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Tuesday, December 18, 2018


I am copying this from the FaceBook page of my son, Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff.  I had intended to spend today writing a lengthy post bringing together what I have learned from Piketty and Marx and others, but then I read this and I just felt sick inside.  The words before the picture are those of Tobias.

This man is a career academic. I am a career academic. We share a vocation and a professional status. And yet, I have never had anything remotely like this happen to me, and I am able to lead my life without ever having to worry that something like this will happen to me.
Please read Professor Locke's entire narrative.
Tray John
This is a professor, who has the tools to articulate how this encounter affected him. He also has the age and wisdom that allowed for him to maintain his composure and not lose his life. Now, imagine a YOUNG Black person, who is not equip with either.
Steve Locke wrote:
"This is what I wore to work today.
On my way to get a burrito before work, I was detained by the police.
I noticed the police car in the public lot behind Centre Street. As I was walking away from my car, the cruiser followed me. I walked down Centre Street and was about to cross over to the burrito place and the officer got out of the car.
“Hey my man,” he said.
He unsnapped the holster of his gun.
I took my hands out of my pockets.
“Yes?” I said.
“Where you coming from?”
Where’s home?”
How’d you get here?”
“I drove.”
He was next to me now. Two other police cars pulled up. I was standing in from of the bank across the street from the burrito place. I was going to get lunch before I taught my 1:30 class. There were cops all around me.
I said nothing. I looked at the officer who addressed me. He was white, stocky, bearded.
“You weren’t over there, were you?” He pointed down Centre Street toward Hyde Square.
“No. I came from Dedham.”
“What’s your address?”
I told him.
“We had someone matching your description just try to break into a woman’s house.”
A second police officer stood next to me; white, tall, bearded. Two police cruisers passed and would continue to circle the block for the 35 minutes I was standing across the street from the burrito place.
“You fit the description,” the officer said. “Black male, knit hat, puffy coat. Do you have identification.”
“It’s in my wallet. May I reach into my pocket and get my wallet?”
I handed him my license. I told him it did not have my current address. He walked over to a police car. The other cop, taller, wearing sunglasses, told me that I fit the description of someone who broke into a woman’s house. Right down to the knit cap.
Barbara Sullivan made a knit cap for me. She knitted it in pinks and browns and blues and oranges and lime green. No one has a hat like this. It doesn’t fit any description that anyone would have. I looked at the second cop. I clasped my hands in front of me to stop them from shaking.
“For the record,” I said to the second cop, “I’m not a criminal. I’m a college professor.” I was wearing my faculty ID around my neck, clearly visible with my photo.
“You fit the description so we just have to check it out.” The first cop returned and handed me my license.
“We have the victim and we need her to take a look at you to see if you are the person.”
It was at this moment that I knew that I was probably going to die. I am not being dramatic when I say this. I was not going to get into a police car. I was not going to present myself to some victim. I was not going let someone tell the cops that I was not guilty when I already told them that I had nothing to do with any robbery. I was not going to let them take me anywhere because if they did, the chance I was going to be accused of something I did not do rose exponentially. I knew this in my heart. I was not going anywhere with these cops and I was not going to let some white woman decide whether or not I was a criminal, especially after I told them that I was not a criminal. This meant that I was going to resist arrest. This meant that I was not going to let the police put their hands on me.
If you are wondering why people don’t go with the police, I hope this explains it for you.
Something weird happens when you are on the street being detained by the police. People look at you like you are a criminal. The police are detaining you so clearly you must have done something, otherwise they wouldn’t have you. No one made eye contact with me. I was hoping that someone I knew would walk down the street or come out of one of the shops or get off the 39 bus or come out of JP Licks and say to these cops, “That’s Steve Locke. What the F*CK are you detaining him for?”
The cops decided that they would bring the victim to come view me on the street. The asked me to wait. I said nothing. I stood still.
“Thanks for cooperating,” the second cop said. “This is probably nothing, but it’s our job and you do fit the description. 5′ 11″, black male. One-hundred-and-sixty pounds, but you’re a little more than that. Knit hat.”
A little more than 160. Thanks for that, I thought.
An older white woman walked behind me and up to the second cop. She turned and looked at me and then back at him. “You guys sure are busy today.”
I noticed a black woman further down the block. She was small and concerned. She was watching what was going on. I focused on her red coat. I slowed my breathing. I looked at her from time to time.
I thought: Don’t leave, sister. Please don’t leave.
The first cop said, “Where do you teach?”
“Massachusetts College of Art and Design.” I tugged at the lanyard that had my ID.
“How long you been teaching there?”
“Thirteen years.”
We stood in silence for about 10 more minutes.
An unmarked police car pulled up. The first cop went over to talk to the driver. The driver kept looking at me as the cop spoke to him. I looked directly at the driver. He got out of the car.
“I’m Detective Cardoza. I appreciate your cooperation.”
I said nothing.
“I’m sure these officers told you what is going on?”
“They did.”
“Where are you coming from?”
“From my home in Dedham.”
“How did you get here?”
“I drove.”
“Where is your car?”
“It’s in the lot behind Bukhara.” I pointed up Centre Street.
“Okay,” the detective said. “We’re going to let you go. Do you have a car key you can show me?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m going to reach into my pocket and pull out my car key.”
I showed him the key to my car.
The cops thanked me for my cooperation. I nodded and turned to go.
“Sorry for screwing up your lunch break,” the second cop said.
I walked back toward my car, away from the burrito place. I saw the woman in red.
“Thank you,” I said to her. “Thank you for staying.”
“Are you ok?” She said. Her small beautiful face was lined with concern.
“Not really. I’m really shook up. And I have to get to work.”
“I knew something was wrong. I was watching the whole thing. The way they are treating us now, you have to watch them. ”
“I’m so grateful you were there. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Don’t leave, sister.’ May I give you a hug?”
“Yes,” she said. She held me as I shook. “Are you sure you are ok?”
“No I’m not. I’m going to have a good cry in my car. I have to go teach.”
“You’re at MassArt. My friend is at MassArt.”
“What’s your name?” She told me. I realized we were Facebook friends. I told her this.
“I’ll check in with you on Facebook,” she said.
I put my head down and walked to my car.
My colleague was in our shared office and she was able to calm me down. I had about 45 minutes until my class began and I had to teach. I forgot the lesson I had planned. I forget the schedule. I couldn’t think about how to do my job. I thought about the fact my word counted for nothing, they didn’t believe that I wasn’t a criminal. They had to find out. My word was not enough for them. My ID was not enough for them. My handmade one-of-a-kind knit hat was an object of suspicion. My Ralph Lauren quilted blazer was only a “puffy coat.” That white woman could just walk up to a cop and talk about me like I was an object for regard. I wanted to go back and spit in their faces. The cops were probably deeply satisfied with how they handled the interaction, how they didn’t escalate the situation, how they were respectful and polite.
I imagined sitting in the back of a police car while a white woman decides if I am a criminal or not. If I looked guilty being detained by the cops imagine how vile I become sitting in a cruiser? I knew I could not let that happen to me. I knew if that were to happen, I would be dead.
Nothing I am, nothing I do, nothing I have means anything because I fit the description.
I had to confess to my students that I was a bit out of it today and I asked them to bear with me. I had to teach.
After class I was supposed to go to the openings for First Friday. I went home."
~Steve Locke


In The Dark said...

I get how frustrating and terrifying it is to be detained by the police (and I know all too well how they will slip past your rights if you let them), but I don't get what these officers did wrong. No, you just saying you aren't the suspect isn't going to clear you of suspicion. But why should it? Isn't that a ridiculous thing to expect? And the eye-witness testimony of another person doesn't "decide" you're a criminal--the court does that--and I see no reason to think the cops were going to let the woman decide that. And if she positively IDed him during the detention, my understanding is that that would have been probable cause to arrest him.

What am I missing here? Please explain it to me. I really do want to understand.

Also in the dark said...

Obviously somebody who LOOKED LIKE HIM is accused of a crime. So the rational (for the police) and safe (for us) thing to do is detain this guy to check him out. This is how it's supposed to work. If nobody who looked like him committed a crime, I doubt that (i) the woman would have spontaneously called the cops or (ii) that the cops would have arbitrarily detained him. The real problem is not with the police, but with the OTHER person who is claimed to have committed a crime. These are simply facts that can't be wished away...

s. wallerstein said...

I've been stopped and searched by cops in the U.S., Brazil and Chile (during the Pinochet dictatorship) and the U.S. cops were the most frightening. I was walking down the street in N.Y. at night in the late 60's, I had long hair then, I saw a police car approach and suddenly, two cops got out and threw me against a wall. They frisked me and told me that I was seen trying to rob a car. That wasn't true of course, I showed them a student ID (which was the only ID I had) and finally, they told me that they were going to let me go "this time". I was also once interrogated at length by the NYPD homicide squad (that's a long story), but they were fairly polite.

I'm white, middle-class and I knew that they were not going to kill me and that even if they did arrest me on a false charge, someone from the university or my family would send a lawyer to get me out fairly rapidly. Now if I were black and the same thing or something similar were to happen to me (as it did to Professor Locke), the situation might be more traumatic because innocent black people are murdered by the cops with a certain frequency and you never know whether you will be the next innocent victim.

There's a whole question of dignity too: if your people are constantly treated in a undignified manner by the police (as is not the case with me and is the case with blacks), then you become more sensitive to small instances of lack of dignity in police treatment.

howard said...

Dear In the dark

It is well known in psychological research that people outside our group of reference look alike to us to a greater degree
So white people including officers have a harder time telling African Americans apart than other African Americans
So even though they were looking for a certain profile the key term that sprung them into action is black male.
They see black men as a stereotype and might further break it down further into young, big athletic and so forth, or as something more sinister. but for all the detail in their description the key term lodged in their mind is black, which for them goes along with criminal and dangerous
I don't know if it's a matter of cognitive bias or racial animus and while maybe we've progressed that the cops are not wearing white hoods hunting victims down and burning crosses, but the prejudice is real and it comes out in blatant ways which may have put this professor's life at risk.
They certainly saw the professor as a black man first and as a threat rather than as a professor deserving respect

Anonymous said...

Dear In the dark,

I think the question "What did these officers do wrong?" is the wrong question to ask. A better place to start is something like "How are the experiences of a black man in America different than a white man?" It's not important to find a particular person to blame before feeling that our society is unjust. Clearly any society where black men face real threats to their life is an unjust one, regardless of whose "fault" it is. Is it ever really possible to only blame a single person for anything as complicated as the justice system?

The fact is that black men fear their life on a regular basis when they deal with the police. This is something that many people with power have never experienced and will never have to experience by virtue of being white. You can argue about how to solve that, but it's hard to argue that it's not profoundly wrong.

Anonymous said...

This police attitude has spread into the wider society. See for example, this case in Ohio (link is below), where the bank teller called the police because she thought the black man's check was too high! How much was the check for? 2-week salary at minimum wage. Like this professor, he was put detained, cuffed, and put in a police car until they verified with the employer that the check was legit. They wouldn't accept the black man's word, identity, signature. His entire life's conferral was dependent on a young white woman's suspicion.

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Locke's account was very tragic. I don't know much about police brutality, but I could feel the tension throughout the entire narrative. I thought Dr. Locke might come off worse than he actually did--although what actually did happen to him was very nefarious and wrong. I was emotionally shaken throughout the entire narrative. I'm glad Professor Locke wrote the story, and I'm glad Professor Wolff posted it here on his blog. I hope everyone learns that this was no peccadillo sin and that the U.S. has a long way to go concerning equality and justice in America.

Michael Llenos said...

instead of "come off worse than he actually did" I meant 'end up worse than he actually did'

Didn't see the confusing part of the text until now. Too bad there is no edit button. All one can do is post or delete.

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