer and the incident.
Eldridge tells me that, as the former chief federal law enforcement officer in the area, he is appalled at the "pretextual" detaining, meaning one seemingly based on the fact that Humphrey was Black, as well as the unconstitutional overall treatment of Humphrey.
I waited much of the day Tuesday for a promised response from State Police director Bill Bryant. When it came, it was a statement saying no statement would be made--litigation concerns and all. I suspect the say-nothing statement was delayed for the governor's office signoff.
For the record, it said: "Highway patrol commanders last week began reviewing the audio, video and written records created from the traffic stop involving Mr. Marion Humphrey Jr., as well as records documenting a subsequent search of the rental truck he was driving. Since that review, Mr. Conner Eldridge has put the State Police on notice of potential pending litigation. Until all the facts about the traffic stop, search and Mr. Eldridge's allegations are known and can be documented, I don't anticipate making any responsive statements."
The issues are whether a white driver would have trailed in the first place; whether a white driver would have been pulled over for an alleged strange move; whether a white driver would have been deemed officially suspicious by nervousness; whether a Black driver had more reason than a white driver to look and be nervous; whether you'd be traumatized if it happened to you; whether the entire episode was remotely appropriate; and, finally, whether all of us might begin to understand better and more sensitively the cancerous chasm in our police relations with Black people, on I-40 the other day and beyond.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.