The young police officer was direct when I caught his eye as I approached the entrance to the subway station: “Sir! I need to search your bag!”
It caught me off guard because the only thing on my mind was making it from Rockefeller Center to points south to finish my Christmas shopping. But I paused, realizing that this was one of the NYPD’s many “safety” tactics designed to keep us protected from terrorism.
However, I felt it was a violation of my Fourth Amendment rights, so I calmly replied: “No disrespect, officer, but I do not consent to any searches.”
Saying no must have been the ultimate insult to this cop because without missing a beat he ordered me out of the subway as his partners began to approach me, ready for a public incident.
He told me that if I refused the search, as the nearby sign said I had the right to, then I had to exit the station…which the sign somehow neglected to mention.
He peered into my face, making sure he could make a visual description, in case something happened, and ordered me out again. Reluctant to walk out into the rainy evening, I made my way toward the stairs and took out my cellphone to make a call. A female officer approached me to loudly shoo me away like a stray dog. I didn’t argue. I left.
“Unbelievable,” I thought. The Rockefeller Center subway station is a place I had entered and exited probably thousands of times over the years without incident. The only problems I’d ever had there was navigating the crowds of people going to and from their workplaces.
I didn’t think I fit the description of a terrorist, whatever the hell that’s supposed to be. But I guess since I was dressed in a canvas coat, jeans, boots and a skull cap – all wet from coming in out of the rain minutes earlier – was enough to arouse suspicion.
Now, the NYPD constantly touts their policy of anyone being subject to random searches. It is announced on subways and buses all the time. It’s something we’re familiar with. But what isn’t more widely known is the result, which is what happened to me. No, I didn’t have to let them violate my Fourth Amendment rights, but is the consequence that they can deny my rights under the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the U.S. Constitution – in other words, the right to come and go as I please like any other citizen?
I wished I had a constitutional law expert on speed dial like, I dunno, President Obama, who could argue this all the way to the top. But the POTUS is in Hawaii with his family and at 6:30 p.m., on Dec. 23, the Supreme Court was probably closed.
A little later on I called the NYPD’s press office and a spokesman told me there was no speficic terror threat currently, and according to department policy, if I refused the search, then I was “free to leave” the subway. But the cops who accosted me gave an order. I don’t know what’s “free” about that.
Then there was the question of race…there’s always the question of race. I’m not sure if it was my dreadlocs that set the cops off, but this wasn’t the first time the NYPD had randomly plucked my Black feathers.
A few years ago, I’d written in TIME.com about the time I had been pulled over and ticketed by the NYPD for briefly riding my bike on the sidewalk, with the police telling me I “fit the description” of a suspect they were looking for. I was wearing a black hoodie.
I felt their profiling of me was ridiculous then, because they never managed to catch people who commit violent crimes in that area, and Wednesday evening as well because they certainly didn’t make New York any safer from terrorists by keeping me off the subway. I just walked a few blocks over to Eighth Avenue anyway so I could get on the train there. Mission not accomplished.
I don’t know if those cops picked me because I’m Black, but I do know that in my time living in New York, I have never seen anyone White being subjected to random search. Anywhere. At all. Ever.
I’m not saying that the NYPD should increase its quota of White people it screws with to make Black people happy, but I think it’s time to rethink the effects of its anti-terror tactics when it comes to dealing with everyday citizens. They say “freedom isn’t free,” but freedom shouldn’t cost me my rights either.
Am I angry at those cops for picking me out of the dozens in my vicinity? No. They were just doing their jobs, as sour as their attitudes were. But I’m sure my unwillingness to submit to a search didn’t make them love me.
If I came across the same cop, and he tried the same thing, I’d refuse consent again. I’d also encourage others to do the same until the NYPD gets it that violating human rights randomly in the subway doesn’t make us more secure. It simply widens the gulf between our government and its citizens.
As he enjoys his holiday, I don’t know if the cop who made me subject to the search realizes that, but I do.
Madison J. Gray is Managing Editor of Ebony.com, and he doesn’t carry weapons of mass destruction on public transportation. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray.