Here is an account of racism experienced by a group of travellers to the Jena Six protest in Jena a few months ago (it was emailed to me).
I had the pleasure and duty to attend this rally. I hope that we all
understand the importance of our attention to the injustices that are
at work in our criminal justice system and the nation at large. Some
may view the disparate treatment of African-American males as an
African-American problem. From unequal treatment in restaurants, to questionable negotiation processes in the financial realm, inappropriate lunch and cocktail hour conversations, to my most recent en counter with our ugly American past this Wednesday night on the way to the rally in Jena, Louisiana… There are many places in America where justice, fairness and equality are not blind. I’ve been profiled many times before, but this one is worth telling. To the two men that were there with me that night, we became more than friends that night. I’m proud to have been there with them.
TYLERTOWN, MISSISSIPPI WELCOMES JENA 6 SUPPORTERS BACK TO 1957
At approximately 1130 PM, September 19, 2007, my friends (Charles Reeves and Anthony Payne) and I found ourselves on the side of the road outside the town of Tylertown, Mississippi. After riding for a short while behind the squad car that emerged from the wooded roadside, he pulled behind us and promptly turned on his lights and siren. There was no question that we were driving lawfully, as we were driving on cruise control, five miles under the speed limit. Ironically, we had chosen to do this to avoid being pulled over on the notorious stretch of Mississippi road known as “Bloody 98”.
His first question as he approached the car: Do you all have
His second question: So… Where are ya’ll headed? After I responded
that we were headed to Vidalia (a town thirty miles from Jena,
Louisiana where we had hotel reservations), he continued to ask several questions regarding Vidalia. Not one related to my registration, driving or a potential traffic violation. But instead:
Officer 1: “So, what are you going to do in Vidalia?”
MTF: “I’m going to Comfort Suites in Vidalia.”
Officer 1: “Is that it, just going to a hotel?”, “There’s nothing to do in Vidalia, is that all you’re going there for?”, “You have any friends or family there?”
MTF: (cutting him off) “I’m going to a hotel in Vidalia.”
Officer 1: “So, really, Vidalia, you going anywhere else?”, “Can you step outside to the back of the car please”
The conversation continued at the back of the car. Fog lights blared
in my face as I became increasingly angry and antagonistic. My friends are still in the car with fog lights beaming into the back of the car. After several refused attempts to get me to answer something other than “I’m going to a hotel in Vidalia”, he moved to my vehicle.
Officer 1: “So, are you aware that my computer shows that your
tag is expired?”
MTF: “No it is not. I have the registration, decals and you’re welcome to run it. Do you mind telling me what the problem is?”
Officer 1: “Well, maybe my computer’s wrong. But you were swerving back there did you know that?”
MTF: “I don’t believe that I was, but I can’t say anything about that. Do you want to tell me what the problem is?”
Officer 1: “Ok. Give me a minute. I’m just conducting my investigation.”
He returned to his car and came back.
Officer 1: “Do you have any drugs or illegal items in the car?”
MTF: “No, I don’t. I don’t keep illegal items in my car. I’m an attorney. I don’t keep any illegal items on my person or in
my car. I have a bar card if you would like to see that as well”
Officer 1: “Really? What law school did you go to?
MTF: “Howard University School of Law”
Officer 1: “Do you mind if I search your car?”
MTF: “As a matter of fact I do. No you cannot.”
At this time another squad car pulls up. Another two officers and a young African-American male in street clothes hops out. He greets
me: “What’s up”
My response: SILENCE (In my mind, I’m saying F$%^ you and what’s up!)”.
The irony of that… The unknown “brother”, forever known as Travares, smooths me over with “What’s up.” as his “friends” proceed to launch a full scale “investigation”. There are now three officers, and two people in plain clothes outside of two police cars. Apparently, all here only to investigate the reason we were traveling to Vidalia. Not a traffic violation, but why we were going to Vidalia.
I turn to the new officer…
MTF: “Look, your officer says my tag showed as expired (although it as pitch black and my year decal is covered with an Omega Psi Phi
frame plate) and I was swerving. I have shown him my license,
registration, tag registration and insurance card. I am ready to take any test that you have to give. But first, will you all please tell me what the problem is, because I do not understand.”
Officer 2: “Well, where are you guys headed?”
MTF: “Vidalia. Do you have a problem with me going to Vidalia?”
Officer 2: “Hold on. I’m just asking you some questions. Let me talk to your friend. Could you please step to the back of the squad car please?”
He approaches my friend in the front passenger seat and asks him out of the car. He takes him to the other side of the second squad car and performs a search of his person. This officer went as far as to dig into his pockets and around the inside of his waistband. He
Officer 2: “So you guys are going to Jena huh?”
AP: “I’m going to Vidalia.”
Officer 2: “So, you’re just going to Vidalia, when are you leaving?”
Officer 2: “So you’re just going to stay there one night and then
AP: “Go home.”
Officer 2: “You do know what’s going on in Jena right?”
AP: “Yes. I do.”
Officer 2: “So you’re going to Vidalia, huh”
He then left to go and question the second passenger in the back
Officer 2: “Put your hands on the headrest and don’t move them!
Where are you headed?”
Officer 2: “Where are you coming from?”
CR: “Mobile, Alabama”
Officer 2: “How old are you?”
Officer two leaves the car. Officer one returns to me as I’m standing at the back of the squad car.
MTF: “Do you want to tell me what the problem is now?”
Officer 1: “I’m going to ask you again, so you don’t want me to
search your car.”
Officer 1: “I’m just curious to know why you won’t let me search
MTF: “Because you have neither reasonable suspicion nor probable cause to conduct a search on my car. No, you cannot.”
Officer 1: “You have a nice day.”
Anthony returned to the car shortly after. We left, and were
officially welcomed to the year 1957… For thirty minutes on the side of that rode, we were part of something bigger than a random stop. We were part of the reason that buildings burned in this country. We were a part of a bigger struggle. We arrived in Jena the next day, as planned. No thanks to the law officers of Tylertown, Mississippi.
Imagine how many others faced similar circumstances while traveling on the 20th of September. Then consider how many go through similar experiences daily. An attorney, a finance collections manager and a TV productions manager were on the sid e of a dark Mississippi road in the dead of night surrounded by five suspicious Mississippi law enforcement officers and the “brother” who will forever be known as “Travares the Traitor”.
There were weapons shown, shaky hands, and the ominous smell of chewing tobacco. There were fog lights glaring. Our only crime: Being suspected of driving to participate in a demonstration that has
become one of the purest forms of American “free speech”. Apparently, it’s not free for all. We had nearly a hundred years of experience and life experience to guide them through what could have been another tragic news story.
If one of our youth was in that same predicament, would
the outcome have been the same? You be the judge? Is there still work to be done? Maybe it was all just a coincidence. Take note. Take heed. When appropriate… Take action. It is real. God bless everyone who is reading this. This letter was not written in hate or anger, but in concern. I can protect myself, what about those who can’t?
Peace. Cause we really need it