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Walking While Black
Howard County, Maryland is annually voted one of the best places to live in the United States. There are great schools, beautiful parks and some of the best tree-lined peaceful neighborhoods to walk through to get some exercise. Unless, it seems, you’re Black.
If you’re Black – or any minority with a noticeably darker skin tone, be careful where you go for a walk in certain neighborhoods in Howard County, Maryland. When you walk, you may want to take some friends with you, have your attorney on speed-dial (since it won’t help you to call 911) and make sure you have a smart phone that can take photos and videos documenting police harassment of yourself or others. I’ll share more on that later. For now, here’s a little background information…
If you’re Black, you’re probably going to get stopped by the police at some point in your lifetime for a DWB. Driving While Black is a common, infamous reason for police to pull over a minority driver for no reason at all. It was a commonplace act long before the term “racial profiling” became top of mind in the public consciousness.
Police officers all over the country follow this practice as an unwritten rule. Not all of them do it, but unfortunately many do. They will follow a vehicle closely, sometimes for miles, until that person makes a slight driving error (or not) and then they get pulled over. If a police officer tailgates anyone for several miles, they will usually find a reason to pull that person over. It is a blatant form of harassment. It’s also a form of entrapment when a minor traffic error is committed because a police officer instills fear or nervousness in the driver by tailgating them for long distances. Many times, the minority driver is pulled over for no reason at all, interrogated harshly, subjected to a search of their vehicle, and if they are lucky, let go with a verbal warning – leaving no record of this epidemic atrocity. In some cases, though, people are ticketed, or even provoked into getting into an altercation and then beaten and arrested for assaulting a police officer when in fact they are acting in self-defense. An alarming number of people are critically beaten or even killed. Rodney King, while a highly visible case, was not the only instance of at-will police brutality. I know one such friend who is lucky to be alive after a DWB landed him in the emergency room in critical condition. He suffered traumatic brain injuries and will likely never be 100% again. It’s so commonplace, that for generations, Black families have held family meetings explaining the procedures of what to do WHEN you are stopped by police officers for no reason. My earliest recollection of such a meeting was when I was around five years old at my Aunt’s house in Washington D.C. I couldn’t understand why the police would treat people so poorly. That was in the sixties, when civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman John Lewis and thousands of others were routinely harassed or beaten and thrown in jail for things like Walking While Black. Unfortunately, more than 40 years later, there are still police officers practicing the atrocities of the sixties and there is still the need for Black families to have “the talk.”
I’ve done some informal polling of my White friends and my Black and Latino friends and almost none of my White friends have ever experienced DWB’s while virtually all of my Black and Latino friends have suffered the indignity of at least one DWB. There are few things more traumatic than knowing you are being wrongfully harassed by a police officer with a badge and a gun, because that type of person is usually looking for any reason to escalate the situation. It is bullying at its worst and it makes it extremely difficult to trust those who are sworn to protect and serve. The vast majority of police officers are good cops, but the bad apples spoil the whole bunch. There should be a zero tolerance policy on racism in law enforcement, but it’s too commonplace to argue that racism isn’t accepted. Statistics don’t lie. For example, in Northern Maryland, recent statistics showed that more than 70% of the people pulled over on I-95 were Black, while only 15% of all drivers were Black.
I’ve been pulled over for DWB’s five times in my life, each time not speeding, swerving, drinking or doing anything else other than driving legally. I remember each time like it was yesterday.
DWB #1: The first time, as a teenager, was on Reece Road on the outskirts of Fort Meade, Maryland. I remember with clarity to this day how the military police officer asked me “what was I doing back there.” When I politely told him nothing, just driving, he told me that I was driving too close to the center line. I wasn’t crossing the centerline; I was driving too close to it. After 30 minutes of explaining to him that driving too close to the center line is not illegal, and after he took a couple of extended trips back to his car, he let me go. No ticket, no warning, nothing. I was scared to death. It was my first directly personal experience of how easily my rights could be taken away by an unscrupulous man with a badge and gun.
DWB #2: A decade later, in my mid-20’s, I was driving my BMW 735i in Sacramento, California. The officer pulled me over and said he was checking to see if the car was stolen. 30 minutes later, with not even the courtesy of telling me what I already knew – that it wasn’t stolen because I owned it outright -- he sped off.
I’m not even going to count the incident in Howard County that happened in the 90’s when an off duty officer was driving behind me and the second I came to a stop at a stop sign, he blew his horn. He kept his hand on the horn for several seconds so, thinking something was wrong with my car, I got out of the car to ask what was going on. He told me to get back in my car and hurry up and get out of the way. He then held up his police badge and said he was a police officer. There was nothing wrong with my car. He was just being an impatient jerk. I told him he had no right to use his badge to be a jerk and just because he was a cop didn’t give him the right to do what he did. Luckily for me, there was no further incident. I got back into my car and drove off angry and feeling violated. It was an illustration of how some officers think they are above the law and can bully people anytime they feel like it.
Within the past three years, I’ve experienced three more DWB’s.
DWB #3: On Pratt Street in Baltimore’s inner harbor, I was driving my white Nissan Maxima in the flow of traffic, doing the speed limit, when an undercover officer pulled me over and hurriedly walked to my door, looking angry. He virtually yelled at me, saying “YOU JUST BLEW BY ME BACK THERE!” I told him, respectfully, that I saw him on the side of the road when I drove by, doing the speed limit, along with the other cars. I told him I didn’t do anything wrong. He asked for my license and registration, which I gave to him. I asked him if he knew my stepson who used to be an officer in Baltimore. I gave him his name. His demeanor changed immediately from anger to confusion. He said, you two are related? (My stepson is White) I said he’s my wife’s son from her first marriage. It apparently took a few seconds for the thought of me having a White stepson who was on the police force to sink in. I said yes, and he worked in this area. Then it hit him. “Oh, yes, I know him! Let me share a funny story with you!” His attitude changed again. Now he’s treating me like a normal person. He beamed that one time he was “interrogating a perp” with a couple other officers and my stepson was walking through the room when one of the officers knocked the perp down and another kicked him in the head. The officer laughed about it like it was nothing. I was shocked that he would feel comfortable enough with me to share something like that and was so relieved when he said have a nice day and drove off.
DWB #4 happened in the Nation’s Capitol in August of 2010. My daughter was in town with her boyfriend for my mother’s 80th birthday. My wife and I took them to see the monuments in D.C. We were especially proud of the opportunity to take them to see the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and other important founding documents of this country. I explained to them that they should never take their rights for granted because there are people who will try to take their rights away. I found myself giving them “the talk” that all Black families give to their children at one point or another. Literally 20 minutes later, as we were leaving there to go see some more sights, a police car began to follow me. Sure enough, after following me closely for more than a mile, the lights came on and the officer signaled me over to the side of the road. After an uncomfortable few minutes, two more cars pulled up, along with two more officers on bikes. I was asked to get out of the car and the officer told me that my plates were not registered. I told him I knew that they were because we had recently gone to the motor vehicles office to transfer the car from my mother’s name into ours. He then asked me if there was anything else I needed to tell him. After saying “I don’t understand what you are saying.” He repeated it, as if he was searching/hoping for a reason for me to be unnerved enough to admit to something. At this point I’m asking him to respect the fact that I’m with my family showing them the sites in Washington and asking him to put himself in my shoes. We both knew what was happening and I appealed to any sense of humanity he might have had. I had done nothing to warrant being pulled over and I had nothing for them to discover on the side of the road. After talking with his fellow officers for several minutes, he and another officer came back to the car and asked Jane for her driver’s license. After they checked her license, he came back to me and gave me a verbal warning but couldn’t tell me a specific reason why I was getting warned. I was just relieved that they let us go and all I could do was use it as a teachable moment to underscore the talk I had given my daughter and her boyfriend just a little while earlier. Again, I left there feeling embarrassed, angry and less than a citizen.
DWB #5 took place in Columbia, Maryland in February of 2012. I had not been driving much since stricken with a blood clot and pulmonary embolism and hospitalized after a busy week of business travel. My wife was at the gym and I decided to take the car to the mall to get tires replaced for her and look for a place to fill a prescription. When I got to the mall, I found out that the tire store was jam-packed and would take too long so I parked and made a phone call to a couple of associates who work with our cancer prevention nonprofit. When I noticed that my wife’s exercise class was about to end, I began to drive again. When I approached a stop sign leaving the mall parking lot, a police car speedily moved in behind me, tailgating me. I waited for several cars to enter the mall (they had the right of way) and turned when it was clear. The car followed me closely for approx. ¾ of a mile and as I finally turned to let him pass, he turned on his lights and pulled me over. When I asked him why he pulled me over he told me he pulled me over because my car looked like it could be stolen. As he’s telling me this, two more cars pull up behind him. He goes back to his car with my California driver’s license (he didn’t wait for me to find my vehicle registration information in the glove box) and a few minutes later comes back to my car to tell me that my license in Maryland has been suspended and my license in California has been suspended. I tell the officer that I haven’t had a Maryland license since 2006 when I traded it for a California license, which I thought was in good standing. I also told him that I renewed my California license in the fall of 2011 and that I had no idea that my license was suspended and hadn’t received any kind of notice that it had been suspended (Upon checking with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, I found out that my California license was in good standing all along). I asked him if I had done anything to warrant him following me closely and pulling me over and again he said that he followed me and then ran my plates because my car looked like it could have been a stolen vehicle. He said that instead of arresting me for driving with a suspended license, he would have me sign a document saying that I would appear within 72 hours and let me go. My car was not stolen. There were no brake lights or turn signals out, nothing mechanically wrong or unsafe with the vehicle and I know that my vehicle’s registration was in order. I wasn’t speeding, doing illegal lane changes or any other such violations. I was told, in so many words, that I “fit a profile.” In other words, certain members of the Howard County police department have a practice in place of tailgating and then pulling people over who “look like” they are driving potentially stolen vehicles. I haven’t driven since that day I was pulled over in February. Other than the great inconvenience on my family and the severe limitations it has placed on my ability to help people affected by cancer, getting rides or walking has been less stressful than driving and wondering every time a police officer is nearby if that officer will abuse his power -- or at least walking was less stressful before June 4th.
WALKING WHILE BLACK
Just after 9 a.m. on the morning of Monday, June 4, 2012, I decided to get some exercise. My wife dropped me off at the intersection of Rte. 40 and St. John’s Lane. I started my long walk and visited a memorial garden, taking notes for a wellness garden my nonprofit plans to build in Baltimore. This walk started out on a great note. I found a hidden gem. The memorial garden was peaceful, quaint and well kept. There were information boxes and a place to leave a donation to support the garden. There were benches and it was a great place to reflect on the blessing of being alive and able to enjoy a peaceful walk. I had been feeling cooped up for months, after developing blood clots during a business trip on behalf of my wellness and cancer-prevention nonprofit organization. An active person, I normally work out a few times a week, play a variety of sports and love to walk long distances almost every single day. The stress of dealing with cancer patients and their families every day gets cleared away during those walks – and it’s great physical exercise. Tension eases and the mind is cleared. For several months, I’ve had to limit the extent of my exercise to walking (and a little golf) because of the clots, which put me into the hospital in February with a Pulmonary Embolism. I almost died from the PE, but a brush with death doesn’t scare me as much as the fact that now I can’t even walk in broad daylight without fear of police harassment. My pursuit of happiness has been robbed from me – and from my wife, who is scared to death of me walking alone any longer. If I had chosen to walk in that same neighborhood at night I may have wound up Tased, beaten, in jail or dead. There are too many documented cases of police harassment turned brutality to ignore that possibility.
I was walking along the side of St. John’s Lane, just south of Route 40, taking a leisurely five-mile walk when I was pulled over for walking by Howard County police officer Michael R. Willingham. He had driven by me twice. When his car passed me a third time slowly, and pulled into a driveway across the street, I knew I was going to be harassed. He began by getting out of the car and gesturing with the fingers of his right hand for me to cross the street. He started questioning me. His first words to me were “What are you doing?!” There was no “Good morning sir, we’ve had some break-ins in the neighborhood recently and we’re just asking everyone we see walking if they’ve seen anything out of the ordinary.” No, instead, he addressed me like he was scolding a dog that had just made a mess in his living room. I said, “Hello, I'm walking.” Then he said, “Come over here!” and asked me for my name. I told him. I also asked why he was questioning me and he said that there have been break-ins in the neighborhood recently and I “fit the description.” I said “Oh, so someone who is Black and wearing a Tommy Bahama shirt, jeans and sandals carrying a Fiji water bottle and an iPhone with a laptop bag over his shoulder has been breaking into homes in broad daylight in this neighborhood? He said we are stopping anyone who looks like they are not from this neighborhood. “Really?,” I said. “I look like I’m not from this neighborhood? So you stopped me for Walking While Black?” “That's a new one,” I said. “A WWB. I've been pulled over for Driving While Black several times but never while walking.”
I told the officer that I was going to take a photo of him and he told me that if I did he would take my phone into evidence. I told him that I’m a member of the media and we both know that it is not against the law for me to take a photograph of him. So I told him I was going to exercise my right and I proceeded to take the photo as he stuck his hand up to shield his face. He did not manage to shield his badge though, which is what I wanted to make sure I could I.D. him properly. I also asked for his business card, which he gave to me. I told him that I know my rights and going for a walk is not against the law. When I asked him what laws I have broken he abruptly turned around and walked back to his car. He got into his car and shut the door, ignoring several attempts by me to get his attention so that he could simply answer the question.
“Officer you didn't answer my question.” No response. “Officer are we done here?” No response. “Officer if we’re done, I’m leaving.” No response.
I continue my walk in total shock of what had just happened to me, making this video as I’m walking away:
A SHOW OF FORCE
Five minutes later I'm talking with my attorney, incredulously, about the incident when three Howard County police cars pull up behind me. In an obvious show of force, PFC C.C. Reed (badge #5565) Cpl. Conner, and Officer Willingham walk towards me.
Cpl. Connor spoke first, asking me as they are walking towards me “Was there a misunderstanding back there? He repeated the same question as he got right up to me. I said “Yes there was. Officer Willingham stopped me for no reason. And then he could not explain it.”
He asked for my driver’s license. I told him that I wasn't driving, I don't drive and I don’t have a driver’s license on me. He asked for my name and I told him.
At this point, traffic is backing up in both directions. Although the lanes are clear, people in their cars seem to be as frightened as I was, not sure if it was safe to drive by the scene. Officer Willingham is standing there with his hand resting on his holstered Taser. My attorney is on the phone listening in and I inform the officers that my attorney is on the phone. Officer Willingham puts his hands in his pockets. My attorney asked me to let him talk to the officers. I handed the phone to Cpl. Conner. After a couple more uncomfortable minutes, Cpl. Conner hands me back my phone and doesn’t say a word. My attorney said he let them know that I was invoking my right to remain silent. He advised me to give them my name and show them my ID but don't answer any questions. I had my passport with me for identification and I handed it to PFC Reed. I inform the officers that I’m going to take some photos and I proceed to do so. I take a group photo of the three of them and Officer Willingham again turns his head away. I tell them unless I'm under arrest for walking, I'm going to continue my leisurely five-mile walk. PFC Reed gives my passport back to me.
As I'm walking away and they get in their cars and drive by me very slowly, one of them goes down to the end of the street, and like a scene from so many films like “Boyz N The Hood,” turns around, comes back towards me and very slowly drives by me again before speeding off. An exclamation point.
Still on the phone with my attorney, he is trying to console me by letting me know that he, as an attorney has had similar things happen to him including an incident just a couple of weeks earlier. I continue my walk, nervous, looking back every few minutes to see if they are following me. A good walk spoiled.
A little while later as I'm walking down the road a young White man runs fast past me wearing skimpy shorts, running shoes and no shirt.
I couldn't help but think of the Melvin Van Peebles film Watermelon Man, where a white man who runs every morning to beat the local bus finds his entire world turned upside down when he mysteriously turns black overnight. When he runs the same route as a black man, he’s immediately chased by police. I can’t help but think that maybe it’s time for a remake and maybe that needs to be filmed in Howard County, which doesn’t seem to be living up to James Rouse’s vision of racial harmony.
A few minutes later another white man in hiking shoes wearing a backpack large enough to hold a small flat screen TV, a stereo set and a box full of jewelry walks by me. I wonder to myself, “what are the odds that he would get stopped in that same neighborhood and what would have happened to me if I had been carrying that same backpack?”
DWB’s are a national practice of police harassment and racial profiling that has to stop. It is a practice that is used routinely everywhere in the U.S. In Howard County Maryland, however, racial profiling and harassment has been taken to a whole new level. If you’re Black in Howard County, you not only have to be careful driving – now you’re also in danger of harassment if you are walking through a nice neighborhood in broad daylight. Unless the issue is addressed at the highest levels, Howard County could be one step away from the next Rodney King or Trayvon Martin case taking place. In the minority community, DWB’s are so commonplace that it’s spoken about like it’s a joke, albeit a very scary one that is really not funny at all. The old adage, “We laugh so that we don’t cry,” holds true in this case. After many conversations with family and friends and after much prayer and thought, I’ve decided to speak out because my civil rights were violated in broad daylight and my wife broke down in tears at work, fearful of what will happen the next time the officer or his friends see me going for a walk. I’m afraid that the officers will retaliate for sharing their secrets, but I’m even more afraid of what might happen to someone else if I don’t. I’m also very afraid for the people who may not be able to articulate their feelings in the way that I’ve been able to on those many scary occasions, especially this most recent one in Howard County. Some people are so afraid that they act erratically, or lash out verbally in anger, giving bad cops a window of opportunity to do things that are far from within the letter of the law. I’m speaking out in hopes of things changing, so that my daughter and her future children won’t have to experience the same things I’ve experienced.
What is it that breeds a culture of racism within the ranks of those who are supposed to protect and serve everyone? Why do we tolerate it? Why do we only take a stand when someone gets killed? How many more times do these instances have to happen before police officers are held accountable for their actions? At the very core, it is terrorism and oppression fueled by racism. From 1983 to 1987, I served my country honorably in the U.S. Air Force. During my professional career as a writer, producer and TV host, I’ve raised more than $25 million for charities, including some charities that have benefited the families of police officers. Several years ago I championed the promotion of a violence prevention program in Baltimore featuring Carmelo Anthony, which led to Nike and other sponsors renovating a youth center. I was threatened by drug dealers but did it anyway because it was the right thing to do. I recently helped raise more than $250,000 in cash, products and services for dozens of charities in Baltimore through my TV show, “Good Fellas of Baltimore.” During the run of the show, I even a hosted Police Officer Appreciation Day where a dozen volunteers joined me to show love to the officers in Baltimore’s Eastern District. My wife and I run a 6-year-old charity we founded that helps families affected by cancer. And yet, this Veteran, this socially-responsible citizen, this champion of families affected by cancer, can’t even take a stress-relieving walk in pursuit of happiness without fear of police harassment, because I’m Black. Maybe it’s time Black families stopped having “the talk” with their children and started having a different kind of talk with their Senators and Congressmen to demand legislation that will make the need for “the talk” to become a thing of the past. It’s time for police officers in Howard County and elsewhere to be held accountable for racial profiling and harassment and for leaders in institutions that allow harassment to happen to be fined and replaced. The U.S. is supposed to be the land of the free. Police officers are supposed to protect and serve. It’s time for things to change. It’s 2012 and we’re still experiencing the same horrible things our fathers and grandfathers experienced and still asking the same question -- ”why can’t we all just get along?” Until that day comes, if you’re a police officer and you see me walking through a neighborhood, please, don’t arrest me, frisk me, harass me or Tase me, because I’m not committing a crime. I’m just Walking While Black.
~ A.J. Ali, www.ontheteewithajali.com
If you have been the subject of a DWB or WWB in Howard County, Maryland, contact the Howard County NAACP to file a report. Unless cases are documented and brought to light, they will continue to happen.
If you are stopped for a DWB or WWB:
- If you are driving, stop in a well-lit and populated area if possible. Banks, shopping centers and many other retail locations usually have video cameras that may capture the interaction.
- Remain calm and respectful and ask other members of your group to do the same.
- Know your rights.
- Get the business cards of all officers involved and take photos of them for identification purposes. Be very careful to let them know that you will be taking their picture so that you do not place yourself at risk of bodily harm.
- Have your attorney on speed dial, make the call immediately and let the officers know that your attorney is on the phone listening to everything. If you don’t have an attorney, develop a relationship with one BEFORE you need an attorney. If you need recommendations on attorneys in Howard County, Maryland, contact me at email@example.com.
- Document and report the incident immediately to the local NAACP office and ask them to follow up with their personal contacts at the police department, other local human rights organizations and the media.