As the youngest of five girls and two boys growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, I was raised to believe that if I worked hard, was a good person and always told the truth, the world would be my oyster. I was taught to be courteous and polite. I was raised a gentleman and learned that these fine qualities would bring me one very important, hard-earned human quality: Respect!
While respect is indeed something one has to earn, consideration is something owed to every human being, even total strangers. On Friday, June 16, 1999, when I was wrongfully arrested while trying to leave my building in Harlem, my perception of everything I had learned as a young man was forever changed–not only because of the fact that I wasn’t given even a second to use any of the wonderful manners and skills my parents had taught me as a child, but mostly because the police, who I’d always naïvely thought were supposed to serve and protect me, were actually hunting me.
I had planned the day to be a pleasant one. The night before was not only payday but also I received a rousing standing ovation after portraying the starring role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime on Broadway. It is a role I’ve worked very hard for professionally, and emotionally as well. A role that requires not only talent but also an honest emotional investment, including the morals and lessons I learned as a child.
Coalhouse Walker Jr. is a victim (an often misused word but in this case the true definition) of overt racism. His story is every black man’s nightmare. He is hard-working, successful, talented, charismatic, friendly and polite. Perfect prey for someone with authority and not even a fraction of those qualities. The fictional character I portrayed on Thursday night became a part of my reality on Friday afternoon. Nothing in the world could have prepared me for it. Nothing I had seen on television. Not even stories told to me by other black men who had suffered similar injustices.
Most Fridays for me mean a trip to the bank, errands, the gym, dinner and then to the theater. On this particular day, I decided to break my usual pattern of getting up and running right out of the house. Instead, I took my time, slowed down my pace and splurged by making myself some homemade strawberry pancakes. It was a way of spoiling myself in preparation for my demanding, upcoming four-show weekend. Before I knew it, it was 2:45, and my bank closes at 3:30, leaving me less than forty-five minutes to get to midtown on the train. I was pressed for time but in a relaxed, blessed state of mind. When I walked through the lobby of my building, I noticed two light-skinned Hispanic men I’d never seen before. Not thinking much of it, I continued on to the vestibule, which is separated from the lobby by a locked door.
As I approached the exit, I saw people in uniforms rushing toward the door. I sped up to open it for them, especially after noticing that the first of them was a woman. My first thought was that they were paramedics, seeing as many of the building’s occupants are retired and/or elderly. It wasn’t until I had opened the door and greeted the woman that I recognized that they were the police. Within seconds I was told to “hold it” because they had received a call about young Hispanics with guns. I was told to get against the wall. I was searched, stripped of my backpack (which was searched repeatedly), put on my knees, handcuffed and told to be quiet when I tried to ask any questions.