Written by LeShea Agnew
The war on drugs is racist.
The steps on the uneven road to equality are not as few as many Americans wish to believe. Certain outdated laws intended to govern basic behaviors and safeguard personal freedoms now hinder our ability to balance the scales of justice evenly for everyone.
Targeted enforcement and harsher penalties for minorities with regards to minor offenses continues to weigh down the leveling hands of our criminal justice system. In the eyes of the detectives who pulled me over, I saw a clear reflection of what most officers deem to be “the face of criminal activity.”
I’ve spent nearly 10 years of my professional young adult life in the public eye as a trusted voice, host, and reporter for National Public Radio affiliate stations in various states. I made history as the youngest host at two affiliate stations, landed exclusive interviews with Dr. Maya Angelou, Cokie Roberts, bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Dorothy Hamill, Trayvon Martin’s father, Hill Harper and other top community and political figures. Illuminating the realities of our society provides critical community insight; it’s a role I don’t take lightly or for granted. Despite my unblemished criminal record, moments after being stopped by the police my life’s work jeopardized and tainted. My career…shattered. My freedom, rescinded.
I was excited to relocate to the area from New York to further my journalism pursuits. I was looking for my next news post. What I found instead was my own personal story of injustice at the hands of law enforcement. The statistics of biased police behavior and prosecution in Illinois are not only obvious but alarming. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, minority drivers are estimated to make up only about 21% of the city’s population but accounted for nearly 39% of all traffic stops in 2012. I am now part of this staggering statistic. This was no random stop.
After noticing me at an intersecting street, the unmarked patrol unit pulled off Belleville’s main road, West Main Street, and idled in wait for me to pass. The unit immediately cut off traffic to pull behind me and begin their stop. Without hesitation or concern, I reached into the backseat to retrieve a blue bag containing all information a motorist is required to have readily accessible when operating a vehicle.
The approaching officer identified himself and his partner as members of Belleville’s drug task unit. According to officers I was “in a high drug traffic area.” Confusion was my response; I was pulled over about a block from my home on the town’s main road leading to the police department. Mere seconds later, I was physically extracted from my vehicle before dozens of passing eyes. The officers’ questions and commands rushed quickly from their mouths as effortlessly and routinely as “license and registration.”
Perhaps it was my comfortable, laid-back driving position that caught their attention. Or maybe it was noticeably untamed locs growing proudly from my head. It might have been the Hip-Hop themed t-shirt coupled with loose blue jeans and hi-top sneakers that ultimately solidified their prejudgments of my character…of my person.
“We know something is in here. We’re not new to this! Tell us where it is.”
“Nothing” I replied repeatedly.
Bending over the front of the patrol car with my hands on its hood, I quietly suffered through my first police pat down. No female officer was called to the scene to conduct the search, as most officers do when the “suspect” is of the opposite sex. The male officer’s hands traveled intently around my body, deep into pockets, around my bosom, down my legs, up my thighs and back down again. Nothing was found. No consent given.
According to a recent racial-profiling study, the Post-Dispatch Springfield Bureau reports: “Minority drivers in Illinois are about three times more likely than white drivers to have their cars searched during routine traffic stops. The numbers from the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department were typical of the findings of the state-funded study. It showed that the department conducted ‘consent searches’ of the vehicles of 55 minority drivers during traffic stops last year. That’s about double the 27 vehicle searches against white drivers, even though whites made up the majority of drivers pulled over.”
All of my personal belongings and paperwork…tossed around, opened, emptied, examined, turned upside down, shaken and in total disarray. It was within that moment that I finally understood the invasive reach of racial profiling. After searching the vehicle’s contents and trunk twice without producing anything incriminating, it appeared my nightmare was over. In reality, it had only just begun.
“Place your hands behind your back.”
Six words I have never heard in my life, six words that forever changed my life. Each wrist met with numbing, unforgiving metal, requiring several clicks to tighten around my petite, 105lb frame. I was never shown proof of the cannabis charge but was forced to endure its consequences immediately. Removed from the society I serve, vehicle impounded, Miranda rights never read and charges never explained. The officers ignored my pleas for the reason I was arrested while en route to jail.
Once detained at the precinct, I was callously photographed and placed in a cold holding-cell with little clothing, no shoes, and cuffs still around my wrists. My holding-cell mate, a Caucasian woman about my age, was afforded courtesies and respectability that escaped me. She was allowed to keep her hooded jacket, cell phone, and shoes as I shivered anxiously beside her in wait of my release. She sent text messages and even played games on her phone as constant yells and begs for a guard’s attention from male inmates down the hall filled the dense space around me. For hours I was forced to endure racially insensitive questions, assumptions of street drug abuse, and humiliation before the other inmates when the intake sergeant demanded I openly reaffirm my gender, as if it were ever in question. I would later be removed from the holding-cell without cause or warning and placed in a lightless, isolated standard cell for the remainder of my detainment.
Release, arrest, and impound fees totaled nearly $1,300. Once released, I was finally informed of the charge against me: “Knowingly in possession of less than 2.5 grams of cannabis.” The equivalent of a “joint.” A misdemeanor ticket that is handled with other minor offenses in traffic court. At the time of my arrest, I was actively freelancing until negotiations with two companies for full-time employment were complete. I lost those offers immediately due to the pending drug charge. As a result, I fell so far into debt that bankruptcy may be my only option to bringing my head above financial waters.
To this day, the evidence has never been shown to me. I was not knowingly in possession or under the influence of any substance. Officers never once attempted to display what warranted my first arrest or fully explain what was allegedly found in my bag that was openly displayed on the passenger seat when officers made the initial stop. It is clear to me that the Caucasian officers expected to find something incriminating solely based on the stereotypes and blatant misconceptions that accompany my race. The official police report indicates the officers’ reason for stopping me was “Operating a vehicle in the rain without using headlights or windshield wipers.” I certainly was not operating a vehicle on a busy roadway under such conditions without utilizing working wipers and headlights. Such inaction would ultimately impede my own visibility and safety. I would never place myself or others in such harm. Even if their statement were true, the officers would have immediately inquired about my driving instead of interrogating me about alleged drug abuse. Requests were made to obtain the dash cam recording to back-up my account of the arrest. Several weeks later, I was informed that the tape was destroyed despite documented requests.
This is not a testimonial to end the war on cannabis. This is a testimonial to end the ground war inflicted upon certain citizens, crushing us under the weight of targeted treatment by some members of law enforcement. Illinois’ harsh marijuana penalties places the state 5th in the nation for highest arrest rate for marijuana (www.mpp.org). Blacks are 7.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested rather than simply cited and fined for marijuana possession despite the fact use rates are the same. I am now flagged in the state database as a drug offender. I am no criminal, nor have I ever been. Yet I am forced to wear the branded mark.
The decriminalization of marijuana is more than a hot topic, it’s a national discussion. No longer just a debate, the arguments are clear and the grounding solid. Illinois legislatures recently voted to permit the medicinal use of marijuana and in the same breath are arresting minor offenders. Top Civil Rights Attorney Justin Meehan has worked tirelessly to push decriminalization efforts of marijuana in St. Louis and Illinois. My case is a prime example of the need for such reform. According to Meehan’s research, the legislation would create a new class of offense for Illinoisans caught with 30 grams of marijuana or less called a “regulatory offense”. Once ticketed individuals pays their fines, the offense would be erased from their records in a move the Marijuana Policy Project argues would help them avoid losing employment and educational or housing opportunities.
This is our time to join a national effort to reform marijuana laws and take another firm step in the direction of social and judicial balance. The state of Illinois houses much more than millions of hardworking families; powerful voices and able bodies live here. Responsible voices who dutifully rise in unison and call out to our able bodied legislators when the bell of reform rings loudly within state lines.
The criminal consequence of marijuana is far worse than the effects of the drug itself, medicinally or recreationally. Now is the time to decriminalize cannabis and create less strenuous laws for a minor drug that is considered by most to be a healing agent. Keep members of law enforcement on the streets, not in the precinct processing minor offenses. Protect the freedom and livelihoods of hard-working Americans in Illinois and St. Louis by making your voice heard.
Join me in taking a firm stand for our voiceless citizens trapped between the capricious fingers of an unbalanced judicial system. My story is one of many. Other Illinois city and county officials have already joined the movement to decriminalize marijuana possession, including Aurora, Carbondale, Champaign, Chicago Heights, Countryside, Evanston, Oak Lawn, Northbrook, Stickney, Streamwood, Urbana and Yorkville.
St. Clair County, it’s our turn.