Many young people anxiously anticipate their 16th birthday; the age of the coveted rite of passage– the driver’s license.  We learn the “rules of the road,” take the required exams, and embrace a new freedom.   However, if you are Black, you may have been taught a special set of instructions for the road: If you are pulled over keep your hands on the steering wheel, look straight ahead, don’t make sudden moves.  Black people have come to understand that deviation from these formal and informal rules could have severe consequences.  Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and Samuel Dubose are just three of numerous examples of Black people who were pulled over for minor traffic violations, that would later result in their deaths.   Numerous studies have documented the economic and social impact of “driving while black”, with a great majority of these studies drawing from data collected in large cities with sizable numbers of Black residents.

But what does it mean to drive while black in a less populated city, with fewer Black citizens? In Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, a dual municipality that is home to 231,891 residents (Urbana-41,752, Champaign-83,424), Black people account for 13% of the population.  In July of 2003 an Illinois Senate Bill was signed into law establishing a four-year statewide study of traffic stops for the purposes of identifying racial biases. Following troubling results, the law was extended through July 2019.  The Urbana Traffic Stop Task Force completed its final report for 2015 last October.  According to the report, “traffic stop data reveal a pattern of stopping minorities at a higher rate than their proportion in the population… a disproportionately large number of traffic stops in our community are made of African-American drivers as compared to any other racial group of drivers.”  A subcommittee of the task force that analyzes the collected data noted that African-Americans consistently make up the majority of drivers searched during traffic stops, and that 42% of African Americans are charged with more than one violation compared to 26% of Whites.  This results in higher fines for Black Americans compared to other ethnic groups.

Often, these normally routine traffic stops end in physical or psychological trauma.  In 2011, Champaign resident Calvin Harris , who was 18 years old at the time, was beaten by former Champaign police officer Matt Rush after being followed by the officer in his patrol car.  Harris stated that Officer Rush rammed his patrol car into the back of his vehicle, which compelled Harris to exit his car on foot.  Harris says that he stopped when ordered to and even fell to the ground, but was beaten by the officer causing extensive injuries to his jaw, eye, and forehead.  The Champaign City Council ruled in Harris’s favor by awarding him a $25,000 settlement.  Officer Rush went on to brutalize 3 other Black residents of Champaign county, accounting for $320,000 in settlements before being fired for a second time in April 2016.

In addition to driving while black, there are also penalties for “walking while black.”  In Champaign-Urbana, 89% of those arrested for jaywalking are Black.  The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign which enrolls 44,000 students, is located in Urbana where 91%, of the people cited for jaywalking are Black.  Curiously, Black students make up only 6% of the University’s student population.

While Urbana touts itself as a small, but “liberal” and “progressive” community, data over the course of several years reveals that Urbana is no better, and perhaps even worse, than many of its counterparts when it comes to racial bias in policing.

National studies show that Black Americans are generally distrusting of police to protect and serve them.  Racial bias in policing has contributed to an economically exploited, a politically encumbered, and socially disenfranchised Black population.  There are also significant psychological ramifications to constant worry over what may happen on the road.  Interviews of Black residents in Urbana reveal a general fear for safety when stopped by police.  Fear influences not only a driver’s demeanor when pulled over, but may also be seen as a justifiable reason for a police officer to ask a driver to exit the car, or to carry out a car search.

According to Samuel Floyd Jr., author of The Power of Black Music, music by Black artists can serve as a barometer of the psychological state of many Black folks during a particular period of time.  Black rappers have made references to police distrust and brutality since the early days of hip hop.  In the new millennium, Black rappers continue to do so.  In Kanye West’s 2004 hit All Fall Downs he proclaims “even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe.”  One can infer that West is eluding to the fact that being Black eclipses the social status conferred by driving an expensive car.  Relatedly, in April of last year comedian Chris Rock posted selfies to social media of him being pulled over for the 3rd time in 7 weeks.  He captioned the photos with the words “stopped by the cops again, wish me luck.”

In an effort to improve police-community relations citizens of Champaign have requested a police review board.  The proposal has been voted down for some nine years.  However, the News Gazette reported that on Tuesday January 24, 2017 the Champaign City Council approved the creation of “a standing subcommittee of the Human Relations Commission that would work with the Community Relations Office in evaluating the police complaint review process”.  An important critique of the subcommittee is that there are currently 13 people affiliated with the police department on the working committee that is developing the process.  Therefore, this is another example of police “policing” themselves.  Citizen Review Boards can be used as templates for Community Policing models that could replace police departments all together.  However, they should be structured in ways that do not center the existing power structure.   It’s time to dismantle the “blue shield” of policing and create community collectives that work to maintain social order.

Evelyn Reynolds