My crime: 'You fit the description'
When the police van pulled up alongside me and the two officers jumped out, I moved to step aside, curious who/what they were looking for. I didn't have to wait long. They were looking for me.
It was just after 9pm, and because the local gym was closed and I did not want to miss my daily 30 minutes of exercise, I decided to ride my bicycle around the block, comfortable in the relative safety of my cozy, collegiate neighborhood near UVA. It seems my sense of freedom and safety made someone else very uncomfortable, because according to one of the officers, someone called me in as "a suspicious person riding a bike."
I was incredulous. Riding a bicycle, along a well-lit boulevard, in my own neighborhood is suspicious? One officer seemed brusque and taciturn, waving aside my surprise.
When one of the officers demanded identification, I went from stunned to frightened to angry in the space of a heartbeat. As they called in my name, address, and social security information to several different criminal databases, the three of us stood silently in the dusk, listening to the garbled voice of the dispatcher distill the entirety of my life to a series of dates, addresses, and legal verification.
Satisfied I was not on anyone's most-wanted list, the officer explained that there had been a series of break-ins and assaults around town. The suspect police were seeking was a black male, about my height and weight, and his crimes had occurred here, in the vicinity of the University.
When the officer first pulled me over, he read from the dispatcher's log, and described me, what I was wearing, the bike, and said, "Sounds like a good match to me; you fit the description."
It's funny what you think of in moments like this; I thought of everything my mother taught me about being polite even when you felt wronged, and a single thought kept looping over and over through my mind: How could this be happening to me?
I'm a teacher; I've taught classes on the law. I've always tried to do the right thing, always tried to set a good example for my students. Always tried to be a good man, a good son, a good citizen. None of that mattered now. I fit the description.
The officers then asked me if I would be willing to submit to a DNA test "for my own protection." They explained they had already eliminated over 200 [local black men] from the pool of suspects.
"See? It protects you," one of the officers cheerfully remarked. When he said that, something within me, some feeling, some optimistic expression of hope and fairness that I've carried with me all my life, shattered. Sadly, I looked from one officer to the other, thinking I thought you were supposed to protect me. When I declined the officers' request several times, they grew agitated and demanded I tell them where my classes were held, where I went to undergrad. They explained they might have to sit in on some of my classes to verify that I was a UVA grad student, that I was who I said I was.
With that, they left me alone on the same spot on the sidewalk where they had stopped me, and I stood there for a long replaying the scene in my mind, still not believing what had just happened. I tried to keep the event in perspective, told myself the officers were just doing their job, answering a call.
But my head was spinning. I tried not to play the "race card," but the deck was there, dealt right in front of me. I fit the description.
I looked around my picturesque neighborhood. Even at that early evening hour, there were several other bicyclists and families out and about. The grad student next door was speaking animatedly into his cell phone on the porch, canned laughter from must-see TV wafted into the night, and I marveled how different the neighborhood looked in the dark. Or maybe it was just that I looked different in the dark.
You can always tell when you learn something, Susan Bagby, my favorite undergraduate teacher, always told me, because it feels at first as if you have lost something.
What did I lose that night, in those 20 minutes right outside my front yard? Some would say I lost nothing, because the system worked. The officers answered a call, investigated, found nothing amiss, and let me go. Yet, today I feel like an interloper, a stranger in my own neighborhood.
I wonder if the pretty coed whose car I helped start this morning could be the same person who called me in that night. I look around warily now every time I hear a car door slam. I used to feel I belonged here. I don't feel that way now.
Then too, I have been second-guessing my own actions, turning the event over in my mind. Maybe I should have submitted to the DNA test; maybe it would offer a measure of "protection." But protection against what? For whom?
I knew I had committed no crime, and I cannot imagine going through this again. But then, isn't the best way to assure we have rights to assert them? Forget a DNA test and its 99.9 percent accuracy. Every time an officer pulls me over I want him or her to run a check, because maybe in some small way it will help them remember not everyone who "fits the description" is a potential perpetrator, but is instead a real person, with a real life, who has faith in God, country, our Constitution and yes, even our men and women in blue.
You know when you have learned something, because it feels at first as if you have lost something.
I don't want this episode to change me, but it has. Where once I was ebullient and outgoing, I am now cool and reserved. I struggle now with the abiding significance of race within my life and in this country. What have I lost? I have lost a measure of security, lost confidence that I will be judged solely on the content of my character rather the color of my skin.
Think what you will, but for me, the loss is profound, measured in human capital, and is no less real because of that.
I'm going to spend the next two years studying under great teachers at Thomas Jefferson's university, examining the ways people learn, communicate, and live at close quarters with each other. Maybe from this point on, I will be home before dark and ride my bike only during daylight hours; maybe I will and maybe I won't. I will still try to do the right thing, strive to be the best man I can be, try to set a good example for my students. But I will surely be carrying identification every time I venture outside, and I will surely remember what my mother taught me.
It is funny what you think of in moments like this. I find myself extremely grateful I live in a country like the United States and not in a nation with a police state where one is automatically presumed guilty. Still, for 20 tense minutes, as I stood between two officers in the middle of the street, in the middle of the neighborhood where I live, alternately defending and expressing my right not to submit to a DNA test just because I "fit the description," it occurred to me: Free state or police state, the line can blur easily. And they both look the same in the dark.
Turner is a PhD student at UVA's Curry School of Education.