UNITED STATES: Driving while black

May 24, 2000


UNITED STATES: Driving while black

Like motorists everywhere, drivers in the United States get that sinking feeling when they hear the siren and command to pull over. Were they speeding? Is one of their headlights out? Or, worse yet, are they guilty of DUI — driving under the influence?

Minorities in the US have an additional concern: they can be stopped for DWB — driving while black or brown (while being African American or Hispanic). This is not an official crime, of course, but in the eyes of police, a driver with dark skin is a shady character who requires investigation.

US police stop far more black than white drivers, often turning a simple motoring trip into a humiliating ordeal for the driver and passengers. A number of horror stories have been reported in the press.

In Indiana, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported: "More than 200 minorities have complained that local police in Fort Wayne routinely pull them over, screaming racial epithets, handcuffing, searching and otherwise harassing them."

In Maryland, Nelson Walker, a young Liberian, was attending college in North Carolina. He and two passengers were stopped by cops for two hours as they searched for illegal drugs. Finding nothing in the usual places, they proceeded to dismantle the car and removed part of a door panel, a seat panel and the sun-roof. The officers found nothing and in the end handed Walker a screwdriver and said, "You're going to need this" as they left the scene.

Even black police have been victimised. An African-American cop driving in full uniform except for his hat was pulled over by patrol officers who saw only a black face. Embarrassed police said they stopped him because they saw three antennas on his car.

It is widely known that "racial profiling" on the roads is common. A number of states have passed laws against this practice, but the offense is hard to prove and enforcement is weak.

California's legislators recently tried to pass a law that could be more effective. Besides condemning the practice, the bill required all police in the state to report every time they pulled over a driver for any reason and to list the driver's race, the reason for stopping him/her and any citation issued.

The police moved to stop the legislation, arguing that it would take too much time and cost too much. Governor Gray Davis, mindful of the thousands of dollars police contributed to his election campaign, vetoed the bill.

The veto was viewed by both the African-American and Hispanic-American communities as an outrageous betrayal. Davis, a Democrat, had been elected by black and brown votes.

While together they constitute almost a majority of California's population, African Americans and Hispanics have seldom worked together on political issues. They live in separate communities and more often compete for jobs than cooperate on issues. This time, however, they united to confront the governor.

A broad coalition of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, trade unionists and militant whites was formed. The coalition hired buses and more than 1000 indignant Californians descended on the Capitol building in Sacramento on April 27.

While the protesters were in front of the building, unexpected reinforcements appeared; more than 200 Sacramento high school students marched in to swell the protest. As well as supporting the anti-veto demonstrators, the students had another cause for protest. Proposition 21, a citizen-initiated referendum passed by Californian voters on March 7, makes it possible for children as young as 14 to be tried in adult courts and sent to adult prisons for certain crimes.

Proposition 21 pandered to a misplaced public hysteria about crime and criminals. Despite the national rate of serious crime declining for the last five years, California has been building prisons faster than schools. This state, among the wealthiest in the US, spends less per pupil on education than most of the poorest states.

The students yelled "Build schools, not prisons!" as they invaded the Capitol and pounded on the governor's door. He did not invite them in, but he could not ignore them.

Davis would not withdraw his veto, but announced a "compromise" proposal: that an executive order be issued declaring racial profiling illegal and suggesting that highway police give one of their business cards to motorists they stop without issuing a citation. Demonstrators responded to the proposal with loud boos.

Of course racial profiling is a crime, so are police brutality and frame ups. Even the establishment's San Francisco Chronicle scoffed at the idea of police handing out business cards.

So, DWB is still a hazard faced by almost half of California's motorists. Nevertheless, the coalition formed to oppose it, and the rally on April 27, are important steps forward in that they show that important elements of the working class can be drawn together in common struggle.


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