I’m the kind of person who stops to give strangers directions, which is what I thought I was doing Thursday afternoon in downtown Boston when a man called out to me from a black van.
I was walking down Tremont Street in front of Suffolk Law School after a working lunch with a couple of guys who work in politics. A guy in a van pulled out of traffic, motioned me over.
“What’s your name?’’
An unexpected question from a complete stranger, but I half-answered it: “Adrian.’’
The guy reached inside his black turtleneck and pulled out a badge at the end of the chain around his neck.
A Boston police badge.
“I’m doing an investigation and I’m looking for a guy who fits your description,’’ he said. “You have any identification with you, Adrian?’’ By now, my pulse was racing a little.
I pulled out my driver’s licence, and I’m pretty sure he got a look at the Globe ID in my wallet too. He gave my license a long look and handed it back without a word.
Wondering if it was OK to continue about my business, I said, “So are we OK?’’
He said, “Yeah, we’re fine.’’ And drove away.
Now I deal with cops regularly in my professional life, and I generally think nothing of it. So I was surprised, at first, at just how unnerving I found the experience of being blatantly racially profiled. We’re looking for someone who fits your description. Which would be what, exactly? A potbellied, middle-aged newspaper columnist with braids?
I called police headquarters yesterday, wondering if department brass could shed any light on how I happened to become a suspect simply by walking down the street. Daniel Linskey, the superintendent-in-chief, got back to me.
As you may have heard, a State Police trooper was struck by a hit-and-run driver Thursday morning in Neponset Circle in Dorchester. Somehow, Linskey told me, I got caught up in the citywide manhunt that followed.
“We were tracking a cellphone signal near Tremont Street and we had a description of an African-American male in his mid-40s,’’ Linskey told me. A rather general description.
“We had the name of the guy we were looking for,’’ Linskey continued. “So when he saw your license, he let you go.’’
I didn’t have a badge number for the officer I dealt with - I was too shocked, in the moment, to take note of it - so Linskey asked me to describe him. My description was just as general as the one that had ensnared me: a white, heavyset, balding guy in his 40s. Which describes roughly half the BPD - including, as it happens, Dan Linskey.
“Sometimes we have to go where stuff goes,’’ Linskey said apologetically. “Inevitably, we run into the wrong people sometimes.’’
I’m sure that’s true. But it’s different when you happen to be that wrong person, and the guy checking you out has a badge and a gun.
Like a lot of other people, I’ve been thinking a lot in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting about suspicion and stereotypes, and the dangers sometimes posed by walking while black. I’ve talked this week to mothers agonizing over how to keep their adolescent sons safe. I’ve thought about how I was once a black teenage boy in Florida who could have scared the wrong person who didn’t know any better, or was predisposed to be unnerved by someone who looks like me.
And in the midst of this I was reminded that you don’t have to be a kid, or wear a hoodie, to look like someone’s idea of a suspect. That you don’t have to be a kid to worry about what’s going to happen next.
Of course, I was never in any danger. But that didn’t make it feel any better to get stopped for fitting our culture’s all-purpose description of a suspect: a black man.
Adrian Walker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Adrian_Walker.