Late last week, Iowa DT Faith Ekakitie wrote a note on Facebook detailing an encounter with the Iowa City Police Department on a Wednesday afternoon—one that, for him, began with several gun barrels in his face:
Today I was surrounded and searched by approximately five Iowa City Police Officers. My pockets were checked, my backpack was opened up and searched carefully, and I was asked to lift up my shirt while they searched my waistband. Not once did they identify themselves to me as Iowa City Police officers, but with four gun barrels staring me in the face, I wouldn't dare question the authority of the men and woman in front of me. This is what happened from my point of view.
In this situation, what the media would fail to let people know is that the suspect had his headphones in the entire time the Police Officers approached him initially. The suspect had actually just pulled up to the park because he was playing a newly popular Game called Pokémon Go. The suspect didn't realize that there were four cops behind him because his music was blaring in his ears. The suspect had reached into his pockets, for something which was his phone, but for all the cops could have known, he was reaching for a gun. The suspect could very well become another statistic on this day.
The encounter was defused shortly thereafter, and nobody (except for the bank robber, who's still apparently on the loose) is in any trouble. But this is A Thing now, and we've got outlets like ESPN and the Washington Post writing about it. So we should too.
Here is the thing, and let's just get it out of the way right now: it is an incredibly sensitive time in America to be talking about interactions with the police and young black men. There's a body count on both sides, and the interactions can be traumatic and scarring even if no shots are fired. But we have to talk about it. We have to. Unless this current dynamic of mutual distrust and mortal fear is something we want to calcify and metastasize, we just have to talk about it. Not everyone's going to agree, obviously, but we can be civil.
Having lived in Iowa City for several years, I can personally say the cops were ever-present, but residents generally had to make the trouble to get into trouble, if that makes sense. Jaywalkers, drunk people who could stay on the sidewalk on their ways home, no worries. It was the people doing things police can't ignore that got the attention. Of course, like everyone else who writes at BHGP, I'm a white guy* so my authority on how the ICPD operates ends there.
There is some racial animus in the Iowa City community, like every other one. It doesn't manifest itself often, unless you frequent the newspaper comment sections and see the frothy comments about "people from Chicago," and when Black Lives Matter protests happen on campus things don't turn ugly, but the animus (mostly quietly) exists.
All of which is to say I don't think there's a major problem in Johnson County, one that prospective players' families need to be aware of. Ekakitie's treatment isn't normal procedure or a way of life.
But it did happen, and it probably shouldn't have.
Ekakitie's letter said he "fit the description" of the robber on account of being a black man wearing black with "something on his head"—in this case, headphones. And sure enough, here's your bank robber, a black man wearing black with "something on his head"—in this case, a hood pulled tight:
(Photo from linked article by The Gazette, via the Iowa City Police Department)
Let's add a few more descriptors to Mr. Ekakitie: 6'3", 290 pounds, and strolling through a park. I don't know how tall the robbery suspect is, but you could certainly convince me he's 100 pounds lighter than Ekakitie. Now perhaps the description of the suspect didn't mention much about his build, but if a freaking Big Ten defensive tackle had just robbed a bank, common sense dictates that the description would include something to the effect of "brick sh-thouse." That, not his skin color, is his most conspicuous physical attribute.
Understandably, active suspect searches are tense situations, and it's easy to second-guess them from behind a keyboard. You bet. So when police pull four guns on a potential suspect, that's four opportunities for one cop to think that phone in Ekakitie's pocket isn't a phone at all, and for something horrible to happen. Iowa City has a history with that: the infamous Eric Shaw shooting in 1996 involved this testimony from the police officer who fired the fatal shot:
"As I pushed the door open, there was a figure in front of me . . . I wasn't expecting anybody behind the door. There was a flash of movement. I think we startled one another. My gun went off. I never made a conscious decision to even pull the trigger," said Iowa City police officer Jeffrey Gillaspie in a sworn statement 12 days after the slaying.
So, if all it takes is one startled police officer with his or her gun up to end an innocent life, and we've got four up, each gun adds an extra increment of danger to the situation. When Ekakitie says he's thankful to be alive, he's got no reason to exaggerate.
Common sense also dictates that a recent bank robber doesn't find a nearby public space to stroll around with headphones on in the immediate aftermath of his (or her, I suppose, but in this instance his) crime—and that headphones, no matter how bulky those Beats or whatever are, don't make for a particularly useful method of blocking one's face, as happened in the robbery.
Now, again: everyone's fine, and for that we're all obviously thankful. No violence from either party. The police searched Ekakitie and (obviously) found nothing, and that was basically that. They were probably working off of limited information that didn't include a whole lot more than the suspect's skin color. All of this sounds difficult and it's a job I could never do. But man, this doesn't feel good. With the circumstances being what they were, none of those cops thought "this giant human being who's walking in this park clearly isn't the guy we're looking for" before putting their guns up? Not a single one?
*This wasn't an editorial decision on our part, mind you, and if anyone who isn't a white guy wants to write for us, well, holler. We're easy to get a hold of!