Op-ed: The Crime of Being a Young Black Male

Henok Fente
Henok Fente

In 2008, CNN broadcast a photo of President-elect Barack Obama with his arm outstretched to the public, and asked viewers to write its caption. I remember the winning submission almost verbatim because it spoke to my heart.

“Even after winning the presidency, President-elect Barack Obama could not get a cab in Washington, D.C.,” it read. The truth is, even now in the beginning of his second term, the president will still struggle to hail a cab in the nation’s capital past 10 p.m.

If you are a black male, or Latino, you know what I am talking about. Some D.C. cabbies immediately profile you as robbers and criminals. So they either deny you service or boss you around once you are in their cab.

On February 27, the day President Obama inaugurated the statue of Rosa Parks, I was out with my friends at a bar called 18th Street Lounge, ESL for short. Not to be mistaken for English as a Second Language—though in many ways true, since the majority of the clients are foreign nationals, the expats of D.C., if you will.

Wednesday is reggae night. Meet my friends: Cher the tall Senegalese; Kata from Serbia; Sean the American, who always looks high but does not smoke. Who else? Jakewon from Sri Lanka, who we tease is from Bangladesh and joke that his real name is Wikum with a W; his new girlfriend, half-Finnish half-African American…you get the picture. And I am Ethiopian.

We are bound by love and mutual respect. We always learn from each other, help one another and accept each other’s differences while recognizing our unity and celebrating life together. We laugh, giggle, drink a bit, chase after the opposite sex or the same sex, whatever makes us happy. That is our little family of serious and passionate individuals having a goofy time together. This bar, we the “regulars” tell new guests, with no facts checked of course, used to be the home of FDR. Now it has become our home.

I finished two bottles of Belgian beer that I shared with friends, left ESL around 12:40 a.m., hailed a cab, told the cabbie to take me to “4th & G, SW.” The cabbie started his meter, made a U-turn on Connecticut, and stopped at a traffic light a block away.

The middle-aged driver of Pakistani or Indian origin, judging from his accent, turned his head and asked me to move to the opposite side of the backseat. I was sitting behind the driver. He was not polite in his request. I told him calmly that I was comfortable where I was.

The cabbie insisted, saying he would like to talk to me and watch me through his rearview mirror while I am in his cab. I told him I have no intention of having a conversation with him and all I ask is to be taken home, assuring him that as long as I am in the cab and I have the money to pay for his services, I have every right to sit where I feel comfortable.

At this point the cab driver stopped his vehicle and asked me to get out. I refused and asked him to take me home.

The easiest thing to do under these circumstances would have been to agree to switch seats, accept his racial and age bias and go home, or leave the cab. I did not choose the above two options because, firstly, they are against the principles of humanity that all people deserve equal treatment, and secondly, the law requires him to do so as a commercial vehicle operator. Again, I asked the cab driver to please drive me home.

Let me be clear here: The problem I have with racial profiling is a fallacy of hasty generalization, so I will not conclude or in anyway generalize that D.C. cab drivers are racist. I have family and friends who drive cabs for a living; they are hard-working, honest people. Shout out to my cabbie Moody, who is always 15 minutes away from my rescue, Berhe, the Accountant Cabbie, who does my taxes in his free time. This piece is for those who discriminate against their clients; those who look down on their own race and profile complete strangers as criminals, Hispanic and black alike.

I spotted a police car nearby and told the cab driver to call the police and ask them to take my address and check my ID if it makes him feel more comfortable.

Officer W. Belton inquired about the situation from his police car. I told him what I described above. The cab driver told him his version, that he wants me to sit on the other side. I repeated my refusal, reiterating that I have every right to sit anywhere in the cab. The officer initially concurred that the driver cannot tell me where to sit.

Officer W. Belton of the 2nd Metropolitan Police Department couldn’t decide what to do. The officer, a middle-aged white male with a mustache, kept repeating the same questions to the two of us. I repeatedly told him, I will compensate the cab driver for his services, I can show the police my driver’s license to make the cabbie feel comfortable, but I will sit where I like and be taken home, as is required by the law.

Officer W. Belton did not seem to like the fact I knew my rights. No big deal, it is just text printed on a single piece of paper, right? It seemed, and later became evident, that Officer W. Belton thought it was a big deal and very smart to know a few D.C. Taxicab Commission passenger rights.

As I was looking for the number to call the D.C. Taxicab Commission to report the cabbie, Officer W. Belton asked me to pay the fare, step out of the cab and take another vehicle. I told him he can not ask me to do that. I have the right to be taken home by this cab driver.

At 1:05 a.m. I called 202-645-6018, the D.C. Taxicab Commission. As I was trying to get the cab driver’s ID number while listening to the machine operator, Officer W. Belton loudly blasted, “It is over!” Suddenly he was grabbing me by the neck and dragging me out of the cab, head-first, legs following as I staggered to find my balance and avoid falling face-first on the asphalt.

I was rushed to the back of the cab, keeping my phone in hand, which I dropped on top of its trunk where there was a cup of coffee in a golden cup.

“Bend over!” demanded an officer whose face I could not see. “Spread them! Step away from the cab!” shouted the officer after I was cuffed.

These were short and humiliating orders given to me for refusing to move over to another seat in the back of a cab. Several other police cars converged on the scene. Their flashing lights were blinding.

After I was cuffed, Officer W. Belton got in my face.

“You think you are smart?” he asked. “You are ignorant.”

I was ordered to further step away from the back of the cab by another officer, whose face I also did not see, while they searched me.

“And your ignorance got you arrested,” said Officer W. Belton.

He humiliated me, knowing I could not respond to him. I didn’t want to give him the excuse of charging me for resisting arrest, so I kept quiet.

I am a journalist and I speak my mind. I refrained from telling Officer W. Belton that, yes, I actually think I am smart, and that his job is not arresting “ignorant people” if he can identify one by looking at their face or color.

At the time, his power seemed so boundless and abusive, I chose to keep silent. Instead of telling me my rights, he insulted and humiliated me.

The police did not cause me physical harm. But I have suffered psychologically. I could not sleep, eat or drink. Flashbacks of the trauma of my arrest still go through my head just like the flash of the police lights.

I was taken to the 2nd MPD, where my arresting officers could not even convince their colleagues why they arrested me. I spent two hours and 10 minutes in a cell.

At the time of my booking, I told the officers my only crime was choosing to sit where I wished and fitting into a profile. It is ironic and extremely disheartening that this happened to me after doing a story earlier in the day on the historic inauguration of Rosa Park’s statue.

I was later released without being charged. Officer W. Belton’s bogus “Theft of Services/ Unlawful Entry” arrest charges did not convince his supervisors, who came and spoke to me later in the jail cell.

I asked them: “Have you ever heard of illegal entry into a public transportation?”

The lieutenant, a female veteran, responded: “It is like walking into a grocery store.”

Then she signed my release papers as she promised.

After I was freed, the person listed as my arresting officer, R. Tran, a young Asian officer who was being trained, said to me: “I am sorry this happened to you. I could not do anything because I am a rookie and he (referring to W. Belton) is my senior.”

Officer Belton never apologized. Not that it mattered, after what he did to me.

I had no criminal record. I knew my rights. I did not break the law. So I am walking free. But what about those who made mistakes at some point in their lives and are trying to do the right thing? Those who would not have walked out of the 2nd District Police Station free?

That is why I am speaking out and taking action.

I am suing D.C. police for police misconduct and racial profiling and collaborating with a cab driver who broke the law. Wish me luck. I’ll need it, because for some of the D.C. lawyers, this case is a lot of work for too little money. They ask me if I sustained any physical injury, when I say no, they do not want to touch it. I am sure I will find a lawyer in this town who believes there is a bigger bonus in taking up civil rights for all, someone who believes black, white, green, yellow—whatever color, age, gender—we all matter and that we are all equal.

President Obama, please speak up. Take action about this. Or you may have trouble hailing a cab in D.C. after 2016.

Henok Fente is an international affairs reporter. A 2007 graduate of Columbia University School of Journalism, he has won numerous accolades including the New York Press Association’s scholarship award. Fente hosts a news magazine show and reports on politics, business, human rights and social life in Africa for a radio show with 6 million weekly listeners. He currently resides in Washington, D.C.

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