It is June 20, 2020, my wife, daughter and I are packing up a UHAUL truck as we depart the City of Ithaca after living there for seven years. A beautiful city with picturesque landscapes and the lure of the lakes simply takes your breath away. We met some great colleagues and had a fun time just enjoying all that upstate New York had to offer. As a matter of fact, before this last day I was posting pictures on Facebook about the beauty of the city as we did the touristy thing in our own backyard for the previous week and a half.
The number seven seemed fitting for our time of departure as it is the number symbolic of completion. New horizons were there for us to conquer, and my daughter was the last one to graduate the high school where all three of my children received an excellent education (a major shout out to Mr. Luvelle Brown, the Superintendent of the school district). Ithaca was a place where I grew to a greater understanding of how to experience and process what we all see in our society today around race relations. It was an educational journey on this topic that continues to linger because it is never ending, and needs constant “feeding and caring.” I would be remiss if I did not also acknowledge all that Pastor Nathaniel Wright of the Calvary Baptist Church has been doing in the community on this topic as well.
Like most families that are moving to a new city and packing up, we underestimated how much stuff we had in our home. We got a shock the night before when we realized that one truck was not enough. We rued the decision now to do this on our own. With our backs hurting, fatigue setting in, and just being plain miserable, we decided to get another truck and split our driving duties. Unpacking the truck and getting a moving company would simply add days to our stay, plus we needed to be in Atlanta, Georgia by June 22, 2020.
Early on June 20th, we drove up to Hanshaw Road beyond the airport to have the auto transport attached to the larger truck, and to pick up the second smaller truck for the unanticipated items. After attaching the auto transport, and picking up the second truck, we drove down Route 13 and asked the permission of the owner of the Fall Creek House if we could park the larger truck with the auto transport in his parking lot because we would not have to move it until we were leaving town in a couple of hours. The owner was gracious and pointed out where we should park. That spirit of very friendly and community oriented focus is what I have encountered with most folks I met in Ithaca. All was well. The amended plan was working flawlessly.
I packed up some more trash items and made my way to the solid waste facility and took some additional slightly used and new garments to the thrift store that was also on Elmira Road. I returned home and immediately started packing up our remaining boxes. As my wife, daughter and I were packing up the truck, a knock came at our door from a police officer. The front door was wide open, so my wife turned to answer him. I went upstairs to grab another box with my daughter. When we came back down, I heard my wife saying, “we got this truck this morning and have been packing it up to leave town today.” I then stopped what I was doing to listen in on the conversation.
Apparently, someone had called the police department to say that a UHAUL truck had just hit a parked car on the next street over, and he wanted to see if we knew anything about it. Since I was the one who had recently driven the truck, I quickly responded that we knew nothing about the incident, and I said, “I hope they find who did that.” I went back upstairs to grab another box with my daughter. When I came back downstairs, I saw my wife peering through the front window of our home with a deep focus. I stood beside her to get a sense of what grabbed her attention so intently. The police officer was outside inspecting the truck, looking at the front right side. At one point he got down on one knee looking closely at a something.
He did not say anything to me as I continued to pack up the truck. After a couple more trips upstairs in my house and to the back of the truck, he calls me over to the right front tire of the truck and says to me, that the markings on the side of this wheel looks like something consistent with hitting another vehicle. He pointed to a scuff mark on the side of the tire and said he believes it is consistent with an accident. I looked at him with the expression that says, “Are you for real?” I looked at the scuff mark on the tire that was obviously done by it being rubbed against a curb. There were no other colors on the tire or the lug nuts. I said to the officer that his observation was very interesting, and I told him again, “Sir I can state to you unequivocally that I did not hit any vehicles and I have no idea what you are talking about or insinuating here.” He said, he was simply doing his job and wanted to answer a complaint that came from someone who called 911 to say a UHAUL truck had hit their car.
By now, my wife is listening in on the conversation. I asked him if I could retrieve some information from my truck to show that I had not been over to the street in question. I showed him my receipt from the solid waste station that also had a time stamp of 12:08 pm. I retraced the route from there to my home. He also agreed that given the route, I did not have a reason to pass on the street that the incident occurred. We also concluded that there were several UHAUL trucks on the road as it was a Saturday. He said he wanted to look at the vehicle some more. I said sure, and I went back in the house to retrieve another box. My wife then follows me back into to the house and says to me as plain as day, “he is going to tag this supposedly accident on you, please remember that.” I found myself professing my innocence to my wife as well. I knew I had not hit any vehicle. What started to infuriate me was that the supposed accident happened on another street over that runs parallel to ours.
I delivered the next box to the truck and the officer calls me over again. He says that when the call was made to 911, the person said that the UHAUL in question had an Arizona plate and started with the letter “A”. Coincidentally, that was the same state license on my truck, and it started with the letter “A”. I repeated to the officer again, “sir I did not hit any vehicle. I did not drive over on the street in question.” I then asked, “how long ago was this accident reported?” He responded that the call came in about fifteen minutes prior. I then told him, “at a minimum I have been back here long before that packing up this truck. I would not have been driving on the road to even hit a vehicle. The truck was already almost halfway full.” He said, “I understand your position, but your tire has these markings, and the license plate and first letter are similar to what the complainant reported.” At this point, it took everything within me not to lose it. I was not going to be on the news for being disrespectful to an officer or worse as we have seen recently.
I was annoyed, and I started speaking to myself internally saying, “Gerry keep calm. You have been lied on before, and this time any outbursts can have consequences.” It was clear to me that this line of questioning and argument was basically saying that I hit a car and drove off without stopping. Totally out of character for me. I asked one final question. “What direction was the truck supposedly traveling when it hit the parked car?” He responded that it was heading in the same direction my truck was pointed but one street over. In my mind I then asked the rhetorical question, does it make any sense that I would hit a car going in the same direction on another street as I am parked packing up my truck?”
At this point, I professed to the officer again, that I did not hit any cars, and I have no idea how this is going to be resolved. I was not afforded an opportunity to speak to the person who called in the accident or anything. I did not go and inspect the car in question. My biggest mistake in all of this was that I did not take a picture of the wheel that supposedly hit this car. For all I know, no cars were hit at all. I chuckled internally at the time thinking that I was either Superman or Flash to pack up so much of the truck in such a short span of time climbing three and at times four stories in my house. The thought was simply crazy.
The officer said again that he was just doing his job, and that he would like to get some information from me so that he could follow up at a future date. Being a good citizen and not wanting to appear non cooperative, I provided the information. My name, date of birth and my address. I left it at that and continued to load the truck. My wife said to me again, “Gerry, he is going to pin this on you. Mark my words.” At that point, I just kept the packing going, because this incident soured my mood, and reminded me of the first two days we arrived in the city seven years ago. Yet again being falsely accused or an intimation uttered that we were stealing something or being dishonest. I just wanted to leave at this point. It was time to go. A beautiful city but it has had an issue for years it has failed to adequately confront.
Fast forward to Wednesday, June 24, 2020. I received a telephone call from a strange number. I let it go to voicemail. When I finally retrieved the voicemail, I instantly became upset. The message was from a UHAUL representative asking me for details of the accident that happened in Ithaca, NY where I hit a parked car. When I called the representative back, I immediately told her not to pay out any claims, and they should deny the entire thing. I shared with the representative that the police officer who filed that report in my mind filed a false report, and that I would follow up with the Mayor and the Police Chief in Ithaca. When I called my wife and told her what happened, she did not even stop to say, “I told you that was going to happen.” We immediately starting discussing the fact as to why it is difficult to trust anyone in authority within legal professions. She watched the entire thing unfold and noticed the officer’s behavior the entire time. In the final analysis, there was a “crime”, and someone had to pay for it. Why not simply be lazy and say that the only stopped UHAUL they could find close by was the one responsible.
Why did this rub us the wrong way, and why would I take the time to write this blog post? Our country is in a moment in time where it must answer some fundamental questions around police authority, racism, bigotry, hate and a host of other issues all rolled into one. They all seem mutually exclusive, but events in recent weeks and months make them inextricably linked. This conundrum is one huge mess. Regardless of the narrative we see unfolding, continuous devious motives, unprofessional practices, duplicitous acts and mendacious utterances only further a narrative of why people do not implicitly trust law enforcement. It ends with the dripping sarcasm that accompanies the motto: “To Protect and To Serve.” For my wife and I, as black people, that mistrust rises to levels that my white counterparts could never truly appreciate or understand. I have friends and acquaintances who are law enforcement, and I often wonder why they all cannot be like the ones we know and respect. That is utopia, and well outside our reach.
This was not the first time I had to try to defend myself of being falsely accused, but in this dispensation of time, I was searching for a way to connect the dots in a way that I could explain to my three young adult children yet again why we can never let down our guard
s, no matter the circles in which they will eventually find themselves. How could I explain this. Well the word “tag” used by my wife as a warning provides an path to share a perspective.
As a youngster growing up in Jamaica, at every recess in grade school, we would enjoy a game of “stucky”. Here in the USA the game is called “tag”. It is a game where individuals will run around and try to touch an opponent to relieve themselves of the duty of chasing after others. After touching them, you would hear the shout of “Tag You Are It.” The person who was tagged now became the individual who had to chase others until they tagged someone else to relieve themselves of the burden of being the one everyone should avoid at all costs. It made for great fun, and with so much energy as a young person, we could play for hours and not get tired.
The word “tag” is an interesting one, because in the game, once tagged, you are affixed with a moniker, a charge, or an inference that you are the bad person that everyone is to run away from and avoid at all costs. You are the bad person pursuing the good ones to get rid of this stain that has been placed on you. In a metaphorical sense, this describes the experience I had with this police officer.
As I reminisce on this childhood game and juxtapose it against this experience, I realized that being “tagged” while playing the game also carries with it some psychological discomfort and pain. This discomfort and pain often lead one to anger and frustration, especially when you were not swift enough to tag someone else to relieve the burden of being the chaser. In this experience with the officer, the sensibilities are not around trying to chase someone down to relieve a burden. The burden is automatically ascribed to me because of my knowledge that I am being lied on, and in the moment, I can’t do anything about it. Was it my skin color? Was the officer just doing a sloppy investigative job? Some will debate the point, but some of my experiences in the city (and its surroundings) prior indicate it is the former versus the latter. That is what added to my anger and disappointment felt in the moment, and even now weeks later. Regardless of motive, in the back of my mind I can hear the words yet again, “Tag Your Are It.”!!!!!!
It was a tag that furthers a narrative around the psychological aspects of being kissed by the sun with a darkened hue of skin color and treatment meted out by those who are not. It extends the discussion that law enforcement personnel are prosecutor, judge, and jury when it comes to black people. Am I overreacting? Truth be told, I am not sure anymore, because at the intersection of being a person of color who has had issues in the past with racism, bigotry and hate, coupled with this respectful and cordial interaction with a police officer (with an interesting result), has left me in a space of once again not trusting police officers implicitly. Our interactions are often time left with a blurring of the line between fairness and justice. I left those interactions with, why was I stopped? Was I just profiled? How come my colleagues were able to pass but not me? I was left yet again, with the reality that people of color simply have different reactions to being stopped on the highway, walking into stores, and simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We are tagged before we even get into the game or a conversation starts.
For days I pondered whether I would say anything. I was torn. Ithaca is a wonderful city, with wonderful people, but has an issue hiding in plain sight it seems unwilling to address, or do so only around the edges. My wife and I spoke about it. I spoke about it with my daughter, and one of my two sons. I could not let this thing go. I called and messaged friends who still live in the city and asked their opinion on whether I should say anything about this “tagging.” Subconsciously, I was probably searching for someone to say that I was overreacting. I reached out to my friends and colleagues from other races and nationalities, as well as those friends who are a part of my inner circle. After their customary words of comfort and shock, I was surprised that almost everyone I spoke with had either heard of or experienced something similar. My friends of color directly experienced it, and my white friends had observed it.
Despite those revelations, I still was not convinced that it was my place to say anything. I was okay. I would just do as I have always done. Let it roll off me as water does off the back of a duck. I was alive. My family was fine. I was no longer there, and I would simply record another entry in the ledger of being a black person trying to push forward and make headway for himself and his family. I honestly thought I had let it go, but it was subconsciously still there because of how it happened, and it became another teachable moment for my children. At least one of them.
On June 27, 2020 a colleague from work sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Black Executives Are Sharing Their Experiences of Racism, Many for the First Time.” The contributors were David Benoit and Jennifer Maloney. As I read the article, all sorts of emotions started flowing again. I guess you can say I was triggered again about the incident. I have experienced the sting of racism, bigotry and indifference before, so I guess I was not in the same category of the folks the article spoke about. I have not been silent on the topic before either, but my voice was one that was always lost in the mountain of excuses provided to justify the behaviors that we see now being challenged and pushed back against since the murder of George Floyd. This last trigger was the reminder that I have three children, who have to live in this society that continues to believe that all is well, and if we simply stick our heads in the sand, this problem of race, intolerance, indifference, and put mildly, misunderstanding will go away. At the risk of alienating people I met and have come to respect as friends and colleagues, I decided to share, but frame it in a larger context outside of my recent personal experience. This is so much bigger than any one person.
With that tension resident in any decision (damned if you do, damned if you don’t), I tried to figure out how best to express my disgust without portraying anger. Fast forward to the morning of June 28, 2020. I expressed in an email response to my colleague, that also included my boss, Dr. David Thomas, the president of Morehouse College. Dr. Thomas responded that I should share because it was yet again another instance of allowing my children to see me being a good citizen and standing up for what was right, and more importantly for what I believed in. Later that day, I settled in for Sunday online worship services. First up was Elizabeth Baptist Church’s service. Lady Chi’lra Oliver preached a word that spoke about being denied by God, and how we should deal with disappointment in different seasons. After listening to her sermon, I jumped on to The Park Church’s worship service, where Bishop Claude Richard Alexander preached a sermon entitled “You Must Handle This.” Well if I ever thought I would have rest from this incident or sharing it, I just received three reminders in quick succession, that this incident must be shared because having a voice, obliges you to find ways to express what some are feeling.
In Bishop Alexander’s sermon on “You Must Handle It”, he pointed to the various agencies that we are tasked with. The first is “Personal Agency”. This simply defines who we are. The value that we ascribe to ourselves, and how we see ourselves. Well I see myself as a human being who should be afforded the same rights and privileges of any other person. How could someone file a report with a charge of wrongdoing, and not give me an opportunity to state my case based on facts and evidence? That alone pointed me to conclude that I must stand and say something.
The second is “Practical Agency.” It suggests that we are what we choose to do. Well in this instance I choose to say something. Whether this incident was racially motivated or borne out of expediency to catch someone who was guilty of hitting a parked car is irrelevant. The actions were wrong and should be called out. How many people who do not have the sense of community or a voice to speak up will simply get placed into a “process” because they did not speak up due to fear or dread of unknown consequences? How many stories now we are seeing of people falsely accused, and in the incredibly sad case of Kalief Browder, going into the system for simply carrying a knapsack? I choose to say something this time with the support of my wife and children.
The third is “Positional Agency.” This speaks to the role and position I hold. For the seven years I lived in this city, I have tried to be a voice speaking to what I have seen not only there, but across the nation. In the fall of 2015 when race, diversity and inclusion matters erupted on college campuses across the nation, it visited our city. In more concrete terms it visited the college campus where I worked, Ithaca College. One of the sparks that ignited the furor on our campus was the suggestion that what happened in Ferguson, Missouri does not happen here. That flew in the face of the lived experiences of the students and people of color around us. Myself included. When the Ahmaud Arbery murder occurred, I was reminded by a colleague of an interview I did on a local show entitled All Things Equal, where I discussed that very thorny incident on our campus in 2015 (https://whcuradio.com/podcasts/things-equal-july-19-2016/).
Being the only vice president of color at the time on the campus, I had a birds eye view on how indifference, a lack of knowledge, unfamiliarity with the lived experiences of others, and quite frankly an attitude that this should go away, only allows ignorance to carry the day and unfortunately fester. My positions of standing in the community were tied to the positions I held at one of the two higher education institutions in the city. During those tough conversations we learned there were issues before the fall of 2015. There were issues after the fall of 2015. And I would imagine nothing will change until there is a conscious effort to sit down and try to find the solution. As Dr. Belisa Gonsalez, a professor at Ithaca College suggests, the “solution is in the pain.” Meaning, we can no longer avoid this conversation because it is painful.
The fourth is “Political Agency.” In this city there are some great people. I made some great friends of all races, creeds, vocations and others, but that pales in comparison to the psychological pain and stress that comes along with seeing “lip service” being paid to real issues that our nation is experiencing yet again. The festering of this issue makes an appearance in ten-year dispensations of time. The sense that we can allow ourselves to be taken in with the rhetoric that “this does not happen here,” furthers the pain of others. There are signs and posters all throughout the city that say Black Lives Matter. Allies can be found all over the city. They support initiatives and movements. Wonderful people. For the seven years that I lived there, outside the winter months there are protestors with signs denouncing drones and bombings around the world. We see various signs of worthy causes in windows of homes. We know who we can count on to some extent based on activities on the two campuses and in other small enclaves within the city. In my humble opinion, it is an intellectual exercise, because until folks can live the experiences that so many students and others express, it is going to be tough to reconcile the two. Never mind the fact that driving outside of the ten square miles into the surrounding counties brings with it fear and anxiety for people of color. Such items are rarely expressed but real, nonetheless. Leaders must lead, and in this current climate, calling groups together for discussions might not be enough. Policy and structural changes are needed. That requires leadership.
The final agency is “Economic Agency.” This speaks to where I spend my money. Why is it that people of color do not feel comfortable going down to restaurants on Aurora Street? Why don’t they feel as if they are a part of the community in general? Why for a city so small there is a “black and brown” section, and then there is all the rest? The size and scale of the city does not matter. It is the ethos and under currents that set up the realities.
There is this false sense of security and acceptance that we ascribe to states in the north, and despise the states in the south around issues of race, diversity and bigotry. Living in upstate New York for the past seven years has given me a new perspective, and today I can relate to the quote attributed to Malcolm X that suggests, the southern United States is anywhere south of the Canadian border. I will hasten to say, I try to avoid such generalizations, but some of our experiences in this part of the country affirms that for us. I know some will ask the question as to why a police report filed on an accident insights such feelings. It is simple in the minds of those of us who happen to be kissed by the sun with dark skin. It is the intersection of policing, racism, indifference, and ignorance. They are all in a soup that always has us coming out as the dregs that nobody wants.
I now live in Atlanta, GA, the cradle and birthplace of the civil rights movement. As I sit and watch all that is happening in our country unfold, I am reminded daily by photos and stories of how far we have come, but how much further we must go. I walk past the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. every day as I go into my office in front of the chapel named after him. After hearing all the “agencies” noted by Bishop Alexander, an alum of this prestigious Morehouse College, I feel duty bound to join the fray to support these young people with letting my voice be heard. Regardless of the sense and sensibilities of folks I met and worked with, but are struggling to deal with this issue. We must call out injustice and unfairness wherever we see it. We must move this particularly important discussion and dialogue from the realm of the intellect, surveys and symposiums that all turn out to be “check the box exercises” to meet an annual performance mandate at work or school. We must pivot towards the realm of the heart. I must feel what my fellow citizen feels. I must hear what they hear that lets them feel less than human at times. I must understand the historical aspects of what occurred in our nation since its founding and embrace the fact that people of color have been purposely disadvantaged, and the remnants of that reality are strong. We need to wrestle with how some of our neighbors still harbor feelings from ages long gone that are backwards and destructive for a functioning society.
I am very proud of this younger generation. They are seizing this moment, and they are going to carry the day I believe. On a recent morning walk during our final days in Ithaca, my wife summed it up best, “our generation was told to not rock the boat. However, this generation is saying tun ova di boat.” We are all going to get to a moment in time when we collectively realize, we can’t fix what we won’t face. The time is now and those people in society who want to see change have to embrace that change and become the change we all seek. Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option for us all.
Being tagged is usually denoted with something negative. Let us work to flip the script. Let us work to tag people with empowerment. Tag people with understanding. Tag people with respect. Tag people with human values. Tag people with opportunities to be heard. Most importantly lets tag people with love. If we don’t know how to attach those tags, I can assist by asking that everyone read in a dispassionate way this article from the former Mayor of Minneapolis. The title of the article is unfortunate for its political overtones, but the essence of it is one that should give us all pause to reflect. It is what I call the opening of some tough conversations similar to what we had at Ithaca College in the fall of 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/09/opinion/minneapolis-hodges-racism.html).
In closing, here comes the fun part, “Tag You Are It.” Now get in the game and let us get to work to move beyond this issue once and for all.