Thursday, August 25, 2011

Encounter with Racial Profiling

At CYC I expected to come face to face with a lot of things. New people, new challenges, opinions and beliefs that differ from my own. All that happened and I am better for it. One thing I never expected to come face to face with was racism. But I did.

It wasn’t from within the community. We are pretty diverse and we all seem to get along well. At least I haven’t witnessed anything untoward. I suppose we’d have to poll the wider community to find out if there’s anything amiss that might be subtle enough to be below my radar screen.

Anyway, this is what happened. I drove students – two girls and two boys, who both happened to be black—to one of our annual field trips. We got pulled over. As soon as they saw the blue lights the boys, who come from different states, looked at each other. Their hats and sunglasses came off and they sat up straight.

When the police officer approached, he said I’d been speeding and requested my license and registration – and also identification from the kids. The girls didn’t have any – one said she didn’t have a license and the officer asked “Suspended?” “No, I just don’t have it yet.” The officer then left them alone, not even asking their names. One of the boys handed over a school ID. The other said he didn’t have his license on him and the officer had him write down his information – and then questioned his address. I told the officer my license was in the trunk. He didn’t have me get it. He just asked my name. Then, he went back to his car.

We chatted while we waited. Some of the kids were nervous. “Why did he want our IDs?” “I don’t like policemen. They are mean.” I tried to calm them. “This one’s not mean. He’s nice enough, He’s just doing his job.” I didn’t get it yet – though I was finding it odd that he wanted everyone else’s information. The only explanation I came up with was he didn’t want me driving for some reason and I was trying to figure out what to do in that case. (At least one of the boys had a license but campers aren’t allowed to drive. CYC isn’t insured for it and it’s against policy. Another car was waiting for us, though, and they had an extra adult.) But that wasn’t in the officer’s plans.

In the end, the officer didn’t even issue me a ticket. He warned me to keep to the speed limit, gave me directions to our destination and sent us on our way.

I apologized to the kids, but they said it was OK they’d at least get a story out of it. We talked some more. One of the boys had been pulled over for no reason before – he and his brother and a CYC alum who was also black. I must admit it took me a minute. “Well, he couldn’t get anything on you, right?” “No, I hold myself in check. But why should we get pulled over for nothing?” We talked about the IDs the officer requested. I still wasn’t quite understanding the boys’ point of view, -- I was rather slow on the uptake-- but suddenly, I got it. “You’re right. You know, he never even looked at my license and I was driving.”

One of the boys said, “You said he was just doing his job. I said to myself, ‘yea, Melinda he’s doing his job badly’.” That camper was right and I am glad he respectfully challenged me on my thinking.

We arrived and I spoke to other CYC staff. A couple thought it might not be racism since they asked the girls for identification, too, but mostly I heard, “Are you serious? You need to file a complaint.” “Are they OK?” “It’s sad that in this day and age that can be true – and that they are used to it.” “You know why that happened, don’t you? Yeah, you know why.”

I have sent emails to the police department complaint line and to the chief of police. I have not yet heard back from them but I learned that it is not uncommon in Maine for an officer to request IDs from adult passengers in a car. I may have no grounds for an official complaint because of that, combined with the fact that I was not issued a ticket, but at least I will call attention to what happened. Maybe the officer thought the teens were older than they were. Maybe. But I think not. I think this was a case of racial profiling and I am saddened by my encounter with it. And a bit wiser about what a segment of the population goes through. I'd heard about racial profiling before and believed it happened, but I never expected to witness it. Maybe God has a purpose in making me aware of this in such a sharp and definite way. We’ll see.

At any rate, I am praying for change. Change so that good kids like these (one of them was presented with CYC’s highest award the very next day) won’t have to worry about being pulled over for no reason. Change so they don’t have to be concerned if they see a police officer. Change so that we are all treated as we should be.

What have been your experiences in this area? What can we do to bring about change?

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

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