'Driving While Black' explores racial bias, profiling African-Americans experience

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PITTSFIELD >> In October of 1995, Dennis Powell and three friends decided to rent a Lexus to travel from the Berkshires to the nation's capitol for the Million Man March. The huge rally that fall was to show black males in a positive light and call attention to the social and economic ills still plaguing the African-American Community.

Along the 400-mile trip, the local men found themselves continuous targets of racial profiling by law enforcement.

"Between Pittsfield and Washington D.C., we were stopped nine times," Powell said. "If that isn't driving while black, I don't know what is."

The president of the NAACP Berkshire County Branch recalling Saturday afternoon one of several stories shared during a panel discussion titled "Driving While Black" as part of a two-day symposium on race, bias and culture in present-day America.

Hosted by Barrington Stage Company, the forum opened with a different panel exchanging views on the struggle of growing up biracial and concludes Sunday with a look at racism in the political, academic and legal realm of society.

The symposium was borne out of initial readings last year at Barrington Stage of "American Son," a play that examines the nation's racial divide through the eyes of an estranged, interracial couple as they deal a crisis involving their son and the police.

The drama is having its world premiere at the Union Street mainstage through July 9.

Powell was joined by Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn, Youth Alive musical director and motivational speaker Jerome Edgerton and Jermaine Sistrunk, a youth counselor and assistant basketball coach at Taconic High School — each sharing their experience of a traffic stop that likely was racially motivated.

For Wynn, he's been on both sides of the issue; once accused of racial profiling while on duty and himself the target of another law enforcement officers unfounded suspicions.

The nature of the chief's position means he's almost always armed, which makes him a bit nervous if pulled over.

"The last thing I want is a cop to come up to me and find a black man with a gun — that horrifies me," he said. "God forbid I reach for my wallet, which is near my gun."

Wynn finds studies of racial profiling by police agencies around the country are oversimplified, saying it's a complex issue.

First, it's hard for law enforcement staked out along a highway to determine who is driving a car going 65 miles an hour. Oftentimes, the officer uses the make, model and extras noticed on the vehicle to profile the ethnicity of the driver — such as the rented Lexus Powell and his friends drove 21 years ago.

The four men agreed they had to remain calm and controlled, whatever anger they felt of being stopped for no reason at all.

"I look at the law as protecting us and sometimes [officers] make mistakes," Sistrunk said. "I have no grudges."

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Given the fair amount of discretion police have in questioning motorists they stop, it's wise to cooperate with the authorities, according to Wynn.

"If you think you're going to win an argument with an officer on the side of the road at two in the morning — it's a bad idea," he cautioned.

Racial profiling isn't confined to the road, but can occur in one's home during a medical emergency.

In the 1990s, Powell's late wife collapsed at their home from an aneurysm and before the ambulance arrived, city police arrived with one officer immediately asking a racially biased question.

"The first words out of the officer's mouth was, 'Is your wife on crack cocaine,' " Powell said. "Had I taken action against that officer, it would have ruined my family."

There are times African-Americans must stand up to racial incidents, Edgerton said, and that begins with breaking down barriers by showing blacks are business owners, community leaders, good and loving parents.

"I think we're dealing with an issue that is buried in the [American] psyche from the beginning," he said.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.

If you go ...

• Sunday from 2 to 3:30 p.m. is the final panel discussion of a two day symposium "Race, Bias and Culture in Present-Day America," at Barrington Stage Company's mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield.

• The event is free, but reservations are suggested by calling the Barrington Stage Box Office, 413-236-8888

Topic: "Institutional Racism: Academic, Political & Legal"

Keynote speaker: Andrea Hairston, professor of theater and Africana Studies, Smith College

Moderated by: Jason McCandless, superintendent of Pittsfield Public Schools

Panelists: State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, 3rd Berkshire District, Shirley Edgerton, cultural proficiency adviser, Pittsfield Public Schools


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