Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Assumption. Gun. Humiliation. Apology?

Journalist Charles M. Blow
The face and writing of journalist, author and columnist Charles M. Blow (pictured left) are familiar to those who regularly follow his op-ed essays in The New York Times, where he has weighed in on race, culture, politics and other topics since 2009.

But in recent years, particularly since the tragic shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida back in February 2012, his eloquence as a writer, combined with the fact that he's a father of three sons, have lent his op-ed essays an intellectual authority and deep insight on the troubled issue of race in America.

When it comes to the ongoing epidemic of excessive use of force by police against young men of color in this country, Charles M. Blow isn't just writing about the topic, as a black father he truly lives it. 

His column, which appeared in the NY Times on Monday, struck me on a very personal level.

By now you may have heard the news that his oldest son, a junior at Yale University, was stopped by a Yale University campus policeman on Saturday evening who pulled a gun on him.

Click the link above, because you really should read his account of what happened, but it boils down to a recurring theme oft covered on this blog; how quick police in America are to react with aggression to the sight of a young man with dark skin.

Mr. Blow's son had gone over to the Yale University library early this past Saturday evening January 24th to check on a book he'd requested and order some equipment for a presentation.

Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University
When he walked out of the library (pictured left) a campus cop started following him, told him to stop and pulled out his gun and pointed it at him; told him to get on the ground face down.

The Yale cop was black by the way.

The reason for the stop? A common one men of color in America, including yours truly, have heard more than once; I can quote it by heart.

"There was a report of a [BREAK-IN, ASSAULT, RAPE, ROBBERY ETC.] in the area and you fit the description of the suspect."

Only in this particular case, on this particular evening in New Haven, Connecticut Mr. Blow's son was NOT the suspect in question.

He was the oldest son of a highly-respected journalist and a third-year student at Yale.

He was an unarmed, innocent young man walking away from the library of one of the most prestigious universities in the world, but he "fit the description" and his skin was dark - so the cop pulled a gun on him.

As Mr. Blow observed in a NY Times essay back in 2012 in the immediate wake of the death of Trayvon Martin, "This is the nightmare scenario for any parent,"

It's a nightmare for the son too, believe me.

I had a similar experience of being unfairly and unjustly detained by police temporarily in the early 90's when I was a student at Penn State University.

I can still recall the feeling of humiliation, anger, fear and helplessness of being taken to a police station in handcuffs for something I didn't do.

The simmering resentment I felt inside when the police figured out that a simple administrative mistake had led to my being wrongly detained before they let me go is still with me as I write this so many years later.   

Charles Blow's column on Monday unlocked personal memories for me that are still painful; including the recognition that even though I was a student at the college, the police ignored my pleas of innocence and simply saw my skin color.

According to an article posted on, Yale officials have released a statement apologizing for the incident and have promised to release a report on the investigation they plan to conduct.

Given the ongoing protests over excessive police force in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed men of color at the hands of police, and this nation's troubled record with the ways some members of law enforcement have systematically treated young men of color, clearly Yale is trying to get out in front of the incident quickly before it blows up in the media.

After all it wasn't all that long ago that preeminent Harvard history professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested by a cop who saw the nationally-recognized African-American scholar trying to get into the front door of his own house and it became a national media story.

It says a lot about America that such incidents are still taking place on the campuses of the nation's finest universities in the 21st century.

Whether it's a 3rd year student at Yale who's the son of a nationally-recognized journalist, or a highly-respected professor of history at Harvard, sadly for many law enforcement professionals, it doesn't matter where you are, who you are or even whether you're guilty or innocent.

In their eyes it begins and ends with your being black; and that can get you killed.

And that is a truly troubling reality on this day, January 27, 2015 when over 300 Holocaust survivors gathered in Poland to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz by lead elements of the Soviet Red Army in 1945. 

Against a background where Jews are once again coming under the cloud of increased persecution and anti-Semitism in France, Germany and other European countries, the president of the World Jewish Congress Ronald S. Lauder warned the attendees gathered at the site where over 1.1 million people were killed by the Nazis:

"Jews are targeted in Europe once again because they are Jews...Once again young Jewish boys are afraid to wear yarmulkes [skullcaps] on the streets of Paris, Budapest, London and even Berlin."

The terrifying lessons of the consequences of unchecked hate and bigotry are there before us, it remains to be seen if those in America predisposed to hatred and prejudice will heed them. 

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