Following the church shooting on November 19, police are once again berating the community for not sharing information on the gunmen in their midst. True enough, much of this terrible violence happens in the presence of witnesses who are afraid of retribution if they talk and who have little reason to trust police. As I read the weekend papers, I was reminded of what I've learned from my students about how much repair needs to be done before police find minority youth in a cooperative frame of mind.
Take this exchange in my workplace grade 11 law class last year. At one point in our discussion, I recounted the story of how I was stopped in Stuttgart, Germany, because I was black and in Nairobi, Kenya, because I looked like a foreigner with money. I ended by telling my students how great it is that "here in Toronto I can walk the streets without fear of being stopped by the police."
I must have been having a memory lapse. Immediately I noticed a bewildered expression on a number of students' faces, most of them black. Some wondered if I was talking about the same city they know too well.
"I get stopped all the time!" said Tyrell (all names have been changed), his face resigned.
"I can't remember how many times I've been stopped and searched by the police, and only one time they found an open beer bottle in my pocket, cuz I'm a pretty good boy, you know," (laughter from the class) said Leroy, who is known to never back away from a good fight.
I asked for a show of hands of how many had been stopped by police for no apparent reason. Seventeen of the 19 males raised their hands.
Said Jason, "This one time four officers in two cruisers parked side-by-side were chatting, and my friends and I said, "Let's just pass them without looking at them.' One of us just glanced at them, and they all got out of their cruisers and stopped us. They kept us for about an hour, searching our pockets."
"What did they find?" I wanted to know.
"They found a small quantity of marijuana, but they let us go because we complied."
The stories were endless, often inconvenient but nevertheless unsettling little episodes. The students admitted that police have a difficult job, but not surprisingly, they couldn't find justification for being randomly stopped. Random means profiled to them. It's irrelevant that police searches may net the odd knife, small quantities of pot or open beer bottles. They don't want to be targeted because of their skin colour, address or style of dress.
I would not be surprised if I didn't see many of my students rushing to help police with a much-needed investigation.
But the strange thing about the classroom revelations is that, a few months later, I myself was stopped by a policeman on a bike. I'd just bought my morning coffee from a donut store known to be a hangout for drug dealers and users. I was about to drive off after placing my light jacket on the seat beside me when a very young officer tapped on my window, motioning for me to roll it down.
"Can I see what is written on the back of that jacket?" he asked.
"No. Why?" I asked.
"Someone who fits your description robbed a store."
"Officer, doesn't my grey hair suggest to you that I am over 50? Do I really fit your description?"
"Yes, all kinds of old men get involved in robberies," he said. I was not exactly sure what to make of the fact that he called me an old man. Still, I refused to show him the jacket, which prompted him to ask for my driver's licence. After checking on me using his radio, he told me to leave. I got out of my car to ask for his full name. He refused, but turned sideways to offer me a full view of his badge number.
When I shared the story with my class soon after, they couldn't contain their laughter.