It was a warm and sunny spring day, and the park was filled with families and children playing. At the eastern perimeter of the park, on a low fence constructed of railroad ties, three young African-American boys sat talking quietly. An IPD patrol car pulled up directly in front of them; the officers got out of the car and demanded…
It was a warm and sunny spring day, and the park was filled with families and children playing. At the eastern perimeter of the park, on a low fence constructed of railroad ties, three young African-American boys sat talking quietly. An IPD patrol car pulled up directly in front of them; the officers got out of the car and demanded identification. When the youngsters were unable to provide any, they were handcuffed and searched. The search revealed nothing improper or illegal, so they were released from the handcuffs and told to leave the park.
The pretty young woman who reported this incident to me is a student in one of my classes. She and her husband, who are white, live across from the park, and had seen and heard the entire exchange from their front porch. She was incredulous: the young boys had been doing nothing wrong, had presented no threat. Other young people in the park–white youngsters–had not been approached or questioned. "I couldn’t believe it, here I was sitting on my porch witnessing this whole thing and honestly thinking to myself, this wouldn’t have happened if my husband and I were the two sitting in the park that day."
When I discussed my student’s observations with colleagues who teach criminal justice, there was no surprise, just weary recognition. One, who mentors at-risk young people, said her black "mentees" routinely endured such interrogations. Another took the time to explain the facts of urban life to me: if challenged, the officers would claim that the boys resembled young hoodlums they were looking for, or that they saw something that "looked suspicious" in a coat pocket. Who could prove otherwise?
Every so often, I hear one of my suburban friends lament the "victim psychology" of a black writer or entertainer. It isn’t that my friends are bigots; they aren’t. They simply cannot conceive of the routine humiliations my black friends take for granted. Their experiences are so different, it is difficult if not impossible to bridge the perceptual divide.
A couple of years ago, at a meeting devoted to the exploration of those differences, someone asked the group of twenty or so middle and upper class executives a simple question. How many of us, during a routine traffic stop, had been asked whether we would object to a search of our car? Every black hand in the room went up; not one white one did.
Our Fourth Amendment rights have seen substantial erosion over the past decade, but thus far, Americans are not required to carry "papers" or to justify our presence on public property. So long as we are not harming or annoying others, so long as police do not have probable cause to believe we are committing a crime, we all have the right to go about our business free of official harassment.
If civil liberty means anything, it means that being black is not probable cause.