Up Next


Black or blue

A lesson about crime, race and policing that everyone should learn

My daughter Emily recently celebrated her 40th birthday. She was born at Baptist Hospital in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1976, the summer of America’s bicentennial. When she was about 100 days old, we took her on her first long car trip to visit her grandparents in New York and Rhode Island. During that trip, we became victims of a crime – an armed robbery in a motel room in Charlotte, North Carolina. That event altered our lives. Forty years later, I still never open a door without knowing who is on the other side.

That morning in Charlotte, the knock at our door was not from the maid as I suspected, but from a black man holding a small silver-plated gun. I tell you his race because it’s a part of the story. This story is not about him. I assume he is long dead from drug abuse or criminal violence. This story is about the white men who helped me and my family on that sunny summer morning. They were police officers. And they were racists.

I’m telling the story now because of the way my experience shapes how I react to news accounts of racial profiling and police violence.

I am telling it as a cautionary tale: that victims of a crime go beyond the obvious ones – the murdered, raped and robbed. They include innocent bystanders who get sucked into the maelstrom of police investigations, not because of what they were doing, but because of where they were and who they are – and the color of their skin.

My predisposition has been to identify with the cops. My uncle Peter Marino was one in New York City. So were the men who lived next door to us in a Long Island suburb. I thought Tom Baron and Dan McCloskey were heroes. And I knew I could call on them for protection. Before I knew the term “first responders,” I sensed that these men were the types who would run toward the danger when everyone else was running away.

But I have an additional vantage point, that of a young black teen who happened to be riding his bicycle that morning near the Howard Johnson motel on Statesville Road in Charlotte.

I no longer dwell on the details of the robbery. They were painful, but we survived them. Four of us – Mom, Dad, 4-year-old Alison, and baby Emily were about to leave our motel for the next leg of our trip when we heard a knock at the door. Given the time of day, I thought it was the maid. I gasped at the sight of a man with a gun. He pushed his way into the room, threatened our lives if we resisted, herded us into the bathtub, rifled our wallets, took some jewelry and was gone.

Holding our daughters, we ran out of the building into the reception lobby. “We’ve been robbed by a man with a gun,” we shouted. The clerk, a young woman, stepped back as if we were robbing her, and two men, security guards I presumed, rushed into action.

The next thing I knew I was riding shotgun in a police car through a nearby neighborhood looking for the robber. A young white officer was driving and he indicated, almost in disgust, that my family had stopped at the wrong motel in the wrong part of town. I remember exactly what he said, “The most miserable n——- you’ve ever seen live around here.”

(I rarely use the N-word in my writing, but it’s what he said.)

I don’t remember much else: a couple of storefronts with some old men nearby, unattended toddlers playing in the dirt. No one I saw looked anything like the man who robbed us. When we returned to the hotel, another officer had stopped a black teenager, no more than 14 or 15. He had been on his bicycle. They led him right to the window of the police car. I looked at him. He looked back at me and smiled, shaking his head. I couldn’t smile, but I shook my head, too. No, it wasn’t him.

In the days and months since Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, and Baltimore, and many more, I’ve wondered about what happened to that young man I met the summer of 1976. Not the one with the gun, but the one on the bike. I hope he found a way out of poverty, away from the jurisdiction of police who thought of him as “a miserable n——.”

(My story from years ago is no indictment of police in Charlotte in 2016. The chief of police, Kerr Putney, is African-American and has spoken about police and community tensions, along with the experience of being both black and blue. I hope life has improved for the residents who live on or near Statesville Road.)

A recent investigation by the Tampa Bay Times revealed how often young black men are stopped on their bicycles in Tampa for petty crimes, or no crimes at all. Call it “biking while black.” I can understand how a police officer responding to calls in high crime areas can begin to automatically associate crime with color. I felt that way for a while after a black man with a gun terrorized my family. But something in my experience – maybe just life and survival – has widened my perspective. I still identify the police with service and protection, not oppression and incarceration. Maybe that’s an example of what is called “white privilege.” But I now wonder if the lasting victim that morning was not me or my family, but that young man on the bike.

Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists. He is the author of “Writing Tools” and many other books.