In the aftermath of the Starbucks incident in Philadelphia, during which two black men who were waiting for a friend were asked to leave, because they hadn't bought anything yet, I'm going to retell a story from my family's life. When the men in Starbucks refused to leave, the store employee called the police and the men were arrested. Charges were dropped later that day.
The single incident, outrageous as it is (imagine if it happened to you), is not the point. The point is the bias against black people that lives in our country, in our culture, like a virus — a virus that is sometimes fatal to innocent black people. When the cops are called for no good reason by white people on black people, it is an assertion of force — physical force — and it can and sometimes does lead to injury and death for the black people.
So, here is what happened to my family. I'm using this incident to talk about it, because in the panoply of bad interactions with police, the one in Philadelphia turned out to be comparatively minor — no one got physically hurt, anyway — so I don't feel disrespectful talking about what happened to my daughter, who also was not hurt.
Twenty-two years ago, my wife and I adopted a black baby girl, five days old. Along with the tremendous joys and satisfactions of being a parent, the experience of being the father of a black child has been a tremendous learning experience for me. It has opened my eyes and my heart to the ways I had been influenced by racism in our history and our culture (the TV and movies of my youth featured white heroes and black villains).
A few years ago, when our daughter was still in high school, she went with a few friends from her hockey team to a fast food restaurant in Saratoga. My daughter was driving a car full of rowdy teen athletes. They noticed a woman in the parking lot yelling at them. Then they realized she was accusing my daughter of kidnapping the friend who was sitting next to her, who had long blonde hair and looked younger than she was. The woman screamed that she was going to call the police. My daughter got out of the car and, without approaching the woman, tried to calm her down, explaining they were friends and just ordering food. The woman became hysterical and called the police.
At that point, my daughter, panicked, called me. I tried to remain calm. I told her to stay in the car, try to stay calm and ignore the woman with the phone. I said the police might not even come, and thankfully, they didn't. But of course I couldn't stop thinking about all the ways an incident like that can go horribly wrong.
It's an absurd episode, on the one hand. But it's too easy to say there was something wrong with that woman in the parking lot. Maybe there was. But that sort of thing happens, all the time. It happened recently in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, and far too often, much worse things than a humiliating waste of a trip to the police station result.
And that is not the end of my story. I brought up this family episode once before, four years ago, in a column and then a blog I wrote during the national debate that followed the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. In response, a man sent me a link to a restricted message board only for police officers and corrections officers. You can read it if you aren't part of the group, but you can't post to it. Someone had posted my column to this message board, and the comments that followed it included the basest racist content you can imagine. They were so bad that, looking back on what I wrote four years ago, I feel ashamed I reprinted some of them.
At that time, I was angry about the whole thing, and I managed to track down the person I believed was responsible for posting my column to the site and making some of the worst comments. He lived in Lake George. When I called him, he denied he was the guy, while also telling me I should go easy on the guy I was after, who wasn't a bad sort. Obviously, I had the right guy, and he was a coward. That wasn't a surprise.
But people who are filled with fear are the most dangerous kind. They won't stand up to you, but they will do cowardly things that, if you're a black person in America, could put your life in danger, such as call the police for no good reason.
Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on his blog, I think not, and on Twitter at