The second to the last time I was racially profiled was on 23rd Street and 11th Avenue in New York City. It was two summers ago. I had just completed a wonderful bike ride: the sun warm on my back, the wind a cool and welcome antidote. I was feeling good.
I dismounted the two wheeled bike and hopped on my scooter – I use a motorized chair due to a spinal problem to get around the city – and was leisurely making my way back home.
A police car pulled in front of me and a cop leaned out and yelled: “Hey what you doing with that bike?”
“Huh?” I thought he was kidding, knowing I’m quite a sight – bike in one hand, scooter in the other – the butt of frequent comments on the street.
“You’re kidding right?” I said.
“No, we ain’t kidding,” they said.
Two white cops got out of the cruiser and then began a half-hour long interrogation. “Whose bike is that? Where’d you get it? Why do you have it? Can you ride it? How much did it cost? Where’d you buy it?” Ad naseum.
Full disclosure: I am scared of cops. The shit I’ve seen, the things I’ve experienced, the things I’ve heard. My first experience was at the age of seven or eight. I was in my backyard. A teen aged, next-door neighbor was sitting on his steps. He had come home to find the house locked. He went in through a window. Someone called the cops. They approached and questioned; he stood up to get identification and spoke a word too loudly; he was then snatched off the steps and body slammed, beaten, handcuffed, drug into a car while we watched and as my mother screamed bloody murder.
I look at a cop, I see Organized Violence. When they’re around, I’m very very careful. As Richard Pryor once said, “I don’t way to be no ‘accident.’”
But this time, I almost lost it: in fact for a second I did lose it as the realization dawned: “I’ve been profiled!” I shouted it out, livid, “Y’all profiled me!”
I struggled to contain my anger, looked around and noticed people standing at the bus stop. “Y’all profiled me! What in the hell do I look like stealing a bicycle; a guy in a wheelchair stealing a bike? Are you kidding? You should be applauding me, not accusing me!”
I know how Skip Gates must have felt: criminalized. Criminalized: no matter what you do, in the eyes of some you are always suspect, always a problem. Almost a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois posed an awful and anguished question: How does it feel to be a problem? Even in the Age of Obama it doesn’t feel good.
Despite the fact that he was in his own home, ‘armed’ with his Harvard ID and credentials in the eyes of the law, Professor Gates represented a “problem.” I feel his pain.
But bothersome as it is, it’s not the hurt and personal abuse that bothers me. After all, Professor Gates and I can take care of ourselves. Rather, it’s the systematic and consistent harassment; the unjust drug laws, the relentless attack on affirmative action, the targeting of Black and Latino homeowners for sub prime loans, the 40 percent of children of color who grow in poverty, the racial and gender wage gap — that drives me up a wall — particularly those who cannot take care of themselves.
Colin Powell, the other night, on Larry King Live, chastised Professor Gates saying he should have thought about whether now was the time to express his rage.
I for one am glad he did.
Tonight, Professor Gates, Sgt. James Crowley the arresting officer, and President Obama will sit down for a beer. I’m also glad they are. Whether they like it or not, they will emerge changed. The dialectics of life insist loudly that this is so.
But there is one thing that will not change: unless men and women of good will stand up and, yes, sometimes shout, the profiling, abuses and systemic discriminations will never end. I sure am glad Change has come to Washington.