by Katie Hoeppner
As renowned Native American artist Mateo Romero drove along Old Santa Fe Trail on a hot July day, he couldn’t have imagined that he’d soon be lying face down on the ground with a rifle pointed at his head.
He was on his way to pick up his son from school when his dog became ill in the backseat of the car. The road lacked a shoulder wide enough to park safely, so he pulled over into the nearest driveway to clean up the mess and tend to his dog. But when the homeowner arrived in her driveway shortly after, she took one look at Mateo and assumed the worst.
“We’re not as far along on the journey to being more enlightened people as we thought.”
Mateo tried to tell her about his dog and the mess in the backseat of his car, but she wouldn’t listen. He told her he was eager to get on his way, but she refused to move her SUV, strategically parked in front of the driveway exit. She rolled up her window and dialed 911, telling the dispatcher she was worried because two “Hispanics” recently tried to burglarize her home.
Mateo was trapped.
“At first I didn’t really understand what was happening,” said Mateo. “Then I realized, ‘Oh she must be calling the police.’”
Afraid of what the police might do to a brown man in a white woman’s driveway, Mateo tried once more to talk to her, but she wouldn’t roll down her window.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m at risk. I’m going to get shot, I’m going to get shot by the cops. This is dangerous.’”
The incident happened four years ago, but it’s still fresh in Mateo’s mind. It’s the reason his heart races every time he passes by the Santa Fe Police. It’s the reason he now tells all five of his children never to chase after their football if they accidentally throw it over a fence onto someone else’s property. And it’s the reason he no longer has a studio in the area.
“If you survive this kind of encounter, the real price you pay afterwards is you don’t feel like an American citizen anymore,” says Mateo. “I thought that people had kind of figured out that racism — that judging someone by the color of their skin — was a bad thing and now I’m finding out that I was wrong.”
Tragically, these kinds of confrontations are all too common for people of color in the United States.
There has been a spate of high profile incidents similar to Mateo’s, in which white people called the cops on people of color after viewing them with suspicion.
A black student fell asleep in a Yale dormitory common area and a suspicious white student called the cops because she didn’t think her peer belonged. Two Native American brothers from New Mexico took part in a tour of Colorado State University and a concerned white mother called the cops because she thought they seemed “odd” and “creepy.” Three professional black artists exited an Airbnb and a neighbor called the cops because the women failed to “wave back.” Two black men awaited their white colleague in a Starbucks and a white employee called the cops after only three minutes because they hadn’t made a purchase.
In none of these instances did callers have legitimate grounds for calling the police. But racial bias and discrimination are so deep-seated in this country that they masquerade as credible fear.
People of color can’t simply exist in this country without the risk that someone will assume they pose a threat. A white teenager of little words is likely to be perceived as quiet or shy. A Native American teen is perceived as “creepy” and threatening. A white woman who falls asleep in the library is likely to be seen as hardworking and studious. A black woman is questioned if she “belongs.” A white man dealing with a sick dog is likely to elicit sympathy. A Native American man is presumed a robber.
The sad irony in all of these cases is, the people who called police because they perceived people of color as inherently dangerous, wound up inflicting harm and humiliation on the very people they were afraid of.
It’s because of routine incidents like these that when people of color have actual reasons to call police — like facing direct threats or witnessing a crime — they often hesitate.
Laquonte Barry, a local Albuquerque father of two, understands this all too well. When he went into a convenience store last April to buy soft drinks with a friend, the cashier called him the “N-word” after Laquonte notified him that he was charged incorrectly.
The cashier continued to provoke him with a barrage of verbal assaults, referring to him not only as the “N-word,” but also “boy.”
“I just felt like I was belittled as a man,” says Laquonte.
The situation escalated when a second employee confronted the abusive cashier about his racist remarks, calling him “ignorant,” and a physical altercation broke out. Laquonte suddenly realized that he was in a potentially dangerous situation. Even though he was a blameless victim of racial discrimination, Laquonte didn’t stick around for the cops to come out of fear that, as a black man at the scene, police would immediately assume he was a perpetrator. For him, any interaction with police in the aftermath of a violent incident meant a risk of being thrown in jail and taken away from his two young sons.
“Here I am a black man in this crazy world. All he’s got to do is say ‘this man came in and tried to rob me,’ and now I have an attempted robbery charge. So, I left.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New México legal director Leon Howard sees Laquonte’s unwillingness to interact with police, even if only to provide testimony when a victim of a crime, as a typical response in an environment where people of color, especially black males, are disproportionately brutalized and killed by law enforcement.
“Every day, white people call the police with full confidence that officers will come to their aid, even when their calls lack any legitimate basis,” said Howard. “Even when, as many have noted in recent weeks, they treat police like ‘customer service.’ Laquonte, after being the victim of a hate crime, believed he would actually be the target of police. His experience reveals a much deeper issue about access to institutions. Historically marginalized people simply do not view police as an agency that will help them, but as one that will reinforce racial inequality.”
Most people’s experiences — like those of Mateo and Laquonte — are not caught on camera and viewed by the public. The recent spate of racial profiling cases in the headlines are only a small sample of the dangerous confrontations that people of color experience on a routine basis across our country.
“We’re not as far along on the journey to being more enlightened people as we thought. Not as blind to color, money, or class,” says Mateo. “It’s like a simmering posole pot. And I’m sure the heat has been turned up with Trump. I’m sure the posole pot is overflowing at this point.”
Mateo and Laquonte’s children will continue growing up in world where they are consistently at risk of someone calling the police on them for engaging in everyday activities. They are at risk of being subject to humiliating and harmful encounters with the police if they show up.
Institutions like law enforcement never make these changes on their own initiative, however. Change and reform only ever comes from when we —the community of voters, activists, and advocates —flex our power and raise our voices to demand it.
The ACLU of New México currently represents Mateo Romero in a lawsuit against the Santa Fe Police Department for depriving him of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from arrest when no investigation was done to discern probable cause and for continuing to detain him after determining he hadn’t committed a crime. The ACLU of New México recently settled its lawsuit on behalf of Laquonte Barry against the local convenience store for engaging in unlawful discriminatory practices.
Both men hope that in talking about their experiences, they will bring awareness to the ongoing issue of racial discrimination so that lasting change can be made.
“I think it’s the most important work right now— the struggle for the soul of the country,” says Mateo. “Is it going to be a place that loves people and embraces people? Is it the land of the free? Is it ‘give me your tired, your hungry, and your poor’ or is it the House of Commons and the House of Lords? Is it based on the color of your skin, or your gender? What is it going to be?”
Katie Hoeppner is a Lead Writer at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, www.aclu-nm.org.
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