The stomach flutter starts as a cop strolls up, or a patrol car flashes its lights, or two officers stand atop the escalator at the Jamaica Center in Queens and run their eyes over the subway riders.
"I see a cop and I can't help it -- I feel butterflies," said Tareaphe Richards, 21, a college student with an oval face and husky good looks. "They'll pull me aside sometimes because they say I fit the description. Yeah. Young black male. I always 'fit the description.'"
One of the problems with trying to impress upon White America the immense psychic (and other) damage racial profiling inflicts upon Blacks is that the practice (and its pervasiveness) is so foreign to them.
The Washington Post interviewed 12 young black men in Jamaica -- streetwise and college students alike -- and each said he had been stopped by police at least three times. The Post interviewed 12 young white men in Greenwich Village and Tribeca in Manhattan. Just one of them reported ever being stopped by an officer, for skateboarding in a subway station.
I've never been stopped "on the street" by a cop. But I do remember one time when I was a teenager playing "hide and go seek in the dark" by my house. I was crouching behind a leaf pile in my front yard, wearing a dark hoodie, when a cop pulls up behind me. It could not have possibly looked more like a stakeout, and I knew it. So I stood up and heartily waved at the cop, who looked at me for a moment, then kept driving. There is no way in hell he would have just kept driving if I was Black.
Richards lives in Jamaica and serves as a youth minister at his church. A year ago, he walked to church in his finest suit, hands jammed in his pockets. As he rounded a corner on a street of single-family houses, two officers spotted him and one raised his gun, ordering him: Take your hands out of your pockets!
The police were investigating a shooting from the night before and feared Richards was a Dapper Dan gang member in search of more victims.
The cop's hands wavered; Richards could smell the adrenaline, his and theirs. In a methodical voice he said he-was-taking-his-hands-out-of-his-pockets-and-raising-his-arms-over-his-head.
Fear? Embarrassment burned worse. "I felt violated, I can't even explain it," Richards said. "Imagine someone I minister to seeing that."
If it happened once, maybe it wouldn't be such a big deal. But that's the problem--it's pervasive. It's a fact of life. And it happens again, and again, with real consequences.
You'd like to think that's it and turn to Deacon, but Richards has another story. A few months later, he drove his church's white van to a youth basketball game. He had 11 black teenagers in his care. A police car flashed its lights and Richards pulled to the curb.
"They said there was an incident the night before with a van," Richards says, his face wrinkling in disgust. "I asked them, 'And that van, it had my church's name printed on the side of it?' "
The officers didn't appreciate his humor. They told the kids to get out and spent an hour ransacking the van. Richards arrived at the gym so late that the team had to forfeit the game.
Communities need cops. They need people who will do a tough job in dangerous neighborhoods to keep people safe. But the police can't do its job effectively if its wards are afraid of them as much as they are afraid of the criminals. Communities need cops, but cops need to maintain the support of their communities as well.
Richards has something else to say. He had given a lot of thought to becoming a police officer; he had even scored in the 99th percentile on the police test. Good salary, benefits, retirement after 20 years -- what's not to like, except this:
"How could I become something that everyone is scared of now? How could I risk becoming what scares me?"
Nothing witty this time. Just go vote Debate Link.