The two-man helicopter flew low and slow over the edge of Lutherville's historic district, making for York Road. This was the morning after 19-year-old Dontay Carter turned Baltimore upside down by jumping out a window of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, and I was heading toward work, taking my leisurely stroll from the Light Rail station. I figured I knew why the helicopter was on patrol. They were looking for Dontay.
I was wrong.
Less than an hour earlier, two men, black, like me, about my height but a few years younger and 10 pounds heavier, had allegedly tried to rob a nearby business. Supposedly, they had a gun. Supposedly they wore dark clothing. Supposedly, if you believe the man who called police, one of them looked like Dontay Carter.
I didn't know any of this until much later. All I knew as I walked down Kurtz Avenue in my black overcoat was that a chopper was tracking me.
I remained calm, smiled to myself each time the helicopter made its lazy circle over the neighborhood. I wanted to stop and wave, make a joke out of their serious business. I'd done nothing. They were wasting their time. Yet, fear and memory whispered to me: Don't make any sudden moves. Just be cool.
I walked on and tried to ignore the beating propellers, the nagging sight of the helicopter. Soon, I knew, the police cars would come. I was black. This was Lutherville. And Dontay Carter was on the loose. Who knows, from a helicopter, I might have looked like him.
The first police car pulled up behind me as I neared a neighborhood church. I pretended not to notice. Why would the police want to talk to me. I'm just going to work. But I knew it was me they wanted. I stopped.
I had prepared for this, had been taught what to do: Don't make any sudden moves; just be cool; this is serious. Every black man I know has his story of being stopped and questioned by the police. They were in the wrong neighborhood, in the wrong car, looked suspicious, looked like a criminal. And every black man I know has been taught the lesson, knows the history, recalls the name of another black man: Arthur McDuffie, Rodney King, Malice Green.
I know of a mother who is teaching her young son what to do if the police stop him. The lesson probably remains the same: No sudden moves; be calm; this isn't a game. She is teaching him because she knows he will be stopped. At some point in his life, regardless of what station he attains, he will be stopped. And what happens then may depend on what she teaches him now.
Black folk accept this as a fact of life. My buddies and I joke about being stopped by the police as if it were a rite of passage, a confirmation that we are black men in America. The jokes, the teachings, the history informed the stance I took as the Baltimore County police officer stepped out of his car.
"Excuse me," he said. "Do you live around here?"
"No," I replied, a little heat showing in my voice. I could feel the anger and disgust rising up in me. Here we go again. A black man can't even walk to work, not when there's a manhunt on. I almost wanted to "jump bad" on the officer, tell him, "Hell, no, I don't live around here. I'm just a black man trying to make a living." Instead, I waited.
"Don't get excited," he said, approaching.
There'd been reported sightings of Dontay Carter and a report of two men with a gun, he said. Yeah, right, I thought. I'd heard that story before.
The officer smiled. "You're not Dontay."
I nodded and laughed, a bit nervous. This was no time to be flip. He asked for some identification. By then, another police car had pulled up right behind me. I took my wallet out of my back pocket and opened it. My driver's license was on the right side, my press badge on the left. I gave him the press badge first. Why not? It has my picture and "PRESS" in nice, big, red letters. Besides, even Dontay had a driver's license.
"Press," he said, surprised and, perhaps, impressed.
He asked where I worked, inquisitive now. I told him about our bureau on Bellona Avenue, told him I was deputy chief, mentioned every reporter I knew who had covered county police, courts or government. I was starting to relax, but still trying to DTC convince him I was legit. Perhaps that is one of the peculiarities of life, especially the dynamics of dealing with the police. You never quite feel totally secure, even when innocent.
By the time the third police car arrived, the officer had given me back by press badge and driver's license and waved off the late arrival. They left and I went on to work, convinced my being stopped was part of the hysteria over Dontay Carter. That's how I related the story, which then took on a life of its own, embellished as it passed from one person to the other.