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Forum taps local tales of racial profiling

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published November 18. 2012 4:00AM
Speakers say subtle discrimination defines life for people of color

Mongi Dhaouadi was driving in New London, delivering some employee paychecks not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he noticed a police cruiser following him.

No matter how many turns he made, the cruiser kept on his tail. He was careful to obey all traffic signs and signals, but finally, after his vehicle briefly crossed the center yellow line, the cruiser pulled him over.

Even before the police officer got out, several more cruisers arrived on the scene.

And by the time he was finally questioned, Dhaouadi recalled Saturday, telling his story at the inaugural forum of the region's newest advocacy organization, New London County Against Racial Profiling, he was asked questions like whether he had weapons in the car.

They even asked if the mint leaf in his green tea was marijuana.

Dhaouadi, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was one of a number of speakers at Saturday's event who not only talked in general about racial profiling, where people are singled out because of their race, but also shared their personal experiences.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Dhaouadi said, his community hardly knew about profiling. But then the "ugly reality" quickly settled in, the full force of "Islamophobia."

Don Wilson, president of the New London branch of the NAACP, told of how he was talking with a colleague in a Groton shopping center parking lot one day when they were suddenly approached and questioned by police for more than a half hour, following a robbery in one of the nearby stores.

Wilson said his colleague was white.

"I knew they weren't profiling him," Wilson recalled.

Wilson and Linda Lance, whose husband is pastor of the United Congregational Church in Norwich, are the two principal organizers of New London County Against Racial Profiling. They have enlisted the support of numerous other organizations, including the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Green Party, the Norwich Area Clergy Association, the NAACP and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Three Rivers Community College hosted and was a sponsor of Saturday's forum, and college President Grace Jones delivered the welcoming remarks.

"I look forward to understanding more about this sensitive and profound issue," Jones told the group.

Lance, who calls herself a veteran of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, said she and Wilson decided to launch the organization because of the worrisome number of reports of profiling that continue to surface in the region.

Indeed, many of the speakers at the forum made the point that profiling, whether in traffic stops or in the way people of color can be singled out and mistreated in stores or in classrooms, is alive and continuing, despite perceptions that the world is less racist.

"It is happening in very subtle ways now," said Chris Cotto, director of the College Access Program of New London, who talked about the effects of profiling in the Latino community.

A principal effort of the new organization, Wilson and Lance said, will be to conduct a survey in the region to get a better understanding of how pervasive the problem may be and where it is worst.

Copies of a survey questionnaire were distributed at Saturday's event, and Lance said those who believe they have experienced profiling are asked to go to the organization's website, www.nlcarp.com, and participate in the survey.

Lance said they encourage people who have been victims of profiling to file complaints with police or with the store or institution where it occurred. They also would like to hear from victims; there are contact numbers and email addresses on the website.

Speakers Saturday, and members of the audience who were also encouraged to participate, gave a variety of profiling examples, from one woman who told of being asked for identification when she used a $100 bill at a department store at the Crystal Mall, to another who remembered when she and some friends were being ordered to get out of their car and were questioned at gunpoint.

A keynote speaker at the forum was Michelle Dunlap, professor of human development at Connecticut College, who is writing a book about people who have become victims of racial profiling while shopping. She uses the term "shopping while black" for victims of retail profiling, in the same way victims of profiling during traffic stops are said to be "driving while black."

Dunlap, who gave some examples of profiling she has found in her research for the book, observed that the anxiety and stress many people of color feel over the issue has long-term health effects.

"Just a shopping trip can be filled with all kinds of stress and anxiety," she said. "'Why do they follow me around every time I come into the store?'"

She also observed enormous social costs, noting, for instance, that Connecticut is one of five states that spends more money on incarceration than education. She said one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars.

"Statistics have supported our suspicions," Dunlap said. "Prisons are filled disproportionately with men of color."

Dunlap's own story of profiling involved a relative and occurred 16 years ago. The relative, who was 5 at the time, was caught lifting a pack of $2 playing cards. Police were called, the store managers refused to accept payment for the cards, and the boy was arrested.

Even though it was a juvenile record, Dunlap said, it resurfaced when her relative later went to join the military at the age of 21.

The whole thing would not have happened if he were white, she said.

Wilson said the injustice of profiling won't stop until more people understand what's happening.

"There is a tremendous need for education," he said. "We need to recognize these things, so we can eradicate them."

d.collins@theday.com

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Survey says

To take the New London County Against Racial Profiling survey's survey on racial profiling, visit www.nlcarp.com.

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