February 2001: Police Harrassment — A rite of passage for Black men

Police Harrassment - A rite of passage for black men
7 February 2001 – Toronto Star

By Morgan Campbell

One night last week, as I waited for a bus at the corner of Queen St. and Britannia Rd. in Mississauga, I saw a black Ford Taurus drive past me, then stop. The car rolled backward then stopped again, just in front of where I stood.

A man leaned out the passenger window and yelled something in my direction. I didn’t think he was talking to me, but within seconds he stood two feet in front of my face asking me to tell him where I lived. He wore jeans and a faded, olive-green sweatshirt. His hair, buzzed close to the skull, was brown. His jaws were clean-shaven and angular. I didn’t recognize him. “I don’t think you know me, man,” I told him.

Yes, he said. He knew me. Now where was I headed?

“Man, look; you don’t know me.”

Of course we knew each other, he said. He stepped back and grinned, then lifted the bottom of his shirt to reveal a police badge clipped to his hip. The driver approached on my right with his badge thrust toward me in his right hand.

He was about 5 feet 7 inches and stocky with a round face, navy blue baseball cap and dark goatee. The badge said “Peel Regional Police” but I couldn’t see a number. I asked if it was real and he told me it was.

“Hey, I still don’t know you,” I told him.

Of course they knew me, they said. They told me I was Matt, the drug pusher who peddles ecstasy to Streetsville’s teenagers. No, I told them. I’m Morgan, the journalist who writes sports for The Star. I gave them each a business card. I was waiting for a bus, not a drug deal. I was trying to get home.

The shorter officer told me my business card was useless as ID. I offered him my driver’s licence, but he said he didn’t need to see it.

“So where you living now, Maureen?” the taller officer sneered.

Yeah, I’m upset now, and I don’t try to hide my anger. I’m frustrated because these officers refuse to believe that I am who I say I am, but refuse to let me prove it.

At this point, the shorter officer told me that he and his partner approached me because I “look like” Matt. Well, I know plenty of black men who have been pulled over/harassed/handcuffed/searched because they “looked like” some suspect or another.

I’ve also been told by various white people that I resemble everyone from Gary Coleman to Michael Jordan, so I really don’t know what it means to “look like” another black person.

I guess that night it meant that Matt and I were both black.

And that meant they could keep interrogating me even though I wasn’t their suspect. It also meant that I couldn’t object to the questioning because raising my voice was breaking the law. That’s what the shorter officer told me as his car idled in a bus zone.

Looking like Matt also meant that the taller officer didn’t need to use my real name. If I wasn’t Matt, I couldn’t have been Morgan, so I must have been Maureen, and that’s how he addressed me again and again. I couldn’t object to that either, I learned, because it was “making a scene.”

As my bus approached, the shorter officer offered a grudging apology. He and his partner were so sorry for hassling me that they followed me home in their cruiser. I guess they just wanted to make sure I arrived safely.

So, more than anything, I learned that looking like Matt meant police harassment is something that I should not only expect, but accept.

Expect it? Of course. I’m a university grad and a professional, but I’m still black. I expect to encounter racism just like I expect to get sick each winter.

Accept it? Never. But those two officers hoped I’d let it slide. Tell a law abiding citizen he “looks like” a suspect and he just might believe you. Tell him he’s breaking the law when he complains and he’ll probably shut his mouth.

Discourage him from looking for the officers who harassed him – the first officer I phoned the next day told me I’d never find two undercover cops without badge numbers – and maybe he’ll give up the search.

But this isn’t about me because I know I’m not really a special case.

For many black men in the GTA, police harassment is another rite of passage, like a first car or first tax return.

I’m just one of the few who was stubborn enough to keep calling the precinct (the second officer I spoke to tracked down the undercovers in less than 30 minutes).

And I’m one of a very few with a forum to express my outrage.

Copyright ©2001 Toronto Star

One Response to “February 2001: Police Harrassment — A rite of passage for Black men”
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  1. […] months after that a pair of plainclothes cops confronted me on a street corner, insisting that if I wasn’t Matt the ecstasy dealer, then I was his […]

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