“Black Women and Men: A Threatened Species”

Press Conference Statement by Julian Kunnie, Africana Studies Prof. and Antiwar Activist, Attacked by Police

This is the edited text of a press conference statement made by Professor Julian Kunnie, director of Africana Studies at the University of Arizona, on the morning of April 15, 2003, in front of the Islamic Center, a mosque just a few blocks from the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson. A round-the-clock interfaith vigil against all violence has been ongoing in front of the Islamic Center since shortly after the invasion of Iraq, to protect the mosque and in particular to protest violence and threats against Muslims and others of Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds. He was taking part in the vigil, along with several other people, in the early hours of April 6 when he was attacked by police

In the last two years especially Julian Kunnie has been prominent in speaking out against war on Iraq and Afghanistan, and against capitalism and its history of racist, colonialist wars. During this semester (spring 2003), together with the Young Socialists, Not In Our Name, and the Committee for a Democratic Secular Palestine, he helped organize a series of public meetings on the war and related topics that drew hundreds to each session.

At the April 15 press conference, attended by a couple of hundred supporters, representatives of the Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Black Ministerial Alliance, and regular participants in the interfaith vigil at the Islamic Center all spoke in defense of Prof. Kunnie. Another protest against police racism is scheduled at the University of Arizona for noontime Wednesday, April 30, demanding the ouster of two university policemen who have taken part in racist attacks. Also, a 24-hour poetry reading against the war is scheduled for the Islamic Center on May Day. The text of Prof. Kunnie’s remarks follow.

I am thankful to the Creator, to the ancestors of African people, and to the ancestors of Native American people, for my being alive, and I want to thank my friend at the anti-violence vigil here, Xylem, for her role in saving my life on the fateful early morning of April 6, 2003.

I want to thank you all for coming out this morning, to come out in solidarity with me following this very painful incident.

I would like to take this opportunity to explain precisely what happened to me on the morning of April 6, raise derivative questions, cite other examples of racial profiling and terror of Black people by police, and finally frame these experiences in the context of societal and institutionalized racism and the criminalization of Black men and women that is so widely and tacitly accepted in this society.

I am outraged by the humiliation, degradation, and dehumanization that I have suffered from this incident and have been traumatized as a result, and would like to take this opportunity to publicize what happened, to prevent it from happening again to any person on campus and any person in society because it is ultimately an issue of the recognition and protection of human rights.

When the campus police officer pulled a gun on me and then handcuffed me, I saw stars and wondered whether this was a bad dream. I felt like a slave in the early part of the 21st century, helpless to explain and defend my innocence, shackled in fetters by my white captor who assumed confidently that I was guilty, that I was a criminal, predicated solely on the color of my skin, and my being of African descent; in essence, I was viewed as just another dirty and dangerous “nigger.”

At approximately 1:15 a.m. on April 6, while present at an around-the-clock peace vigil at the Islamic Center, corner of First and Tyndall, where four of us were engaged in a conversation, one of the persons, Xylem, and I stepped toward the sidewalk to see what was happening on the north end of Tyndall, at the corner of Speedway and Tyndall, after two police cars sped through an alley close to the east end of the Islamic Center. A police car that was headed west on First, after crossing Tyndall, suddenly made a U-turn and sped back toward the corner of Tyndall and First.  Xylem mentioned that the police officer was not driving well because of the suddenness of the turn.  In a flash, a policeman, a white male, jumped out from the car after it pulled over at the corner, unholstered his gun from behind an open car door, and pointed it directly at me, first toward my groin and then elevated toward my chest, his hand shaking vigorously and nervously, shaking so badly that even Kate Heck, standing over thirty feet away, could see his hand shaking. She could not see the gun very clearly because it was black, but could see his hand shaking. He yelled, “Get your hands out of your pockets! Raise your hands!”

I was taken aback and did not realize that he was talking to me. I was mystified by the order and assumed that he was talking to someone else in the vicinity. At no time did this police officer state that he had a gun drawn on me. He repeated the order and my friend Xylem yelled at me to follow the police officer’s instructions. I took my hands out of my jacket pockets, and raised my hands above my head, as did the others at the vigil. The police officer returned his gun to its holster and walked towards me and asked me to kneel on the ground. I have never been humiliated like this before. He then handcuffed me and ordered Xylem to “get out of here.” She immediately started videotaping the proceedings.

I told him that I was a professor and head of Africana Studies at the University and that I could show him my identification, which was in my truck parked on the opposite side of the street (on First). His response was, “Professors do things too.” The other persons at the vigil were yelling that I was part of the group. The police officer paid them no heed. I asked him why I was being handcuffed. He stated that I fitted the description of a person who had just attempted to stab a person nearby. I shouted that these actions were racial profiling and were racist. I asked him whether the suspect was Black. He replied that it was “a Black man with hair.” I asked him whether the suspect was tall. He said that he did not know. I asked him whether the suspect wore glasses. He replied that he did not know. There was no other communication from the police to me to explain fully why I had a gun pulled on me and why I was handcuffed. Instead, one of the Tucson city police officers who had since arrived, a policeman named Kendrick, went over to the group of three at the vigil and informed them that they were looking for a suspect who had pulled a knife on a person at a Subway sandwich shop nearby, a man wearing a green jacket. I wondered why none of the police officers communicated with me directly.

Three other police cars appeared at the scene, five in all, according to one of the persons at the vigil, Katy Heck. Two may have been University of Arizona police cars, since there were two officers from the UA police at the scene. I again mentioned that I had identification to prove that I was a university professor. Officer Brittain, the other campus officer, responded, “You have identification? Where?” I replied that it was in my truck parked across the street. “Is that your car?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. He still did not ask to see my identification.

While I was handcuffed, large automobile searchlights were trained on me. I was made to feel like I was a criminal. I heard one of the Tucson city police officers say that I was not the suspect—according, I presume to a witness who was driven over in a police car, a person that I did not see. Officer Kendrick from the Tucson police asked me if I was armed and whether it was okay to pat me down. I replied that I was not armed and that he could pat me down, which he did. He then asked the police officer who had handcuffed me to release the handcuffs. After I was freed from the handcuffs, I asked the police officer who handcuffed me his name, his age, and the duration of his time in the police force. He told me that his name was Hawke, his number was 0202, he was twenty-three years old, and he had been in the police force for one year and two months. He defiantly spelled his name for the video camera. I asked to speak to his supervisor. Another University of Arizona police officer named W. K. Brittain, appeared, and told me that no supervisors were on duty at that time, that the police had followed proper procedures, as taught at the Tucson Police Academy, and that if I had any complaints, I could report them to Internal Affairs.

I then walked over to a Tucson city police car parked on the east-end corner of First and Tyndall and asked to speak to the supervisor of the Tucson city police officer who had patted me down. The policeman, who was seated in his car, asked me to report my complaint to the University of Arizona police. I asked him whether he had seen what had happened and whether he realized what a terrible crime had been committed against me. He repeated that I needed to go to the University police. I insisted that one of his officers was responsible for patting me down and was in fact collaborating with the University police. He defiantly said that I was not hearing him. I then called the officer who had patted me down and asked him whether he was part of this operation against me and he acknowledged that he was, and lowered his head. He gave his name as Officer Kendricks, #27364. The officer in the car gave his name as Sergeant Schaefer, #10393. The other officers then left the scene.

There was no apology given to me by either the University of Arizona police or the Tucson city police for this horrible crime against me and the violation of my person and human and civil rights by these police officers. It reminded me of the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case when the justices declared that “Blacks had no rights that whites were bound to respect.” It also was a sobering and traumatic realization that Black people, when they are arrested or detained by police, are generally assumed guilty until proven innocent, as was the case with me on April 6, in direct contradiction of the constitution.

Xylem, Katy Heck, and Ali Ahmed, who were part of the vigil at the Islamic Center, witnessed the incident of my being detained in handcuffs. Imam Shahin, the head of the Islamic Center, who was inside the building, came out to see the incident. I was shaking seriously after the ordeal, clearly terrified by what had occurred to me.

This entire incident, with the exception of Officer Hawke pulling out a gun and pointing it at me, was videotaped by Xylem. It is worth noting that a police car had been parked across the street in the Bank One parking lot for at least 30 minutes after I arrived at the Islamic Center, and I thus presume that the police were aware that I was present, together with three other people and the Imam of the Islamic Center, at the vigil at the Center.

There are three points that I need to state clearly and forthrightly for the record, inaccurately reflected in the “Police Beat” report compiled by the campus newspaper, the Arizona Daily Wildcat, on April 8 from police reports. Why did this article state incorrectly that Officer Hawke kept “his gun [aimed] at his leg in case the suspect was armed?” Officer Hawke had his gun pointed directly at the center of my body and not at my leg (three witnesses would testify to this, particularly Xylem, who was next to me). Second, the article states that witnesses described the suspect who was responsible for pulling a knife on an employee at Subway as “wearing a blue shirt, black pants, and a black jacket.” I had a large green jacket (visible right here), which covered my black sweater, and a pair of black sweat pants with an orange and gray stripe on both sides. Third, I talked at length with the person from Subway who was threatened by the man who pulled a knife on him and asked him whether I matched the description of the suspect or resembled the suspect in any way. He responded with an absolute denial and informed me that he had given the police a detailed description of the man, telling the police that the man had a dark navy blue blazer, a blue shirt with white stripes down the middle, a black corduroy-like baseball-type cap, short-cropped hair, with scar tissue over one eye that made him appear blind in one eye, and a “Fu Manchu” moustache, almost like Richard Pryor. The Subway employee told the police that the man who had pulled a knife on him had come in from off the street on previous occasions and was known to some of the staff there, and that he was “dirty and smelly” as he left the Subway on the morning of April 6. Two Subway employees told me that the man clearly and unquestionably looked radically different from me. When the employee who had a knife pulled on him was driven up in a police car to identify me, he was shocked to discover how different I looked from the actual suspect. It is clear that the description given to the police by the witness in no way came close to me.

How then did Officer Hawke sound so convinced that I in fact was the suspect, with all of the distinguishing identification features, including color of clothes and facial features? Did all Black men look alike to him?

Why was Officer Hawke unable to give me a detailed description of the suspect as transmitted to him if he had such specific details from the campus police as given by the Subway employee? All he mentioned was a Black man with hair on his head and it appears that the first Black man with hair, in this instance, me, was going to be the target of Officer Hawke’s arrest.

My attorney, Bill Risner, has formally requested copies of the police reports and all traffic recordings concerning my being stopped by police and my detention in handcuffs from both the University of Arizona police and the Tucson Police Department.

Now for questions to the police: Why was I not communicated with directly and even given detailed information as to why I was accosted at gunpoint by police and subsequently handcuffed? Is it because Black men who are suspects are not to be accorded the right of information as to why they are arrested? Why was Officer Hawke and later Officer Brittain unresponsive, and why did they refuse to see my identification when I protested that I was a professor and administrator at the University of Arizona and in fact had identification to verify my identity? How did the color of the jacket of the suspect in the knifing threat at Subway change from black to green, as the police officers at the scene described it, clearly fabricated after they had accosted me? How did these police officers suffer from color blindness at night, when in fact they were perfectly able to see my dark skin at night? Why did the officers from the campus police and the Tucson Police Department not apologize to me after discovering that I was patently and evidently not the wanted suspect?

Julius Parker, Associate Vice President of Business Affairs and Administrative Services at the University of Arizona, to whom Police Chief Anthony Daykin reports, informed me that Chief Daykin was told by the campus police officers involved in the incident that they apologized to me following my release from handcuffs. I never received an apology from the campus police. If in fact, Chief Daykin was informed by the police officers that they apologized to me, why did they say this, when in fact they did not apologize? Even if I was the suspect, did Officer Hawke need to resort to armed force as a way of accosting me? After all, the suspect threatened someone with a knife and not a gun. Did he anticipate that I was going to throw a knife at him from where I stood? Did the suspect, an apparent homeless person, deserve to die if he was guilty of threatening the employee at Subway?

What if I did not understand English or was not able to hear properly when Officer Hawke asked me to get my hands out of my pockets and raise my hands? This happened last week in Baghdad when an old Iraqi man was shot dead by a U.S. marine because the Iraqi did not understand the order from the marine. This also happened to 17-year-old Andre Burgess, a soccer star in Queens, New York, who was shot in 1997, because “the silver-wrapped candy bar he was holding looked exactly like a gun to a federal marshal.” When the marshals shouted for him to drop the gun, he was startled, and turned to look, resulting in him being shot. What if I had accidentally taken out the cell-phone from my jacket pocket in confusion? Would I then have become a fatality?

Why did Officer Hawke not believe me when me when I stated that I was a professor and had identification to prove it? Was his general impression that I was lying just because I was a suspect and Black at that? Are all Black people and people of color generally viewed as liars and lacking integrity in this society regardless of which economic class they belong to, when it comes to encounters with the police? Why is it that Black people are so often portrayed as most dangerous and most hostile?

One point is very clear from my encounter with police on April 6: regardless of my economic and social status as a professor, I was first and foremost viewed as a Black man, my race overshadowing my class. I was essentially viewed as a “nigger,” as a slave in the 21st century, with no human rights, as in slavery days. It is indeed ironic that the University of Arizona police in particular were silent in face of this criminal action against me and refused to apologize after the terrifying incident, since these police officers are hired to ensure the protection of university employees and students, including myself. Further, why do police officers on campus carry guns to protect us against violence on campus? Following this horrific incident, I feel that as a Black person, the greatest threat to my life and personhood now is potentially from police, on campus and off campus.

It is critical that though this is a press conference in which I have focused on my personal experience, my personal experience does not become the sole focal point of this gathering. Rather, I would like to widen your attention to the broader systemic issue of racial profiling of Black men and women and other women and men of color and the terror often visited upon innocent Black women and men by the police.

Almost all Black people that I know have had some oppressive encounter with the police, including campus police.  One of my colleagues, who is a courtesy faculty member in Africana Studies, Irene D’Almeida, was brutalized by a campus police officer in her office, had her glasses broken and her clothes ripped as he attempted to place handcuffs on her. She has yet to be informed by the administration as to the results of the investigation of the incident. One of our graduate associates in Africana Studies was asked for identification while jogging on Speedway during the day and was visited by police at his apartment complex after he was seen exercising in the yard. A Black male employee of the university had mace sprayed on his face in his apartment complex by security personnel who insisted that he furnish his social security number to them.

In Huntsville, Alabama, a Black teacher who had on an African dashiki was stopped by the police and asked to undergo a sanity test since the police officer claimed that the clothes he had on resembled those of someone who had been released recently from a mental institution. When I was in Indiana I was stopped by campus police outside my office on the grounds that I “looked lost.” An African American female colleague on the campus of Michigan State University, accompanied by her husband and dressed in formal attire, was accosted by campus police in cars with flashing lights just outside her office and had her office thoroughly searched on the grounds that the police were searching for a suspect who had stolen equipment from a nearby office.

One of our Black students on the university campus was stopped and questioned by police after a purse snatching, even though the same student saw the white man who stole the purse ran past him.  One of the students in my History of Ideas class recounted how police put a gun to his head, informing his friend and him that they were looking for two suspects wanted in an armed robbery.  My brother-in-law, who is a Professor of Psychology and lives in Aurora, Colorado, was stopped by police at gunpoint and handcuffed while jogging. He was questioned about a car theft that had been committed in his predominantly white neighborhood.

More prominent persons, like Mumia Abu Jamal, who has been on death row in Pennsylvania since 1982 for the alleged shooting of a white police officer, have also borne the brunt of police lies. Officer Bell in that situation, who had been with Mumia in a hospital after his arrest, wrote that he had never heard Mumia say anything during his arrest. Two months later, following the disclosure that Mumia had lodged a complaint with Internal Affairs about police brutality, the same officer lied and declared that Mumia had confessed that he had killed officer Larry Faulkner.

Then there’s the more lethal question of use of excessive force by police in their encounters with Black men. Amadou Diallo who was killed by police in New York City, shot at 43 times, with 19 bullets entering into his body on February 4, 1999 after he reached for his wallet—one grotesque example of police terror, as was the shooting of a Black person by police in Chicago, after police assumed the cell phone was a gun, just as Amadou Diallo’s wallet was perceived to be a weapon. On March 16, 2001, Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed African American Brooklyn resident, was killed during a scuffle with plainclothes police, the third instance in 13 months in which plainclothes officers shot and killed an unarmed man. In the case of the Diallo shooting, all four officers were acquitted of all charges in February 2000, confirming that Black life is cheap and has little value in white America, and that the police are above the law, essentially function as a law unto themselves, can lie if necessary to cover things up, and are protected by the law in the process.  This is one of the reasons that people of color, particularly those who are poor, feel that it is futile to challenge police authority and their abuse of power, principally because the police are shielded by the state even in unethical or criminal conduct.

The statistics that we have on racial profiling and arrests of African Americans and other people of color are staggering. Even though the average white youth is four times more likely than his African American classmate to be a regular cocaine user, a Black youth is one and a half times more likely than his white counterpart to be sent to prison. For every Black man who graduates from college, 100 other Black youth are arrested. The U.S. Public Health Service reveals that 76% of all drug users in the country are white, 14% are Black, and 8% are Latino. Yet African Americans account for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of prison sentences. This is “criminal justice” at work for Black people.

Finally, friends have asked me whether this incident involving the police brutalization of my person was politically motivated. I do not know. Given the repressive political status of the country, particularly the harassment, brutality, and terror inflicted by many police departments across the country against those who have been involved in antiwar demonstrations, one ought not to be surprised. I have been a leading speaker at numerous antiwar rallies, and my picture has been taken by campus police on at least one occasion. I was videotaped by Tucson city police at an antiwar rally outside the Federal Building in March 2003. My picture was published alongside an antiwar article in the campus paper, the Arizona Daily Wildcat, on April 3, 2003. Activists, including the moral conscience of the University of Arizona, the students who have been in the forefront of struggles for justice on our campus, the University of Arizona Peace Refuge, have been harassed by campus police and even had antiwar materials destroyed by police. Such actions on the part of any law enforcement agency are not indicative of a democracy, but smack of repression and inclinations toward fascist suppression of any dissent against the war industrial machinery of the state.

The attack on me outside a religious center, a place of worship, makes this incident of April 6 even more sinister because it implies that there is little respect for a peaceful, nonviolent gathering at this Islamic Center, known well by campus and city police. We know that every Islamic Center and mosque in the United States, including this center, is under police and federal law enforcement surveillance, since Islam is now blatantly equated with terrorism, and though I am a non-Muslim, my presence here may have invited certain hostility.

It is in the same vein of repression that Professor Anthony Van Der Meer, a faculty member in African and African American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, was brutalized by campus police on April 3 for defending a student who was distributing antiwar literature in commemoration of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Prof. Van Der Meer defended the student against an attack by a military recruiter, who then summoned police, who subsequently roughed up Prof. Van Der Meer, threw him to the ground, ripping his jacket badly, and then handcuffed and arrested him. This was clearly a situation of police repression of dissent against war, of which we all need to be cognizant as it envelops our country.

I cite this incident and others at this press conference to underscore the feelings and illuminate the experiences of hundreds of thousands of Black women and men in this country who have been harassed, intimidated, brutalized, or humiliated at the hands of law enforcement officers for no legitimate cause and who have been wrongfully and immorally criminalized by the police, as I was on the morning of April 6. It is high time that these criminal practices be ended, that the laws permitting racist searches of people of color stop immediately.

Now is the time for the scourge of racism and racial profiling of people of color to be eviscerated from the activities of law enforcement, and for racist police officers to be held accountable for their actions. Police officers, like all segments of society, must be required to take classes on multicultural and multi-ethnic education and racism, just as students take classes at college, since the police are people who have been indoctrinated like most other people into believing racial stereotypes about people of color. Those law enforcement officers who persist in racist practices must be charged with criminal conduct and violation of human and civil rights. It is time that racism practiced systematically in law enforcement be recognized and acknowledged for the injustice and evil that it is in our society and that the silent veil that obscures this horrific reality from the public eye be pulled apart.

No longer can society, particularly white society, be complicit in the crime of racial profiling and racial terror of people of color, and expect that all is well. The campus police need not wait for my formal complaint against the police regarding this incident of terror against me, as Police Chief Daykin suggested. We must have a zero-tolerance policy against racism on the University of Arizona campus. The administration needs to act for justice now. Justice delayed is justice denied.

Thank you.