I Fit The Description: The Day I Was Racially Profiled By Berkeley Police
by: Delency Parham
First I want to start this off by saying peace and blessings to my brothers and sisters who are locked in a cell for a crime they didn’t commit. May you keep your spirits high and your head up. Justice is on the way.
I was browsing the Internet the other day and I came across a story where a professor at MassArt talked about a recent encounter he had with the Boston Police. His story sounded all too familiar. Steve Locke, who has been teaching at MassArt for 13 years, was recently stopped for fitting the description of a robbery suspect: 5’11, Black Male 160 pounds, wearing a black puffy coat and a knit cap. Fortunately for him, he was able to walk away from the misunderstanding, unlike the many Black males we see and read about on the news each day. The Trayvon Martins. The Laquan McDonalds, and many others. Reading Steve Locke’s story brought back memories of a situation I encountered with the Berkeley Police department the summer after my high school graduation. An experience that continues to haunt me til this day.
The summer of high school graduation is considered the most exhilarating time of many people’s lives. You and your friends are at the top of the world. Riding that post-graduation high without a care in the world. You’re on the cusp of adulthood, but still young enough to spend your time lounging around and not being judged for it. The beginning of my summer was off to a great start. I was working out everyday in preparation for the upcoming football season. I had signed my letter of intent to play football for Humboldt State that February and I had my mind set on arriving at the university in the best shape possible. The rest of my time was spent hanging with friends and going on the occasional date. I was 17 and enjoying the fruits of my labor. It wasn’t until a Monday night in early July that my summer and my life came crashing down. It seems like it was so long ago, but I can still see it so vividly.
It was a normal night at my aunt’s house, who lives on Ashby and Otis right across the street from the BART station. My aunt was downstairs watching TV and my younger cousin Jayla was upstairs washing my little sister’s hair. My grandmother had got me a Macbook for graduation, the first laptop I could call my own and I was fascinated by it. I was watching a Mike Epps comedy special, and every few minutes I would go check on my sister and cousin. I got a call from a really good friend of mine, Daniel, telling me he was about to pull up in front of my house and asking me to come outside to smoke. I took my laptop with me to the car because I figured “hey we getting high, might as well have a good laugh while we’re at it.”
As I walked down my driveway to meet Daniel, I saw my cousin Keenan and his girlfriend in the car across the street. I gave him a head nod and proceeded to enter Daniel’s car. Time goes by, we’re smoking and having a good time watching the comedy special. I mean it Mike Epps, the guy is hilarious. About 15 minutes go by and he tells me he’s about to head home. We shake hands and I get out. As I’m walking back to the house, I scream Keenan’s name, he looks up, and I give him the middle finger then turn around and moon him. I pull my pants up and take a few steps and that is when I see the red, white, and blue flashing lights. Car after car, they pull directly on the curb. One officer gets out his car gun drawn and yells “get on the fucking ground or I will blow your head off.”
I screamed “Don’t shoot it’s just a laptop.” I had heard stories of Black men getting killed for having objects in their hands and police “mistaking” it for a gun. I had to make sure I wasn’t another statistic. By this time I was delusional with fear, my heart is racing, and between all the flashing lights I couldn’t see a thing. I continue to plead for my life. It wasn’t too long ago that Oscar Grant was executed and the first cop made it clear he had nothing but the worst intentions. Two cops made their way towards me and one said “You thought you could get away.” The other told me put my hands behind my back and then handcuffed me. They both lift me off the concrete and when I get up the first thing I see is Keenan staring at me; he’s just as confused as I am. I look to my left and see two cops with their guns drawn on Daniel. He opens the car door and a cloud of smoke exits the vehicle.
I yelled to Keenan, “Go get Auntie Cathy!” and before I could say another word they put me in the back of the squad car.
While in the back seat, I have a million thoughts going through my mind. I had seen this story one too many times and it never ends well. Usually someone that looks like me loses their life or they go to jail. Either option was not right for a kid who was turning 18 and headed to college in a few weeks. The voice on the dispatch got me out of my head and back to reality.
“Suspects of the 211 detained, one more at large,” says the voice.
I looked at the police monitor and it read: 3 suspects at large, 3 Black males, one wearing a black hoodie, the other white t-shirt and blue jeans” I stopped right there because I knew where this was headed. I had on a Black hoody and house shoes, while Daniel wore a white T and blue jeans. Now anyone with common sense knows that this is common attire, especially in the Black community, so by all means we were done. We fit the description enough for them to take us in.
Another loud voice was able to bring me back to reality: my auntie’s loud cries for an explanation. She pleaded with them that it was pretty much impossible for me to have committed the robbery when I was in the house all night and had just walked outside a few minutes ago. The cop explained to her that a laptop had been stolen. They had chased the suspect from downtown Berkeley and lost him on the dead end on Russell and Milvia, right around the corner from her house and when they went around to try and meet him guess who was standing right there on the corner holding a laptop…ME!
My aunt told them that the laptop was a gift and to provide more proof my grandmother drove to the scene with a receipt of purchase, even though my name was on the lock screen. A couple more minutes go by and finally a cop enters the squad car I’m in. I try to tell him that I’m innocent and that the only description I fit is the black sweater. I had on slippers and basketball shorts with no underwear, I was no way fit to commit that crime and then run from downtown Berkeley in house shoes.
He simply replied, “ The victim is our en route, they’ll be able to clear this up.”
More time goes by. By this time, my sister and cousin have come outside and both my grandmothers had arrived pleading my innocence. My mother — who had recently graduated from JFK Law school — was in Barbados celebrating her accomplishment had no clue what was taking place back at home. The cop returned to the car and this time he walks to my door and tells me to “get out.”
I saw Daniel being pulled out of another squad car with a guy who I had never seen before; I assumed it was the other suspect. They put all three of us in the middle of the street on Ashby Avenue. All my neighbors were outside and a couple of people who were just passing by decided to stop and see what was going on. I was put on display in front of my immediate community and family. It was the most embarrassing and dehumanizing moment of my life. A month ago prior, these same people saw me walking this same street wearing a cap and gown.
Now when you are being identified by victims, they flash the lights bright in your face so that they can see you, and you can’t see them. One by one they made us step up, turn left, turn right, and then look straight ahead. After we each had a turn, they escorted us back to separate squad cars. Still I had some hope that we would be alright.I looked out the window saw the cops talking to my family. I saw my auntie shed a tear and then drop her head. The cop made his way back to the car and put his key in the ignition.
“Sorry buddy but you’ve been identified.”
I was sent to the Juvenile Detention Center. It was at that moment my life could have took a turn for the worst. Fortunately, many of my uncles and aunties work for the Oakland Juvenile department and were able to speak on my behalf. They explained to the judge that I had no record and I was a good student on his way to college on a football scholarship. In addition, to the many that vouched for me, one of the actual perpetrators who was arrested with Daniel and myself admitted to not knowing either one of us and that we had nothing to do with what went on. I was released from the juvenile detention center after 4 days and 3 nights. I know many will look at this and say it was just juvenile hall, what many don’t understand is what this could have led to. I was two weeks away from turning 18, which means I would have been tried as an adult. The minimum sentence for first degree armed robbery is 3 years, and that would have been my sentencing if I was lucky. It wasn’t just me whose life would have been ruined. Daniel had an academic scholarship to La Sierra University in Riverside. He was released a few days earlier than me.
I am one of the “lucky ones.” Sandra Bland didn’t get to plead her innocence. Mike Brown never got to give his side of the story, and here I sit, 23 and a college graduate. I was one more misunderstanding away from being another black man trapped by the system. I often sit back and think, what if the officer didn’t give me that fair warning? Or what if one of his colleagues didn’t feel like talking, like the cop who killed Laquan McDonald? Maybe going to juvenile hall was the blessing.
I was able to dodge the system once, but everyday I’m forced to see those who aren’t as fortunate. Through my own experience I was able to see the amount of power that law enforcement possesses, and I was also given the chance to see how one’s life can be ruined if that power is not handled with care and precaution. Through this experience I got to witness the power of prejudice, I fit the description of a young Black criminal. I often wonder if I were white and the circumstances were the same. Would I have been presented with the same disrespect and embarrassment?
I was able to accept my scholarship, go play college ball and then graduate. I was able to grow from my experience. It’s given me an appreciation for life and an understanding of how quickly things can go south for Black people when dealing with the police. I have developed a deeper sense of sympathy for those who fall prey to unruly cops, and as a result lose their lives. As tension across the nation continues to grow between the Black community and law enforcement, I hope that things can get better and more Black people have the opportunity to leave the scene with their lives, instead of being left in the street in a pool of blood like Mario Woods. I hope that at the very least we can make it to the courtroom and exercise our right to a fair trial, not die in police custody like Kindra Champman.