By Johnathan Perkins ‘11
Ed. Note (May 6, 2011): Subsequent to an investigation by the U.Va. Police Department, Johnathan Perkins '11 has acknowledged that the allegations of police misconduct and racial profiling contained in his Apr. 22 letter to the editor were fabricated "to bring attention to police misconduct."
For more, see the University's official press release at http://www.facebook.com/notes/virginia-law-weekly/breaking-perkins-recants-police-misconduct-claims/214090931948156
The race problem in America persists. In most aspects of society (education, housing, employment, etc.), black people and white people live in two different worlds. As a result, most Americans are raised in racially sterilized environments. Oftentimes when race is brought up, white people are accused of being prejudiced, insensitive, and out of touch, while black people are accused of having chips on their shoulders, playing the victim, and race-baiting. Before I started law school, I expected to finally be able to take part in insightful, understanding, and sophisticated discussions about race. During my time here, my expectations have been more than met. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that some of my most understanding friends were also blithely unaware of the lives that many black people lead. I am writing this column not to complain, but to share a story. It is a story that is all too familiar to black Americans but it remains foreign to many of my white classmates.
After leaving Bar Review on Thursday, March 31, 2011, I began the short walk to my nearby apartment on the Corner. About one hundred yards from home, I noticed a police car approaching me. As it neared, the squad car slowed down, blue lights flashing. One of the officers inside pointed the car’s spotlight on me. The UVA officers (both white) stopped their car, got out and confronted me. They demanded that I provide identification and I complied. When I asked the officers if there was a problem, one responded, “You fit the description of someone we’re looking for.” I asked what the description was and what had happened. One of the officers responded, “You don’t need to worry about that.” I told them that I was very close to my apartment and, while examining my Pennsylvania driver’s license, one of the officers replied, “This doesn’t say you live on Wertland Street.” It was clear at that point that the officers were toying with me for their own entertainment. When the officers discovered my UVA I.D., and informed them that I was a law student, they looked at one another and sarcastically said, “Oh, he’s a law student.” The fact that I informed them that I was in law school made the situation even more tense. It seemed as though my encounter was drawing to a close so, having just taken Criminal Procedure, I knew to ask the officer whether I was free to leave. When he responded, “We just need to make sure you’re not carrying any weapons . . . it’ll only take a second.” I was doubly surprised: the officers had all but expressed that I was not the person they were looking for (if such a person even existed), yet the two were about to subject me to a search. I knew that all the cases, regulations, and remedies that I learned in class would be of no avail. These two officers alone controlled my fate.
At that point, one of the officers spun me around, pushed me toward their car, and placed my hands on the rear of the vehicle. Imprinted on my mind was the police treatment of Oscar Grant Jr., Amadou Diallo, and Abner Louima, so naturally I did not resist. Standing there, I saw dozens of people staring at me as they returned home from last call. One of the officers searched me, removing all of my belongings from my pockets. The other officer then proceeded to rifle through my wallet (despite the implausibility that I could hide a weapon there). Whenever I attempted to turn to answer their questions, they forcibly turned me back around to face the car. When their questioning ended, I asked the officers for their names and badge numbers. One of them responded, “You don’t need to worry about that either.” After a few more questions, they told me I was free to go. They then informed me that they would be following me to my apartment “just to make sure [I got] home okay.” The two of them proceeded to closely tail me (blue lights still flashing) until I reached my apartment. As I opened my door and the squad car pulled away, I knew that there would be no remedy for the indignity that I suffered at the hands of two of the University of Virginia’s “finest.”
I am writing this column because it is important for my classmates to hear a real-life anecdote illustrating the myth of equal protection under the law. Incidents like this one are not surprising to me. Sadly, I have even grown to expect them. Beyond the pages of our casebooks, the law that we are taught to respect is more often than we think implemented by individuals who have no desire to apply it even-handedly.
This was not the first time that I have been harassed by police officers and it will not be the last. As I stood there, humiliated, with my hands on the police car, my only thought was: “There is nothing I can do to right this wrong. I have absolutely no recourse.” I hope that sharing this experience will provide this community with some much needed awareness of the lives that many of their black classmates are forced to lead.