Friday, July 24, 2009
¡Manos arriba! The Challenges of Profiling
I was running a bit late and needed to get to the church for a sound check before the wedding. I was to sing a solo and was eager to make sure everything was just right for my friends. I had just pulled out of our seminary's boulevard and was headed towards the downtown area of Columbia, SC. Though I was in a hurry, I made sure not to exceed the speed limit since it was hard enough to make ends meet in seminary without having to add traffic tickets in the mix. Just as I was nearing the interstate, I saw several police cars behind me closing in at incredible speed. I pulled to the side to let them by and thought, "Wow, somebody's in trouble!" I had no idea. To my total shock, one pulled in front of me, several behind me and one the the side with a shotgun drawn and pointed at me, mouthing in the harshest possible language for me to pull over. As I came to a stop, several law enforcement officers bounded from their vehicles with heavy weapons drawn, surrounded my car and yelled for me to get out of my vehicle with my hands up! At this point, my parent's training kicked in. "Anytime you deal with law enforcement officers who for some reason believe you to be a criminal they must apprehend, be as respectful, courteous and compliant as possible. Do NOTHING to agitate, irritate or provoke a law enforcement official to even consider you are resisting them, especially when their weapons are drawn. If you are innocent and you heed our advice, you might live to fight them in court." That advice flashed through my mind as well as other instances in my life that I had been mistaken for someone involved in criminal activity and found myself staring down the barrel of a drawn weapon.
As I slowly and carefully kept my hands visible and opened the doors of my vehicle to get out, the officers barked harsh and rather vulgar directives telling me to place my hands on my vehicle and to spread my legs. As I was doing this, the voice of the officers changed. "Wait a minute." he said. He then asked his comrades, "You notice anything strange?" One of his partners replied in a quieter tone, "Yeah, he's wearing a tuxedo." A could hear other officers walking to the rear of my vehicle. One of them said, "There's a sticker from the Bible College on the bumper, some christian stickers and an 82nd Airborne patch too!" The leading officer's face changed slowly as he asked me, "Are you a CBC (Columbia Bible College) student?" I replied, "Yes Sir officer - actually I attend the seminary, but yes Sir, I am." he then asked, "What wre you doing about thirty minutes ago?" I replied, "I slept in, spent some time studying in my room, then showered to get ready for my friend's wedding at a Presbyterian Church downtown." He looked at me, then his compadres who had inspected my vehicle, lowered his weapon and said, "It's clear we've made an error. You fit the description of someone who just fled a murder scene and has numerous other serious warrants outstanding as well, and your vehicle is the same, make, model and color as the vehicle in which he fled. it's obvious ou're not him. You're free to go." With that, I got back in my vehicle, they returned to theirs, and we were all on our way.
Was I the victim of profiling? Yes. Was it understandable? Yes. Did I like it? No, but I understood the officer's perspective and didn't allow the incident to cloud the rest of my day or life. There are times when peace officers must draw quick conclusions with limited information and act on their hunches with little room for second guessing. In a similar situation, I certainly would have taken the same action that the officers took towards me. There are other incidents, however, that are significantly different in context and require a great deal more restraint when experienced. On another occasion while in seminary, I was attending a meeting for our school's first welcome week event. I had forgotten to bring some notes to the meeting and ran back to the dorm with my travel-sized Bible in my hand. It took me a while to find my notes, but I eventually located them. When I emerged from the dorm with the notes and my Bible, a light suddenly shone in my eyes, and I heard those chilling words, "Freeze. Slowly put down your weapon and get your hands up!" I froze. "What weapon?" I thought. Acting on instinct and my parent's training, I slowly put down everything in my hands and raised them up high. I heard footsteps approaching. As the officer got closer I heard a sigh of embarrassment, saw him holster his weapon and heard him say, "Sam?" I replied, "Yes, Sir." As he drew closer I realized that I knew the officer - actually a bonded security guaard authrozied to use a weapon - and he knew me. He informed me that a call had been received saying a threatening looking black man had been seen running towards the dorm area with a dark object that appeared to be a weapon in his hand. I reflected, "Was I threatening looking? Very fit (at that time) pretty serious looking when not smiling. Small Bible that could be mistaken for a weapon. maybe." But I was still frustrated. I breathed deeply and summoned every bit of godliness I could muster in a situation I knew had now been diffused. Not in a chatting mood, I asked "Can I go now?!" My friend responded, "Oh, oh...yeah. Go ahead!" I had experienced profiling in a totally different context, much less threatening than the first incident at a glance, but in many ways, a situation that was actually much more dangerous for me!"
Of course, I am sharing these memories in light Harvard University Professor Henry Gates and his recent experience in Cambridge,Massachusetts where he was arrested in the context of his own home. As a citizen who understands the need for law and order and who appreciates the diligence of a concerned neighbor, I can see the one side of the equation. Law enforcement officers as a matter of survival must err on the side of caution as a matter of life and death. A call from a concerned citizen, the abundance of clever criminals and the need to protect the innocent could lead to a decision similar to the one the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, made, especially if his experience had placed him in situations that validated his conclusions. On the other hand, as an African-American male who has experienced profiling numerous times and continues to experience it in many different contexts beyond the two incidents I've shared, I can understand the frustration of being caught up in a situation that might have seemed ludicrous.
One attribute that seems conspicuously absent from both Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates is humility. Professor Gates may have assumed that his position and standing in the community had made him exempt from profiling and finding himself in such a position. It doesn't. He may also have forgotten that one captures "more flies with honey and vinegar" and that a "soft reply turns away wrath." In most of my profiling situations, I have found that the use of courteous speech and thoughtful and careful responses has allowed those charged with enforcing the law to take a step back, reevaluate their actions based on my response and come to a better conclusion that the one at which they had first arrived. As Carol King said in her song "Smackwater Jack" one must take great care in trying "to talk to a man with a shotgun in his hand." The professor might have later thanked the officer for his zeal and carefulness and used the moment to "win a friend", by commenting on the complexity of law enforcement when race, class and profiling merge together in the "fog of a moment".
On the officer's part, his refusal to apologize for anything he did is a failure to acknowledge that even when one takes a step that one believes is right - and which may be "right" procedurally, one must have the ability to regroup after the revelation that one's response was in error "factually." Imagine the power if Sgt. Crowley had said, "Sir/Ma'am, it's clear I made an error. My intent was to protect your home from an intruder. I did my duty in your interest, not understanding who you were. I just want to reassure you that we will be vigilant in protecting you and your property. You have my sincerest apologies, however, for mistakenly thinking that you were the intruder and embarrassing you publicly by arresting you. If I can do anything, including making a public statement to help to restore clarity and truth to the situation, be assured I will be glad to do so."
Perhaps I am asking too much here. We're not talking about a street thug and a crooked cop. We have a highly respected professor and a seasoned, veteran police officer. It seems that between the two of them, they could think beyond self-justification and think about true reconciliation. As a Christian I must hold myself to a higher standard on both sides of such issues. Christian forgiveness is an exercise in taking hits. It means, regardless of the other person's response, I will take the high road. This incident could have presented a wonderful opportunity for the professor and the officer to show how two reasonable people can find themselves in an ugly situation, but make an effort when time and information allows, as this situation has allowed, to pause - step back and regroup with an appreciation for another's perspective and the human decency to rise above the need to be right by doing right. I know that life being what it is, I will certainly face future profiling situations. I ask you my friends to pray for me - as I will pray for you - that when found in such positions, I will have the courage to pause, reflect and to do the right thing. If enough of us commit to this standard, maybe we will make at least a small dent in our nation's on-going challenge to truly live out its creed: E pluribus unim - From the many, ONE! Until next time...