Picnic, play, pulled over? It’s not just at Belle Isle, for some
Detroit doesn’t have stop-and-frisk, the controversial New York City police policy of randomly stopping individuals to see if they’re up to no good. But if you pay attention to what’s going on with Belle Isle, it seems we’re taking at least baby steps toward it.
There has been talk of the increased authoritative presence on the Detroit park island, a place I’ve known as a church-picnic and family-reunion destination, or the home of the course where I was once the third-fastest cross-country runner in Detroit Public Schools. Since being turned into a state park, Michigan State Police and the Department of Natural Resources have increased patrols there.
To be clear, I fully support Belle Isle being under state control. The island where I took countless school field trips is not the same as it was back then. It’s dirty, it’s polluted, it’s shameful. I applaud the state for their efforts in cleaning it up.
But we do need to be concerned about over-policing the island. Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones complained that while on the island one day, she felt like the police were waiting for her to go just one mile over so they could give her a ticket.
Her concerns were immediately dismissed. MSP and DNR have arrested around 200 people from the beginning of February through March 31, for such offenses as outstanding warrants, possession of marijuana, carrying concealed weapons and open intoxicants. They should be prosecuted, yes.
But that “one mile over” thing? It’s the fear that otherwise law-abiding African Americans and other people of color live with every day.
Let me explain.
It’s not just going one mile over the speed limit. It’s the constant fear that we’ll do something to agitate someone with a gun. It’s the fear that we’ll unwillingly become another statistic, be it an innocent black man behind bars for reasons unclear or another death at the hands of a stressed-out cop with a loose trigger finger. Or that we’ll be stopped, questioned, harassed – just for minding our business.
That happens a lot. It happened to my cousin, a married father of two, as he was trailed by Canton police leaving his mother’s condo for a few miles until he got to the I-275 on-ramp. Would he have been followed if he weren’t black? Or was the cop waiting for him to go one mile over?
It happened to my brother, who was berated by a Washtenaw County sheriff – in mile-high snow during last season’s polar vortex – while on his way to class at the University of Michigan. The sheriff detained him for walking in the street and questioned him needlessly, even though the sidewalks weren’t plowed and no other pedestrians were stopped.
And it happened to me. Once, while walking from Taco Bell to an eye appointment, a Washtenaw County sheriff decided I fit the profile of someone on the run. I was let go after being patted down on the hood of the car in the parking lot, in full view of the customers at every shop in the strip mall. And then I got new contact lenses.
You try to think of these as separate incidents. Maybe it was just coincidental that a cop trailed my cousin for three miles and darted off when he left his jurisdiction. Maybe my brother was in the legal wrong for walking in the street and he just had to be the example.
But everybody can’t be telling the same lie. At the auto show this year, a white colleague and I were discussing downtown Plymouth. I’d heard there were good bars there. “Be careful,” he warned. “You might get stopped. They do that out there.”
I’ll have to visit Plymouth myself to see if it’ll happen to me, so I don’t unfairly profile the officers there. But it sounds awfully like what I and other black Michiganders have heard over the years. Don’t drive into the suburbs with a dented car. Don’t drive in certain neighborhoods too slow, even if you just want to admire the real estate.
Belle Isle should indeed be a clean and safe place to visit. But what the (mostly white) people beating their chests on social media don’t understand is that the sheer amount of force has a different kind of meaning to a different kind of person.
Most of us are already scared enough of becoming another Jonathan Ferrell, the 24-year-old ex-college football player gunned down by Charlotte, N.C., police as he was asking for help. You don’t even have to go that far, as Malice Green still echoes in our minds. What people fail to realize is that even the little things, like going one mile over on Belle Isle, intimidate us even more.
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