Martin Luther King Day, 1998
Because it was a holiday, the kids were off from school. My 17-year-old stepson had asked to borrow the car to go out with his friends. Like any parent of a recently licensed driver, I was relieved to see the car, dent-free and unscratched, parked in the driveway when I got home. But I was unprepared for what I would find when I walked in the door.
Chris, my stepson, and his friend Fahim were pacing the floor, fuming with anger. Chris, who is Hispanic, and his friends Ty and Fahim, both African American, had just endured a humiliating experience with the police.
For some reason, they had driven from our mostly black and Hispanic, North Jersey town, into a nearby municipality that was predominately white. They had pulled over to the side of the road and parked so they could listen to a song on the car stereo. (How many times had I done the same thing as a teen without any problem?) That’s when they saw the flashing lights.
After making the boys exit the car, the officers frisked them and searched through the glove compartment and the rest of the vehicle. Then they let them go. The kids had done nothing illegal and were merely sitting in the car minding their own business.
What I remember most was Fahim’s face. He looked like he was about to explode. Fahim spent a lot of time in our home, and he was always welcome there. Though he had a lot stacked against him (his father had been murdered several years before), Fahim was polite, intelligent, and interested in life. He was a kid I was happy to have hanging out with my son. But I had never seen Fahim this angry before. His furious breathing could be heard across the room. He couldn’t sit still.
“Get in the car,” I said. “We’re going to Lyndhurst.” I wasn’t sure what we would do when we got there, but I knew we had to do something. So as we drove out of town, I came up with a plan. “We are going to the police station. We will ask for an apology. Let’s all agree that if they apologize for what they did, we will be satisfied with that.”
I realize now that only a white man like me would stomp into a police station as boldly as I did that day. I felt entitled to be there, or anywhere in this country for that matter. I demanded to speak with the officers who had harassed my son. Being treated with the courtesy I had been raised to expect, I was directed to a lieutenant. After I explained what had happened, he said (without blushing), “We have had a lot of break-ins lately, reportedly by black and Hispanic men. So when we see anyone who fits that description, we stop and search them.”
“But we want an apology,” I demanded.
“I apologize.” He said the words, but he didn’t look sorry.
I directed the boys to the car, assuming the problem was solved. We had made a deal, hadn’t we? We had all agreed: if the police apologize, we will be satisfied. That will be enough for us. But as we drove home in silence, I could tell the boys were still steaming. Why couldn’t they calm down and move on?
“Teenagers!” I thought. “Someday they’ll understand.”
That was 24 years ago. Martin Luther King Day. Now I realize that I was the one who didn’t understand. (Will I ever?) An apology for injustice means nothing when there is no intention to change. The sting of humiliation doesn’t dissipate at the sound of a few empty words. Even when they end peacefully (and sometimes they don’t), those kinds of traffic stops rob people of their basic human dignity. And in a world where dignity can be hard to hold onto, that’s a big deal.
As I look back on that day, I’m still not sure what I should have done. But there is no doubt in my mind – I should have done more.