Sad commentary acted out in black and white


September 26, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

The cop was patrolling the tony L.A. neighborhood when he spotted a black man driving a Ferrari. Immediately suspicious, he called in for a license check, and sure enough, the plates belonged to another car. The cop hit the lights, and the black man in the white neighborhood in the expensive car pulled over, figuring he must have been speeding. Except he never heard of a cop drawing a gun and pointing it at a suspect's head if the suspect was guilty of nothing more serious than driving 35 in a 30.

As the black man in the white neighborhood got out of his expensive car, the cop slapped on the cuffs and held him, face down, at gunpoint. A frightened black man in the white neighborhood thrown against the expensive car tried vainly to explain that he was Marcus Allen, the famous football player, and that the plates in question belonged to his other expensive car.

Eventually, Allen's story checked out. And so goes another day in the life.

If any of this shocked you, you've probably never been black. This story of some years ago couldn't surprise Dee Brown, who is black, who is a first-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics, who was sitting last Friday afternoon in his car with his fiancee in front of the post office in Wellesley, Mass., a tony suburb of Boston, reading his mail when seven cops approached him with guns drawn.

The cops surrounded the car and forced Brown to the ground at gunpoint. It seemed a nearby bank had been robbed a few days earlier by a 6-foot-1 black man with hazel eyes and short, curly hair who was wearing a rust-brown sports jacket. A secretary in the bank who had witnessed the crime saw Brown emerge from the post office and called the police.

Brown, who was looking to purchase a home in Wellesley, doesn't have hazel eyes. He wasn't wearing a sports jacket. The bank robber was allegedly a dark-skinned black; Brown is light-skinned. But, in Wellesley, where there are few blacks, being any kind of black was apparently sufficient cause for the seven cops and their drawn guns.

Eventually, Brown, who was terrified, was able to produce identification. He says it took about 20 minutes. The cops, who have said it took less than two, let him go.

And now, many people in and around Boston, the site of the infamous Charles Stuart case -- in which a man murdered his pregnant wife, shot himself and tried to finger a black assailant -- are outraged that this could have happened. In Wellesley, there was a town meeting, where the police chief told a hostile crowd that his men were only doing their jobs. At the same meeting, one white resident stood up to say, "This is Wellesley, Massachusetts, not Wellesley, Mississippi."

That's the point, actually. This can, and does, happen anywhere, whether in Massachusetts or Mississippi, Montana or Maryland.

We hear about the cases only where celebrities are involved. Inreal life, on real street corners, to real people, this is what takes place every day.

In Wellesley, Richard Carr, 47, who is black, said, "There hasn't been a year that's passed that I haven't been stopped by the police."

Carr never made headlines, and neither did a black friend of mine. This black friend was traveling with a white friend on a shuttle from New York to Washington. Both were well-dressed. Both are well-spoken. Both are typically upper-middle-class Americans, living the good life.

They were both traveling with identical complimentary coupons. When the white man handed his coupon to the ticket agent, he was asked whether he wanted an aisle or window seat and then, having his seat assigned, waited for the black man, who was hTC immediately behind him. This time, however, the procedure went a little differently. The black man was asked for identification, a driver's license. He said he didn't have a driver's license with him, that he didn't need one, that he was not driving the plane, but simply riding on it. He produced a credit card instead. Then another. And another. And another.

The agent got the point and allowed him on the plane. He hadn't been arrested. He hadn't faced a gun pointed at his head. But he had been humiliated.

In Wellesley, the police chief has apologized to Brown, perhaps to head off a lawsuit. Even when apologizing, though, he said the police department had followed proper procedure and that race was not an issue.

It's funny, though, that I can tick off five cases of black athletes being hassled by police after being misidentified -- and there are certainly many others -- but I never heard of it happening to a white athlete.

I don't know whether Brown will sue. Apparently, a group of right-thinking Wellesley residents, embarrassed by their police, has begun a petition asking that Brown still consider moving to Wellesley. At last report, Brown was looking elsewhere.

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