FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Very Short History of Driving While Black

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

The issue of racial profiling by police briefly grabbed the attention of the press in June of 1999 when New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman fired the head of the state police after he accused blacks and Hispanics of being more likely to be drug dealers and therefore deserving of heightened police scrutiny. Whitman earned glowing coverage for her swift action.

In fact, Whitman had sedulously ignored the problem for most of her term, insisting that racial profiling was not a practice of the state police. Even after two New Jersey state troopers fired eleven shots into a van carrying four black men on their way to a basketball clinic in 1998, Whitman clung to her contention that the action was not racially motivated. In 1995, a New Jersey state judge threw out charges against fifteen black drivers who, the judge concluded, had been pulled over without cause. During the trial it emerged that on a 26-mile long stretch on the southern part of the New Jersey Turnpike minorities accounted for 46 percent of the drivers stopped, even though they accounted for only 15 percent of suspected speeders.

Whitman also kept her mouth shut when Emblez Longoria, a New Jersey state trooper, filed suit against his department claiming that she was being pressured to make illegal stops of black and Hispanic drivers in order to fulfill his arrest quotas. Longoria, who is Hispanic, alleges that he was denied promotions and harassed by his superiors when he refused to pull over drivers using racial profiling. Ultimately, the Governor’s hand was forced by the racist remarks of Col. Carl Williams, the head of the New Jersey state police. Responding to a report showing that 75 percent of all motorists arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike in the first two months of 1997 were minorities, Williams told the Newark Star-Ledger that cocaine and marijuana traffickers were most likely to be either black or Hispanic. Williams was canned, but that was it. The investigation of his Department was put into the hands of Attorney General Peter Verniero, who has fiercely denied that New Jersey cops use profiling. Black leaders in New Jersey demanded that Verniero’s investigation be taken up by an independent panel. But Whitman refused and instead nominated Verniero (who obediently buried the troublesome issue) for a spot on the New Jersey Supreme Court.

But racial profiling is neither new nor isolated to the Garden State. Criminology has had these genetic typing obsessions as far back as eugenicists such as Cesare Lombroso, who attempted to define criminal types through head shapes and other physical characteristics. Particularly influential in the US was Earnest Albert Hooten, a Harvard professor of anthropology and appalling racist who published The American Criminal in 1939. Now these racist theories have pervaded the policing system of the United States from coast-to-coast. To be a black driver in America is to invite police scrutiny, as thousands are daily singled out for groundless pull-overs, “pretext” stops, and subjected to intrusive, warrantless searches and abusive treatment by police.

The problem is not merely one of racist cops, but of a policing system that encourages and promotes racial typing. In Amherst, Massachusetts, the police department held seminars for its officers on “perpetrator profiles”. The officers were told that “interracial couples” were more likely to be engaged in drug dealing than white couples.

In San Diego, the police are ever vigilant to pull over black people driving expensive cars. In October of 1997, a black man named Shawn Lee and his girlfriend were stopped by the California Highway Patrol on Interstate 15. Lee, a member of the San Diego Chargers football team, and his girlfriend were handcuffed and held by police for more than an hour. The patrolman said that they were detained because Lee was driving a car that fit a description of one that had been reported as stolen that night. This story was false. Lee was driving a new Jeep Grand Cherokee. The stolen vehicle was a Honda.

A similar kind of racial typing is evident up the coast in supposedly liberal Santa Monica. In the fall of 1996, a pair of police cars tailed Darryl Hicks and George Washington, two black men, as they pulled into the parking garage of their hotel. The police cruisers turned on their lights and at gun-point ordered the men out of their cars. The men were handcuffed and placed in separate police cars. Washington and Hicks’ car was searched. The police claimed the men were being detained because they fit the description of suspects wanted in a string of nineteen armed robberies. The officers also said one of the men appeared to be “nervous”. Washington and Hicks later sued the police officers for false arrest and civil rights violations. In ruling for the two men, the court determined that the armed robberies had not occurred in Santa Monica and that neither of the men fit the descriptions of the robbers.

In Carmel, Indiana, an affluent suburb of Indianapolis, a state trooper pulled over a black man named David Smith. The trooper was unaware that Smith was a sergeant in the Carmel city police department and the sedan he was driving was actually an unmarked police car. Smith was ordered out of his car and, according to Smith, the trooper appeared to be “shocked and surprised” when he saw that Smith was wearing his police uniform. The trooper said he had pulled Smith over because he had three antennas on the back of his car.

A similar incident occurred in Orange County, Florida. In April of 1997,Aaron Campbell was pulled over by sheriff’s deputies on the Florida Turnpike. The deputies ordered Campbell from the car, forced him to the pavement, drenched his face with pepper spray and arrested him. Campbell was a major in the Metro-Dade County police department and had identified himself as a policeman when he was pulled over. The Orange County deputies later said Campbell had been stopped for having an “obscured license tag” and for making an illegal lane change.

As is so often the case, the pretext for the profiling is the drug war, itself an ill-disguised form of state-sponsored racism. Nowhere has this kind of racial typing in the name of drug interdiction been used as aggressively as in Maryland, where since at least 1988 it has been the policy of the state troopers to pull over, detain and search drivers for drugs and guns, using a race-based “drug courier profile”. According to the testimony of a Maryland State Trooper, those race profiles explicitly targeted: “1) young, black males wearing expensive jewelry; 2) driving expensive cars, usually sports cars; 3) carrying beepers; and 4) in possession of telephone numbers.”

In 1990, the state police set up a drug task force called “Special Traffic Interdiction Force”, or STIF.  STIF targeted drivers along Interstate95 in northeastern Maryland. The unit was composed of six white troopers. Over the course of six years, the STIF unit, using the drug courier profile, pulled over and searched black drivers four times as often as they did whites. One of the troopers, Bernard M. Donovan, searched only black drivers.

In 1992, the Maryland State Police’s Criminal Intelligence Division developed a “Confidential Criminal Intelligence Report”, which troopers used to make stops and searches based on race. The report encouraged troopers in Allegheny County to increase searches of black male drivers by saying that “the county is currently experiencing a serious problem with the incoming flow of crack cocaine”. The Intelligence Report professed that “the dealers and couriers (traffickers) are predominantly black males and females”.

The Criminal Intelligence Report came to light through a lawsuit filed in 1993 by Robert Wilkins. Wilkins, a Harvard Law School graduate, was a public defender in Washington, DC. In May of 1992 he was returning to DC from a family funeral in Ohio in a rented Cadillac. He was accompanied by his aunt, uncle and a 29-year old cousin. Wilkins was pulled over by a trooper in western Maryland for speeding. He and his family were ordered out of the car and forced to stand in driving rain for more than an hour as the state trooper brought in drug-sniffing dogs to search the car. No drugs were found. Wilkins and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit and, in 1995, won a substantial settlement from the Maryland State Police. As part of the Wilkins settlement, the state police agreed to compile a database of all stops of drivers on Maryland highways in which police ask to perform searches or in which a search is done by a drug-sniffing dog.

White motorists make up 78 per cent of Maryland highway traffic, while black drivers account for about 17 per cent and other minorities about 5percent in the state. When the Wilkins data were submitted to the court in late 1998, they showed that between January 1, 1995 and December 15,1997, more than 70 per cent of the people who were stopped and searched on Interstate 95 were black and about 77 per cent were minorities. Only about 23 per cent were white. The data also revealed that the vast majority of drivers who were stopped and searched and not found to be carrying any drugs were also black, more than 67 percent. The ACLU used such data to bring a class action suit against the Maryland state police.

Clearly, the Wilkins litigation did nothing alter the racist practices of the Maryland troopers as evidenced by the testimony of State Trooper Michael Lewis in a recent criminal case. Lewis told the court that he pulled over Robert Ware in large measure because he was a young, black man. Lewis admitted that he factored in the race of drivers on a daily basis as part of his drug interdiction work. In late 1998, the Maryland State Police assigned Lewis to a post as an instructor, training other troopers in how to identify potential drug couriers on the state’s highways.

One of the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit was Nelson Walker, a native of Liberia and a student at the University of North Carolina. In April of 1995, Walker was stopped on Interstate 95, purportedly for failure to have his seatbelt buckled. The trooper who pulled him over insinuated that his 1990Infiniti was too nice a car for Walker to be driving and ordered Walker and his passenger out of the car. Drug-detecting dogs were called for and then the car was searched for over an hour and a half. Walker and his friend, Mecca Agunabo I, were made to stand in the rain for nearly two hours while the car was searched.

When Agunabo said he needed to get out of the rain because he had just recently recovered from a bout with pneumonia, the trooper threatened to arrest him. In a search for drugs, the troopers rummaged through the men’s luggage and other personal belongings. Then the troopers largely dismantled Walker’s car, tearing out a door panel, the back seat and part of the sunroof. No drugs were found. One of the troopers went to his cruiser and returned with a screwdriver, which he handed to Walker saying, “Here, you’re going to need this.”

This essay is excerpted from “Killing Trayvon: Racism in Post-Racial America,” edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Kevin Alexander Gray, coming soon from CounterPunch Books.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

More articles by:
May 30, 2016
Ron Jacobs
The State of the Left: Many Movements, Too Many Goals?
James Abourezk
The Intricacies of Language
Porfirio Quintano
Hillary, Honduras, and the Murder of My Friend Berta
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes on ISIS are Reducing Their Cities to Ruins
Uri Avnery
The Center Doesn’t Hold
Raouf Halaby
The Sailors of the USS Liberty: They, Too, Deserve to Be Honored
Rodrigue Tremblay
Barack Obama’s Legacy: What Happened?
Matt Peppe
Just the Facts: The Speech Obama Should Have Given at Hiroshima
Deborah James
Trade Pacts and Deregulation: Latest Leaks Reveal Core Problem with TISA
Michael Donnelly
Still Wavy After All These Years: Flower Geezer Turns 80
Ralph Nader
The Funny Business of Farm Credit
Paul Craig Roberts
Memorial Day and the Glorification of Past Wars
Colin Todhunter
From Albrecht to Monsanto: A System Not Run for the Public Good Can Never Serve the Public Good
Rivera Sun
White Rose Begins Leaflet Campaigns June 1942
Tom H. Hastings
Field Report from the Dick Cheney Hunting Instruction Manual
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail