Reporting While Black

3 10 2007

New York Times reporter Solomon Moore related his recent run in with the law after simply standing on the sidewalk and trying to talk to other black men for a story on racial profiling. Interestingly enough, when Moore points out this is America, implying that he has rights, the officer replied this is “the South, we have different laws down here.”

A tall white police officer got out of his car and ordered me toward him. Two other police officers, a white woman and a black man, stood outside of their cars nearby. I complied. Without so much as a question, the officer shoved my face down on the sheet metal and cuffed me so tightly that my fingertips tingled.

“They’re on too tight!” I protested.

“They’re not meant for comfort,” he replied.

While it is true that I, like many of today’s gang members, shave my head bald, in my case it’s less about urban style and more about letting nature take its course. Apart from my complexion, the only thing I had in common with the young men watching me smooch the hood of the black-and-white was that they too had been in that position — some of them, they would tell me later, with just as little provocation.

But here again I failed to live up to the “street cred” these forceful police officers had granted me. As the female officer delved into my back pocket for my wallet she found no cash from illicit corner sales, in fact no cash at all, though she did find evidence of my New York crew — my corporate identification card.

After a quick check for outstanding warrants, the handcuffs were unlocked and my wallet returned without apology or explanation beyond their implication that my approaching young black men on a public sidewalk was somehow flouting the law.

“This is a dangerous area,” the officer told me. “You can’t just stand out here. We have ordinances.”

“This is America,” I said angrily, in that moment supremely unconcerned about whether this was standard police procedure or a useful law enforcement tool or whatever anybody else wanted to call it. “I have a right to talk to anyone I like, wherever I like.”

The female officer trumped my naïve soliloquy, though: “Sir, this is the South. We have different laws down here.”

I tried to appeal to the African-American officer out of some sense of solidarity.

“This is bad area,” he told me. “We have to protect ourselves out here.”

As the police drove away, I turned again to my would-be interview subjects. Surely now they believed I was a reporter.

I found their skepticism had only deepened.

“Man, you know what would have happened to one of us if we talked to them that way?” said one disbelieving man as he walked away from me and my blank notebook. “We’d be in jail right now.”

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