Racial Profiling in the U.S.A.

Part 1: DWB--Horror Stores from the Highway

Revolutionary Worker #1018, August 15, 1999

Black and Latino people have known it is happening: They get stopped for nothing by the cops--over and over again. Black and Latino kids get jacked up, frisked and threatened--routinely--for just walking down the street. There is hardly any Black or Latino youth who hasn't been harassed in this way. Black motorists get stopped in traffic for ridiculous pretexts. They are usually accused of some minor traffic mistake, or told their car fits the description of a stolen vehicle, or that they "fit the description of a suspect." And then people are subjected to questioning, searches, insults and often arrest. Their crime? In the oppressed communities, people have a name for it "DWB"--"Driving While Black" or "Driving While Brown."

This is "racial profiling." For police all over the country, the nationality and dress of many people are routinely taken as evidence that they are likely to be criminals.

In the last few years, with the launching of the U.S. government's so-called "War on Drugs"--the intensity of the harassment has picked up on the highways, in the neighborhoods, and at the customs checkpoints.

Sometimes the result is even worse than humiliation and arrest. People repeatedly end up killed by the cops at the side of the road. This happened in the now-famous case of Jonny Gammage in Pittsburgh. And it happened this year in Chicago to computer analyst LaTanya Haggerty on her way home from work and Northwestern student Bobby Russ--both in traffic stops on the same night.

Literally millions of Black and Latino people think about avoiding police harassment when they buy cars, decide where to go, and plan their routes. Black parents constantly warn their kids to move slow and bite their tongues when stopped by police--to avoid beatings and street execution. One student told the RW that his friends used secondary roads when driving back from their Southern Black college to Chicago. Bobby Russ' mother remarked after his death that she had asked him to buy a modest-looking car--just to lessen the danger from police.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently summed up in their June 1999 special report "Driving While Black--Racial Profiling on Our Nation's Highways": "No person of color is safe from this treatment anywhere, regardless of their obedience to the law, their age, the type of car they drive, or their station in life."

If you are a kid in the inner city--dress hip hop or walk with a little pride--the police "profile" you as a likely "gang-banger." If you are a well-paid suburban professional driving a luxury car--then to the cops, you "fit the profile" of a major drug dealer or a car thief.

The actions, policies and assumptions of the police are unjust. They are insulting. They are crudely racist. They are often deadly. And they are the long-established and fiercely defended policies of the U.S. justice system.

This RW series will expose and analyze racial profiling--a systematic method for targeting and criminalizing whole sections of the people--especially the new generation.

The Evidence in People's Lives

"Police are not stopping people because of the color of their skin."

Robert T. Scully, President of the National Association
of Police Organizations representing 4,000 police unions

"You get stopped when you haven't broken any law. Sometimes they tell you to get out of the car. Sometimes they say they suspect you of doing something you didn't. Sometimes they just look in the car and ask a lot of questions."

Christopher Singleton, 32-year-old
Black accountant, Dallas Morning News

In the U.S. today, people who say that there is systematic racism are routinely accused of paranoia and "a victim mentality." But, despite official denials. the lives of Black, Latino, Asian, Arab and immigrant people in the U.S. are filled with the evidence of systematic racist profiling by police. Here are some typical stories:

  • San Diego Chargers football player Shawn Lee and his girlfriend were pulled over and handcuffed for half an hour on Interstate 15, in October 1997. The cops claimed Lee's car fit the description of one stolen earlier that evening. Lee was driving a sport utility Jeep Cherokee. The stolen vehicle was a Honda sedan. (San Diego Union Tribune, Dec. 13, 1997.)
  • Nelson Walker, a Liberian immigrant , attends college in North Carolina. As he drove along I-95 through Maryland, state police pulled him over--supposedly "for not wearing a seatbelt." The cops held him and his passengers for two hours searching for drugs, weapons, or other contraband. They removed part of a door panel, a seat panel and part of the sunroof. When they were done they handed Walker a screwdriver and said, "You're going to need this." (Raleigh News & Observer, June 11, 1998.)
  • Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford Means got lost three years ago, driving through Pennsylvania's Chester County. A policeman pulled over his car and asked why he was in the area. "This officer displayed disbelief that I could be a judge," said Means. The cop then followed Means for several miles and stopped him again. The stop lasted an hour, while the cop "checked Means out." The Philadelphia Tribune reported that the only possible "grounds for suspicion" was simply that Means was a Black man driving though an all-white neighborhood. Means said, "At one point the officer told me to remove my Common Pleas Court Judge sign from the dash board so he could get the VIN number to see if my car was stolen. I had already heard the dispatcher on his car radio say my car was not stolen." The Pennsylvania attorney general's office says there is no evidence that any police departments in the state use racial profiling. (Philadelphia Tribune, a series by Linn Washington, May 1999)
  • Rossano V. Gerald, 37, and his 12-year-old son drove the interstate into Oklahoma on a hot day in August 1998. They are Black people of Panamanian descent. Within 30 minutes, they were stopped twice by the state's Highway Patrol. The second stop lasted two-and-a-half hours. The troopers placed Rossano and Gregory in a closed car with the air conditioning turned off--then went through their car and belongings. The cops said their snarling police dog was ready to attack the two--which terrified Gregory. The troopers turned off their patrol car video camera so there would be no evidence of this abuse. ("Driving While Black"--ACLU Report, June 1999)
  • Two cops in cruisers followed George Washington and Darryl Hicks, both African-American men, as they drove into the parking garage of the hotel where they were staying in Santa Monica, California. The men were ordered out of the car at gunpoint, handcuffed and placed in separate police cars while the officers searched their car. The police justified this stop, saying one of the men seemed "nervous" and that the men resembled suspects sought for armed robberies. In fact, neither man fit the descriptions and the robberies had not even occurred in the city of Santa Monica. (Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1996.)
  • Last April, Aaron Campbell was pulled over by Orange County sheriff's deputies on the Florida turnpike. He was wrestled to the ground, hit with pepper spray and arrested. Campbell had identified himself as a major with the Metro-Dade Police Department. The excuse for stopping him was that he had made an "illegal lane change" and had "an obscured license tag." (Washington Times, Jan. 12, 1998.)
  • In 1997, Charles and Etta Carter, an elderly African-American couple from Pennsylvania, were stopped by Maryland state police on their 40th wedding anniversary. The troopers searched their car and brought in drug-sniffing dogs. Their belongings (including their daughter's wedding dress) were strewn along the highway. Some of their belongings were trampled and urinated on by the dogs. No drugs were found and no ticket was issued. (Emerge, June 1999)
  • Gary D. Rodwell, a Black man, refused to consent to a search of his vehicle along Interstate I-95--which is his legal right. The cop held him for three hours, threatened to arrested him and called in a canine unit to search the vehicle. When no drugs were found, the cop took his keys and called a tow truck to impound the car. (Baltimore Sun, June 5, 1998.)
  • Robert Wilkins, Harvard Law School graduate and Washington, DC public defender, was driving home from a family funeral in Ohio in May 1992. He rented a Cadillac to have room for his aunt, uncle and 29-year-old cousin. The cousin was stopped for speeding in western Maryland while driving 60 miles per hour on the interstate. The state trooper ordered everyone out so that the car could be searched for drugs. The group was forced to stand on the side of the interstate in the rain while drug-sniffing dogs were called to search their car. Nothing was found. (Washington Post, Nov. 16, 1996.)
  • Amanda Buritica, a Colombian-born U.S. citizen from upstate New York, was strip-searched and forced to drink laxatives by agents when she arrived at San Francisco International Airport in 1994 on a flight from Hong Kong. The customs agent ordered Buritica to take off all her clothes. "Then she told me to bend down, and she kept kicking my legs, telling me, `More, more."' Buritica said. The powerful laxatives dehydrated her and she was hospitalized overnight in intensive care--while Customs agents monitored her every move. When she was released over 24 hours later, she was too sick to even lift her luggage. They found no drugs. "I signed the papers and they told me I could go," she said. "Nobody ever apologized to me." (from Congressional testimony, May 1999)
  • Janneral Denson, a Black woman from Florida's Palm Beach, was seven months pregnant when she arrived from Jamaica in Florida's Fort Lauderdale International Airport. Customs agents took her to a hospital, forced her to take laxatives, and handcuffed her to a bed for two days, while they seized and analyzed her excrement. After her release, she suffered from severe diarrhea and began bleeding. Her son was born prematurely eight days later. No drugs were found.
  • Jonny Gammage, 31, was pulled over while driving his cousin's Jaguar at 2 a.m. on October 12, 1995, in the mainly white Pittsburgh suburb of Brentwood. Five cops arrived on the scene. Within minutes they had killed Jonny. He was beaten with a flashlight, a nightstick and a blackjack. One cop put his foot on Gammage's neck as he lay, facedown on the pavement, handcuffed with his ankles bound. Cops claimed they stopped him because he was driving too slow. He was unarmed. (Stolen Lives Project, 1999)
  • Can't Hide It Anymore

    "We recognize a problem exists, but it is an extremely small number of officers conducting themselves illegally."

    Ronald Neubauer, president of the
    International Association of Chiefs of Police, The Nation, June 14, 1999

    "Not to say that it doesn't happen, but it's clearly not as serious or widespread as the publicity suggests.... I get so tired of hearing that 'Driving While Black' stuff. It's just used to the point where it has no meaning. I drive while black--I'm black. I sleep while black too. It's victimology. Black people commit traffic violations. What are we supposed to say? People get a free pass because they're black?"

    Charles Ramsey, police chief, Washington, DC,
    New York Times Magazine, June 20, 1999

    "When we make a stop, it's not based on race or gender or anything of that nature. It's based on probable cause that some law is being broken, whether it's traffic or otherwise. We have to have a reason."

    Lincoln Hampton, Illinois State Police spokesman,
    Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1999

    "It is totally unacceptable to engage in racial profiling of any kind. We're proud of the record we have. It is really shocking that our department would be singled out as some kind of test case."

    Bob Ricks, Oklahoma Department of Public Safety Commissioner,
    ACLU special report on "Driving While Black," June 1999

    Police officials constantly argue that stories of racist police stops are "simply anecdotal evidence" that don't prove that there are patterns or approved policies of racial profiling. At the same time, reactionary politicians and police officials oppose any attempts to document who actually gets stopped and why. For example, California's former Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a bill requiring police in his state to collect data on the nationality, gender and age of everyone they stop. Similar bills failed to pass in the legislatures of Texas and other states, and in the U.S. Congress.

    However, hundreds of people have refused to quietly accept the outrageous abuses of racial profiling and have fought to expose it. As a result, more and more systematic evidence of police policies have been documented in the courts and media.

    The case of the New Jersey State Police led to state-wide scandal and national publicity. State and police officials there first denied the accusations by hundreds of people that the State Police were systematically targeting Black and Latino people on New Jersey highways. Studies by Temple and Carnegie Mellon Universities confirmed that 40 percent of those stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike were Black--while only 13 percent of the drivers were Black. When stops were based on radar alone Black people are stopped at the same rate as all other drivers.

    Then Carl Williams, New Jersey's Chief of Troopers, openly defended racial profiling--saying: "Today with this drug problem, the drug problem is cocaine or marijuana. It is more likely a minority group that's involved with that." After that New Jersey Governor Whitman's administration was forced to acknowledge that the practice of racial profiling was "real, not imagined." But the Governor's office insisted that racial profiling was not something her administration "had any reason to anticipate." It was also revealed that state troopers were routinely falsifying their reports to hide the degree to which they were targeting Black and Latino people on the highways. As each level of lie and cover-up got peeled back, more and more evidence of racist police practices and high-level official approval came into view.

    Meanwhile, many other studies, court cases and investigative reports--from all across the U.S.--have substantiated what thousands of people have been saying:

  • The House Judiciary Committee documented that Black people are targeted in 72 percent of routine traffic stops countrywide, though Black people are only 14 percent of the U.S. population.
  • Statistics presented at the House Ways and Means Committee hearing documented that Black women are 20 times more likely to be searched while passing through Customs than white women.
  • A Los Angeles Times survey (May 1999) documented that 18 of the 39 Black members of Congress have been subjected to racist police stops or have family members who have been stopped.
  • At a recent meeting, Black journalists were asked how many had been stopped by police "for no reason other than the color of their skin." All of them raised their hands.
  • As part of a 1995 court case, the Maryland State Police promised to end racial profiling and document their practices. The resulting study showed that between 1995 and 1997, 77 percent of the people stopped on Interstate 95 were Black--even though they were only 17 percent of the traffic. Meanwhile Col. B. Mitchell, Maryland State Police Chief, said: "Let me make this crystal clear. The Maryland state police has not ever, does not ever and will not ever condone the use of race-based profiling." (New York Times, June 5, 1998)
  • Over 400 people joined a class action suit in Colorado that documented how, from 1988 to 1990, police in Eagle County stopped Black and Latino motorists along Interstate 70 solely because they "fit a profile."
  • In 1995, a Houston Chronicle study showed that Black and Latino drivers who drove into white "enclaves" in and around the state's major cities were twice as likely as whites to be stopped for traffic tickets. Black people entering Bellaire, a suburb of Houston, were 43 times more likely to receive traffic tickets.
  • USA Today reported that a study in Toledo, Ohio showed that Black people were twice as likely as others to be stopped for traffic tickets.
  • In Illinois, Latinos made up 30 percent of the people stopped by state police--even though they make up less than 3 percent of the "personal vehicle" traffic.
  • New York City's "Street Crime Unit" stopped 45,000 people in 1997-98, and arrested 9,500--meaning that tens of thousands of people were harassed and insulted in searches that produced no drugs and guns. And thousands more were probably arrested without cause by this racist unit. These are overwhelmingly cases of "Walking While Black or Latino." Even after four members of this unit shot African immigrant Amadou Diallo in his own doorway, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani praised this unit for effectiveness. Giuliani is refusing to provide documents to a New York State probe into racial profiling.
  • Reports from more than 200 people documented that police in Fort Wayne, Indiana, routinely pulled over Black and Latino people, often screaming racist insults, handcuffing them or searched their cars--all because of their nationality. (Journal Gazette, Jan. 12, 1997.)
  • Narcs in Buffalo, New York have admitted to conducting 80 warrantless stops and searches per month at that city's bus station during the 1980s--in a "profiling operation" that only produced four arrests per months. Those targeted were overwhelmingly Black and Latino. Similarly it was documented that police randomly stopped Greyhound busses traveling in Pennsylvania and searched all the passengers for drugs.
  • A study released in 1998 found "troubling racial patterns" in the practices of Philadelphia police. In Philadelphia's Center City, "a full 75 percent of all drivers stopped were members of racial and ethnic minorities" though most of that area's drivers are white.
  • An investigative report in the Orlando Sentinel studied 1,000 videotapes to document that 80 percent of the vehicle searches carried out by the Sheriff's Department of Florida's Volusia County during 1992 involved Black and Hispanic motorists.
  • Unmistakable evidence is piled high: The racist police targeting of Black and Latino people is intense and systematic.


    Next week, in Part 2 of this series, the RW will examine how the police practices of "racial profiling" have been defended and even intensified by leading forces and institutions of the ruling class.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
    Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
    Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
    (The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)