There were two words that popped out at me from the initial statement issued by a suburban St. Louis police department after its officers falsely accused 10 black Washington University students of leaving an IHOP without paying.
“Certainly, I’m sorry they were inconvenienced and anxious about what happened,” Clayton Police Chief Kevin R. Murphy said a week ago. (The department has since offered an apology for how the situation was handled.)
“Inconvenienced” and “anxious” turned my stomach.
It’s not an “inconvenience” when you are detained and questioned by a state authority, despite being innocent of any wrongdoing. It doesn’t just make you “anxious” when you are considered suspect largely because of your race, ethnicity or religion.
For those who have never experienced that sort of situation, I’ll share what it felt like when I traveled to Israel in 2012. My husband and I went as tourists with a group of journalists, my colleagues during my Knight Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan. My husband, who was a British citizen and American permanent resident back then, is always detained for extra security clearance every single time we travel internationally.
This time, as we entered Israel at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, I was the subject of intense scrutiny. We were both taken out of the entry line and led to a waiting room. There was one other young man in the room with his elderly mom. They were Orthodox Christians who had come to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Palm Sunday. I asked him how long he had been waiting to get cleared for entry. When he said 10 hours, my heart sank.
After 45 minutes of sitting and waiting, I got more nervous.
The Israelis had my passport. How long would I be held in this room? Would I be able to communicate with the rest of the group waiting for us? What was going to happen next?
In that moment, you feel powerless. You’ve lost your freedom of movement. You are at the mercy of those already suspicious of your very identity.
You don’t feel inconvenienced. You feel like a hostage.
I was taken back to a smaller interrogation room. Four different Israeli authorities asked me why I was coming to the country. They also wanted to know: my father’s name, my grandfather’s name, where I was born, where my parents were born, where my parents lived in America, who I would be seeing in Israel, where I would be going and staying, who I was traveling with, which countries my travel companions were from, my occupation, what I write about, how I knew the person who arranged the trip, my personal email address, my cell number and my home number in the United States.
I was worried about accidentally misspeaking during this interrogation. I tried to remember my grandfathers’ given names, versus the titles and names I knew them by. I wondered if the security officials were going to ask for the passwords to my email accounts, and how I would respond. I have a public online profile and body of work, so a quick Google search would have revealed exactly who I am.
Most of all, I wondered if this ordeal had been worth trying to see a part of the world I had always wanted to visit. About an hour into this, an influential Israeli journalist who was helping coordinate things for our group made a call on our behalf to the airport authority. We were released shortly thereafter.
Now imagine you are a teenager -- away from home, under suspicion for a crime you didn’t commit, unsure of what might happen to you, and more than likely having seen plenty of videos of police officers fatally shooting unarmed black men.
You don’t feel “anxious” in that situation. You are scared, angry, humiliated, panicked and upset.
Like those Wash U student, I benefited from the backing of a powerful institution.
If these students hadn’t been affiliated with Wash U, would any of us even have heard about it? Would the Clayton Police Department have apologized days later? If an Israeli journalist had not intervened on my behalf, how many hours would I have sat in that interrogation room with armed security questioning me?
The aftermath of the Clayton incident provoked revealing commentary on all sides of the issue.
I read thoughts of those who do not worry about being pulled over every time they drive, who do not think about being detained and questioned every time they fly, who do not expect neighbors to call the police on their children if they set up a lemonade stand in front of their homes. I suppose if you haven’t frequently found yourself suspect for no reason but your race or ethnicity, you might be able to have a casual attitude about being detained by police.
If the police got a report that young black diners left a restaurant without paying, well then, what were the cops supposed to do but stop a group of black kids they see in the vicinity? Regardless of whether some of the kids had receipts, regardless of how few matched a limited description, what’s the big deal of “inconveniencing” 10 students when a $60 unpaid bill is at stake?
Perhaps consider an alternate scenario where it might be your own children under a cloud of suspicion for similar reasons. Nearly all mass school shooters are male. Should any threat or hoax prompt the police to detain, search and question male students based on the most common demographic traits of school shooters? What if your teenage son was pulled out of his class because he looked like Nikolas Cruz, Adam Lanza, Elliot Rodger, Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, all of whom have committed some of the worst mass school shootings in America?
What if it was your teenage child who was publicly embarrassed, suspected of a crime, questioned and detained by police because he matched a description?
I mean, what are the police supposed to do?