Update: I originally wrote this in reaction to reading a few posts via social media that seemed to indicate that “good” minorities don’t have to worry about situations like the Michael Brown tragedy happening to them. Many have also said this about Trayvon Martin and other situations that have arisen in the recent past. I did not expect much of a response because I rarely blog and don’t have much of any platform. A few things I’d like to clarify: First, my goal is not to suggest malicious people commit racial profiling. In fact, I hope you realize that profiling is often a passive action done by people with good intentions. It’s still wrong. Secondly, I have a lot of respect for police officers. I think that they’re good people who are trying to do a difficult job – especially our local cops. I don’t tell my story to make police officers look bad; instead, I’m trying to illustrate what someone who looks like me deals with, regardless of status. While my experience was certainly the most humiliating of experiences, I’ve been profiled by teachers, by store owners, by fathers of romantic interests, etc. All have stung deeply. The point in writing this is that racial profiling is something I face every day, and most of my white friends don’t. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many suggest that because I’m educated or carry myself respectably, I don’t have anything to worry about. That’s just not the reality I’ve experienced. I wrote this in the hopes that a few Facebook friends would read this and maybe change their minds about the reality of racial profiling because they had a personal connection to it.
Recent days have reminded me of something that only a handful of people know I’ve experienced. For the sake of the many people who swim in my social media circles who seem to think minorities must do something to provoke suspicion, I thought I’d share my experience in the hopes that it may raise awareness to the reality of racial profiling. Profiling isn’t something that happens to “bad” black people; it’s something that happens to ALL black people.
When I was 17 years old, I was walking on West Fourth Street to my job at the Weis Markets on Third Street. It was a fall day, so in addition to my pants and Weis polo, I was wearing a hoodie. I also had headphones in my ears, listening to music on my walk. I can almost guarantee it was one of my friend Lucas Carpenter’s early albums. I may have even been singing out loud. I’m prone to do that.
As I walked near where the former Annunciation church is, I noticed a police car pull over next to me as if parking, but didn’t think much of it. Why would I? Suddenly, someone grabbed my arm and I was spun around face to face with a police officer who was yelling at me for not cooperating. I apologized and explained that I must not have heard him with my headphones on. I was asked a series of questions that made me wonder if I had done something wrong.
Where are you coming from? My house over on First Ave.
Have you been in such and such vicinity today? No, I just woke up and have to go to work.
Could anyone verify? No, my dad is fishing and my mom and sister are out.
I was told that a crime had been committed in the neighborhood. The delivery of that information felt like an accusation. I was asked my name and if I could produce identification to verify. I was ushered to the police car and asked to place my hands on the car and spread my legs. It’s then that I noticed that a second police officer was a few feet away in my peripheral with his hand in a ready position on his belt. I honestly can’t tell if he was ready to stun me or shoot me, but I was already worried, so I kept my eyes averted from his direction and did what I was told.
The next few minutes were the most humiliating moments of my life: At just before noon on the busiest street in my hometown, I was frisked and searched against a police car.
It may have only been a few moments, but it felt like an endless parade of cars drove by. I kept wishing I could be inside the police car instead of stretched against it because of how guilty I must have seemed.
He found a box cutter and some cash in my pocket. Why are you carrying a weapon? I use it to cut boxes at my job in the stock room. Are you planning to buy weed? I hoped to swing by Comic Castle after my shift and buy some comic books. I was asked for my name again and told to not move. The first officer walked around to the other side of the car and got into the driver’s seat. I remained prone against a police car, freaking out and wondering what I did wrong.
After a few minutes, the officer exited the car and told me I could go. The second officer eased up, letting go of the weapon he had been prepared to use on me, if necessary. No explanation. No apology. For some foolish reason, I asked if I could have my box cutter back. It finally dawned on me to show the Weis insignia on my polo underneath my sweatshirt to corroborate my story. He handed me the blade and told me to stay out of trouble. I sheepishly apologized to the two officers. For what? I don’t know, but it felt necessary.
Shaken, I continued my walk to work. This is before I owned a cell phone, so I couldn’t talk to my parents about my experience right away. By the time I returned home, I had convinced myself that the cops were just doing their job – they were just out looking for bad guys, and of course a physically imposing, hooded person walking down the street may be suspicious. Still, the humiliation of the experience has left it crystallized in my mind. It wasn’t until years later in college that I read an article in Sports Illustrated about racial profiling and realized what had happened to me.
Racial profiling is a reality in the United States – and it’s not confined to profiling black people. Hispanic and Arab people are profiled frequently, though the injustice against African-Americans is more deeply woven into the fabric of our country. And yes, racial profiling exists in Williamsport, PA. However, thank God it hasn’t been violent or deadly…yet. When racial profiling is a reality in a culture where police are becoming more and more aggressive and trigger-happy like Ferguson, Missouri, however, you get the Michael Brown tragedy.
What provokes me to anger in this debate is that many people whom I love and respect seem to want to discredit why people would be outraged. Here’s the point you’re missing: That could have been me. If the 17 year old me could switch places and have been walking down that street, what would have made anything different? The 17 year old me would have cut an imposing, suspicious figure on a street. The 17 year old me could have seemed non-compliant due to misunderstanding or just sheer emotions and fear. And the 17 year old, unarmed me might be dead in the street. The reality of racial profiling in America means that at any time, I may experience suspicion of guilt simply because of my physical features.
You may think that I’m overreacting, but you’ve never had someone yell “nigger” at you outside of your local grocery store. You’ve never been soloed out and screamed at in a neighboring school district for “disrupting a classroom” despite being in a group of 10-15 teenagers. You’ve never had parents forbid their kids from being around you because you were black. You’ve never had to stand prone against a police car on the busiest street in your town simply because you walked down the street.
So please, friends, when you talk about Michael Brown, remember who you’re talking about: Me and everyone who lives in this country whose only crime against society is Living While Black.
(The picture above is from CNN.)