If you got your driver’s license in Rhode Island before they connected Rt 146 to 95 South, you had the unforgettable experience of driving what was known as the Mixed-up Mile. This is something we often did on our summer treks from Cumberland to Scarborough Beach in our search for nubile young women in bikinis to charm (most of whom, okay… okay… ALL of whom, ignored us.)
For those of you unfamiliar with this once challenging gauntlet, Rt. 146 ended, forcing drivers to navigate the narrow side streets near Chad Brown up to Douglas Ave, weaving your way back onto the highway.
For some reason or another, likely the results of a no-bid contract going to the Governor’s daughter’s boyfriend’s mother’s third cousin who was also related to the Governor,, you could connect directly from 95 North to 146 North but not 146 South to 95 south. The necessity slipped their mind.
It is one of those things unique to Rhode Island.
For those of us from the suburbs—white, young, and hopelessly un-urbanized—1972, the year I started driving, presented another challenge. This was the era of anti-war protests and urban rioting over racial disparities (sound familiar?) when many American cities were ablaze with tension.
The Black Panthers, the Black Lives Matter of a earlier generation, which, through the prism of official law enforcement pronouncements of the time, amounted to the world’s most dangerous terrorist group—apparently our standards were lower then—presented an additional challenge to running the gauntlet of the Mixed-up Mile.
The Panthers would gather at the red light right off the exit from 146 selling the Black Panther Newspaper. Each time we approached the exit, we’d make sure the doors were locked and the windows tightly shut, no matter how stifling hot it might be, and hold our breath hoping we didn’t catch the light.
As a side note. The Panthers were always dressed in suits and ties, as an early reader of this piece reminded me. They were the best dressed terrorist group of that era. I wanted to add this important piece of information to the original.
As we started onto the exit, all eyes focused on the light. We knew the timing by heart. If you hit the exit and the light stayed green until the corner straightened out, you were golden. If not, and the dreaded Yellow Caution light came on, you were trapped.
Eyes locked straight ahead to avoid any eye contact, we did our best not to draw any attention to ourselves, hoping our pretense at not noticing anyone would grant us protection. Sometimes, lost in conversation as we took the exit, we foolishly left the windows down.
As the realization took hold we would catch the light, too late to close the windows without painting ourselves as targets, our heart rates climbed, and we resigned ourselves to buying yet another copy of the paper.
Now, all these years later, I realize that we never had one moment where anything other than a polite request was made if we wanted to buy the paper. Not one threat. Not one challenge. Not one hint of violence.
The fear came from our own ignorance.
Some members of the Black Panthers engaged in criminal behavior. Some may have used strong-arm intimidation to sell newspapers to raise money for their cause. But none of that happened to us.
I wonder if the newly emboldened right-wing white supremacist groups on the rise today would act in such a manner. Perhaps the problem was our then definition of a terrorist group. Those Panthers may not have known it, nor may they have intended it, yet they taught a lesson about ignorance and stereotypes to a bunch of naïve kids from Cumberland that lives on.
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