My 8-year-old son sat down next to me earlier this week as I watched protesters chanting, fists raised in the air, out in force to show frustration and anger about the killing of George Floyd.
In giving my son an age-appropriate lesson in why people were protesting, it made me think back to when I was close to his age and police raided our home looking for drugs and guns shortly after picking up my older brother on the street. He was a teenager walking home from a friend’s house and “fit the description” of a man who had carjacked a white man at gunpoint. We lived in a mostly white suburb, so “fit the description” meant he was male and black. They threw him in jail. It was Christmas.
What I didn’t understand then I learned in my early 20s when, as a young professional journalist, I was pulled over on my way from Columbia, Missouri, to Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was driving an Audi A5, I had my schnauzer puppy in the backseat, it was the middle of the day. I wasn’t driving over the speed limit, I wasn’t swerving, all of my tags were current, and my tint was legal. The officer pulled me over on a mostly deserted road. He asked me to step out of the car and escorted me to his police cruiser, opened the back door, and asked me to sit. He said it was for safety purposes.
My name, my car, the way I spoke, none of it “fit the description,” so this officer proceeded to run every background check he could on me while I sat terrified in the back seat. After about 45 minutes, he turned on the car and backed up about 200 yards downhill. He put the car in park, went around to the back door and let me out. And without a ticket, a warning, or a word, he got back in the cruiser and drove off, leaving me to hike back up to my car.
I don’t tell either of these stories often, but in the context of the conversation about police brutality and racism that is occurring across the nation, the world, and here in San Antonio, it was important to me for readers to understand that I could have been George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Freddie Gray or so many other black men and women who have lost their lives due to police brutality.
And the city is full of these types of stories. Black professionals in San Antonio – pillars of the community, business partners, friends – have stories they seldom share but are forced to relive too frequently. Despite what many people believe – whether because of their status or their mannerisms, upbringing, or even the way they speak – that they could never find themselves in a situation like Floyd’s, many have.
Brian Wright, General Manager, San Antonio Spurs
Brian Wright can’t remember a time when he’s exercised outside alone. Despite his high-profile position as the general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, the thought of him being profiled as a black man running through a mostly white suburb makes him anxious for himself and his 6-year-old son.
“There’s nothing more I would rather do at nighttime after a long day of work than just go for a walk or go outside for a run. And I don’t,” Wright said. “Even now, when my 6-year-old wants to go outside, you get anxiety of letting him go outside to play. You can’t control what happens when you step outside the door, or what somebody who’s looking out their window will think of me walking or running. ‘Why is this person in the neighborhood?’ And as he grows up, what they will think of him? And it’s really unfortunate that we’re still in that space.”
When Wright thinks about the relationship between a black man and the police, his thoughts often drift to his son. It was about four years ago when Wright read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, which made him think about his stepfather mixing in a lesson on parallel parking with instruction on how to place your hands when you’re stopped by the police. He also discussed how to ask a question, how to reach for your license and registration and, when you’re a teenager, how many other young black men you should have in a car at any time.
“It’s knowing that any misstep is not just the potential of being arrested and going to jail, but not making it home that night,” Wright said. “And so, it’s all that, but it’s also managing all of that while having to prove consistently that you’re good enough. Not by being good enough, but by having to be greater than – in order to succeed, basically, have equal opportunity. And you realize that your life doesn’t mean as much to the people that are supposed to be there to serve and protect, and that you’re often valued less. Until there are real system changes, your reality, your job in life is just learning how to navigate that. And that’s extremely hard to think about, to live, and, as I think about my 6-year-old son now, to teach.”
Travis Wiltshire, Owner, CNG Engineering
Travis Wiltshire, the owner of CNG Engineering, a firm that has been involved in several major projects throughout the city, has lived in Alamo Heights for more than 10 years and is still concerned about what might happen if police were to pull him over in his own neighborhood.
Wiltshire works long hours and often has to go grocery shopping late at night, which causes a heightened level of anxiety, so much so that he has affixed an Alamo Heights High School sticker to his car – his children are current or former students there – and he makes sure to always wear business attire, even at 10 p.m.
“I always feel, because I can see people getting pulled over, that if I get pulled over, I at least want to look a certain way, where it may be a possibility that they take that into consideration,” Wiltshire said. “I got a little Alamo Heights sticker on the back, I made sure I put that on there, and I’m dressed in my business attire to hopefully minimize the fact that I’ll get pulled over. And if I get pulled over, that I’ll get thrown on the ground.
“So I don’t even feel comfortable enough in my own neighborhood that I’ve been living in for 10 years to just feel relaxed enough to go to H-E-B, that I have to basically be sure that I put on a button-down shirt with slacks and good shoes on to just go to an H-E-B.”
Wiltshire’s proactive approach stems from two incidents – one in high school and one in college – when he and friends were pulled over simply because of the color of their skin. The high school incident resulted in him and friends being pulled out of a car in front of their school, thrown to the ground, and handcuffed because they looked like a group for which police were searching.
Wiltshire said the only reason that situation didn’t escalate was that a teacher came out and vouched for them.
A few years later, Wiltshire and a friend were driving from Penn State to an engineering conference when they were pulled over and police searched the car. When Wiltshire asked why they were stopped, the officer said it was because they had something hanging from their rearview mirror, which was illegal.
“It’s not that I’m special, I’m like everybody that I know,” Wiltshire said of being profiled. “I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and there are very few people that I know that look or resemble what you think a black person is. That’s it. Most of them are just like me.”
Allen Smith, Regional Superintendent, KIPP schools
Allen Smith, the superintendent of KIPP Schools for the San Antonio region, has had to relive his false arrest more times than he ever thought he would. As a high-level educator, deep background checks often surface the incident, which takes him back nine years ago to a street near the airport in Denver.
Smith, the principal of several schools in the Denver Public Schools district and a local minister, was on his way to officiate a vow renewal ceremony in Denver when police pulled him over for speeding. It didn’t matter that Smith and his wife, who were dressed in their best clothes, had been sitting at a red light before turning and were pulled over immediately after the turn.
Police pulled Smith from his car while his wife was asked to stay inside. She opened the sunroof and stood up as other police cars pulled up. After taking Smith’s information, they determined there was a warrant for his arrest regarding an unpaid parking ticket and he was cuffed.
Smith, who was hired by recent 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bennet, never would have ascended to his position with any sort of legal red flags.
“I told them there was no way I had a warrant for my arrest,” Smith recalled. “I have a common name, but there is no way I have a warrant for my arrest. And they said, ‘We’re taking you in. You’ll have to get it cleared up there.’”
Smith was led to the back of a police van, cuffed to a bar inside the back, and escorted to a nearby police station. During the ride, the other man in the back was intoxicated and urinated on the floor, and it sloshed up toward Smith with every turn and hard brake.
Smith’s mother was the assistant city attorney in Denver but could do little to help her son, who hadn’t been formally booked and processed. He ultimately was transferred downtown.
“They put me in a holding cell with everyone else,” Allen said. “I remember they threw these lunches at us; I remember it like it was yesterday. They were these bologna sandwiches and I told them I didn’t want it. They were like, ‘Oh, you’re one of those?’”
Two hours later, he was fingerprinted, the gold plate was removed from his designer dress shoes as a safety precaution, and he was placed in a different cell that had a temperature of about 40 degrees. Allen was in that cell for 13 hours, a clerical error, officers said, because his fingerprints weren’t processed correctly. He ultimately had to prove that he had no unpaid parking tickets, something police could have looked up, and he was released.
“I just remember getting in the car crying, and I was so upset, and my mom was like, ‘Al, just be thankful you’re alive because they could have killed you,’” Smith said. “And I said, ‘I know,’ but I hadn’t done anything. I wasn’t driving fast, I wasn’t swerving, I wasn’t doing anything, and they stopped me and they did this to me.
“And three weeks later, after getting over bronchitis from being in that cell and on the ground and stuff, I get a letter telling me that this was all a mistake. But even though everything is expunged and there’s nothing on my record that says that I did anything, it still shows up that I’m arrested. So every time I have transitioned from one job to another, I have to explain. I have to relive that moment.”
Morgan Jones, Learning and Development Specialist, Spurs Sports and Entertainment
It wasn’t too long ago that Morgan Jones was in a crowded store with a white friend, a co-worker, when they split up to look for different items.
“The entire time that we were in there, and I’m gonna say we were in there for good 20 minutes, they did not follow her or ask her if she needed any help,” Jones said. “But they were definitely following me. They were asking, did I need help.
“You know, sometimes you’re like, there’s no way I’m being followed right now. It’s just me, I’m making these things up. And so you start testing it. I would move a certain way or, like, back up a little bit or I’ll pretend like I’m picking up a lot of stuff to see if they’re alerted and jumpy. Oh yeah, every time. Every single time. And it got to the point where I went up there and I said, ‘Can I help you with something?’ ‘Oh no, no, I’m just making sure you’re OK.’
“OK, ’cause you didn’t ask me if I was OK, you’ve just been sitting there watching me. Mind you, there are a lot of people in this store, so it’s not just me and my friend.”
Jones, a learning and development specialist with Spurs Sports and Entertainment, shared experiences such as this one with co-workers during a virtual all-hands meeting to discuss the death of George Floyd and its impact on employees. She discussed what she called “microaggressions,” which include comments such as “You’re so articulate for a black person” and “You’re not like most black people.”
It was one of the few moments that Jones, who describes herself as “happy, sociable, and very extroverted,” was real and vulnerable with her co-workers, some of whom had no idea of the impact of their words and that Jones’ experiences in similar situations were so different from their own.
“When I shared my story on Monday with my co-workers, and them actually listening, it felt so good and so liberating to not have to justify my experience, because that’s what it is. It’s my experience,” Jones said. “And a lot of black people have gone through these experiences and even worse, as far as being called racial slurs and all different types of things. And [co-workers] have been asking, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’ Really, it starts inside yourself, and looking at yourself and thinking about what type of biases that you potentially may have and how that comes across. And then having a conversation with your family, so that people really understand that you shouldn’t be judging someone based off of the color of their skin.
“But you also hear people say like, ‘Oh, I don’t see color.’ Well, that’s problematic too because my color is a part of who I am. The issue is when we start to put a value system on someone’s color and we say, you know, light skin is valued more than black skin. That’s when we have a problem.”
Brian Steward, Attorney, Ketterman, Rowland & Westlund
Brian Steward grew up on the near East Side in the 1960s and ’70s. He attended San Antonio Academy before transferring to the prestigious Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. He then went to Duke University, earned his law degree at St. Mary’s University, and has gone on to have a successful career as an attorney. But in the Northwood neighborhood, Steward is afraid that one day, when he’s outside with his 5-year-old daughter, neighbors will mistake him for someone with ill intent.
“Whenever I walk with my daughter, I make a point of having her stand with me – not behind me or in front of me but with me. So that when other vehicles pass or we walk by homes, they will see that she is with me and comfortable with me as opposed to it looking like I’m stealing this fair-haired girl,” Steward said.
Steward is black, his wife is white, and their daughter, he said, “is very light, and if you – if you look quickly and couldn’t really see her features, you would probably think that she was a white child.”
Steward has had to navigate being a black man in a predominantly white environment for most of his life. For the seven years he was at San Antonio Academy, he was the only black student in his class. And when he’d return from prep school to hang out with his San Antonio Academy friends, he’d face experiences they didn’t, including being the only one stopped and questioned by Alamo Heights police despite being with other white kids. He always carefully navigated the drive from college in Durham, North Carolina, back home. So he understands all too well how quickly an opinion about a person or a situation can form.
“We make a point of waving to anyone and everyone, whether you’re in your yard, whether you’re in your car, we wave to you,” Steward said about walks with his daughter. “We also don’t walk after the sun goes down or before the sun comes up. We always want to be visible, we always want to comply with all traffic laws and be as wonderful and joyous as we possibly can when people see us. And I’ve told her that people are looking at us, but really, what they’re doing is they’re looking at you, and then they’re looking at me. And if they felt like there was anything happening or anything inappropriate going on with you, they are going to assume that I am the bad guy. I’m doing something wrong.
“And, you know, she’s just 5 and she doesn’t really understand that, but I think she’s starting to get it and see there’s a difference in the way people are treated.”
LaShawn Stewart-Baylor, President/CEO, Integrated CM Solutions
Not long ago, LaShawn Stewart-Baylor left the airport following a meeting about a potential project bid. She was dressed in a business suit and heels and carrying a briefcase. As she tried to navigate the construction-altered walkways while heading back to her car, she went in the wrong direction and had to veer into the street.
“It was a total mistake, a complete accident,” Stewart-Baylor said. “The police officer that was diverting traffic starts going off on me and actually called me an idiot. She said, ‘You idiot, why would you even do something like that? The crosswalk is right there. I should arrest you for jaywalking.’ I mean, just really rude and nasty.”
Almost instantaneously, a white man on the other side of the street came to Stewart-Baylor’s defense, chastising the officer for her tone. Another police officer heard the commotion, looked at Stewart-Baylor, and placed his hand on his gun.
“He was waiting for me to pop off,” Stewart-Baylor said.
The police officer who started the confrontation said nothing to the man who came to her aid, which Stewart-Baylor said was surprising given his tone and raised voice. The officer just kept looking at Stewart-Baylor before she eventually turned back to traffic without another word.
Stewart-Baylor, a native San Antonian who went to Churchill High School, said her first interaction with police came shortly after she turned 18. She and some girlfriends were going to vote for the first time following a trip to the gym. An officer on a motorcycle pulled the women over near San Pedro Avenue and Loop 410, saw bandanas on their heads, which they were using to keep sweat off their hair, and immediately called for backup. The women were handcuffed, the car was searched, and police wanted to know where they were going to sell drugs.
It’s those experiences, Stewart-Baylor said, that have informed the advice she’s given to her children, who have all been pulled over by police at various times, including once when her daughter was asked who owned the Mercedes she was driving.
“Well, it’s always been hard because you want to raise your kids to feel like there is good in people, but, unfortunately, you do have to sit your kids down and say, hey, you know, if you get pulled over by the police, you need to turn your phone on and start recording,” Stewart-Baylor said. “And it’s devastating. This is the type of thing that happens to your everyday, average black American. It has nothing to do with poor or rich, educated or not educated, light skin or dark skin. It’s being black in America.”