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From the Far Margins

Three red lights

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Three men run red lights in their city. The man in the Lexus blows right through it, a solid red, and doesn't stop until the flashing lights make him. The man is 40. His dad told him always to respect officers though he's had little chance to interact with them. He's late but he breathes deep and smiles apologetically. "I'm sorry officer. I'm late for a board meeting. It's been a stressful week."

Officer Joad takes the man's license and runs his plate. His record is clean. He writes the citation: speeding and failure to obey a traffic signal. He tells the man he can appear in court, if he chooses. Otherwise the fine is $245. It says so on the citation. He can pay by mail by the date in bold black print.

When the man in the rusted Dodge Dart runs a red light, the sirens blare, the lights flash and the driver begins to sweat. Officer Joad leaves his car and unsnaps his gun holster. The plate is clear but the man in the car ahead is fumbling in his glove box. It is best to be safe. The driver rolls down his window visibly stressed. The officer asks for license and registration—as he always does. The man fumbles. He's thinking how his father used to rant that cops are dirty extensions of a corrupt government that preys on the poor and helpless. He is afraid.

Officer Joad asks the man to get out of the car and put his hands on the hood. He pats him down. The man is visibly shaking. Sweat is dripping from his nose. Joad leans in to search the car. The man asks why this is necessary. Officer Joad assesses him, his nervousness, his stammer, the condition of his car. Joad cuffs the man and seats him in the back of his own car, calls for backup and searches the man's vehicle.

An hour later, a third guy, this time in a pickup, barely runs a red light. It's a calculated risk. The car in front of him just barely ran it, too. The officer's lights flash. This is the fifth time he's been stopped by police in the past two years, usually in his own very white neighborhood for a non-functional tail light, failure to signal, not stopping completely at a stop sign—even though he did stop. He curses. Officer Joad runs the plate. The list of infractions is long. Nothing major except there's the report by a neighbor of disturbance at his house. Noise ordinance maybe. One of the fines was not paid. A warrant appears for that one. Officer Joad arrests the man.

In the cuffs, the man from the pickup is angry. "I barely ran the light. The cars on either side of me were right there too." The man's anger is vivid, intense. Officer Joad calls for backup. He has to force the man into the back of his cruiser. A tow truck comes and impounds the man's car. He's booked and detained overnight. He's offered an attorney. This is the first time in the man's life he will spend the night in jail. It will be one of many though, for meaningless transgressions. His record, though, will grow.

The man in the Lexus gets home. It's late but he doesn't want to forget to pay the ticket. He writes a check, sits on his deck smoking a joint and watching stars shift across the night sky.

The man in the Dodge Dart arrives home. The lights are out and his roommates are sleeping. His wrists are bruised from the handcuffs. Fear keeps welling up in him. His rent is three weeks late. Next month's will be due soon. His boss has threatened to cut his hours. He needs to move but can't afford any of the rentals. Paying the fine would mean not being able to afford his medication, not buying gas for the car to get to work. The tank's almost empty. There's no bus route near his house. He knows the fine has to wait. He wonders what that means.

When officer Joad's shift is over, he drives home. He did not die today. He didn't get shot at or have to arrest any drug dealers or child molesters. He thinks of the three men who ran red lights that night. He knows none of them but he does. They fit profiles he's seen over and over. The man in the Lexus can pay the fine and it will be less trouble than buying a suit. The man in the pickup Joad knows by his address gets no end of grief in his neighborhood. Joad has been to the house down the block where the retired man from north Idaho still flies a Confederate flag and calls the station regularly with complaints about neighbors. Most of the officers in the station know the drill. A few don't or don't care and write citations, knock on the neighbors' doors. Joad feels for any black or brown man in that neighborhood.

Officer Joad opens a beer in the kitchen. He thinks about the man in the Dart and how he wept sitting in the front seat of his rusty car as Joad drove away. For that man, that one fine might be the unraveling point. It might be the one thing that turns survival into something else. Joad shakes his head. Three men ran red lights. Three men got tickets that night. It's not justice that the fines are the same, that the consequences are so vastly different. Joad leaves his beer on the counter, undresses and climbs into bed to sleep. He'll dream of the ocean and about Sally from dispatch. He doesn't want to dream of work.