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Sixteen African-American students from Edison Tech had awakened early on a cold Wednesday morning and caught a bus downtown. At 8:30 they were waiting on Main Street for a school bus to take them to a basketball scrimmage at Aquinas. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and every other student in the city and suburbs had the day off. Some of the Edison students had gone into the store behind them to buy food, and others were hanging outside close by when a Rochester police officer told them to disperse.
How must that have felt? Their coach, a counselor at the school, Jacob Scott, was not there yet because he was purchasing juice, fruit, and doughnuts for the team, some of whom he knew would not have eaten.
Put yourself in the place of a 16-year-old African-American kid trying to explain that you are waiting for the school bus and that your coach will be here any minute. I wonder if I would have moved purposefully slower because I thought I was being hassled. Or maybe I would have muttered something unintelligible under my breath as indicated in the police report. But police trained to communicate with teenagers would have understood that, even if it did happen, right? Surely the police would understand that there could be no other reason for the team to be there and not in bed on a cold morning when school is not in session. They would understand.
But the officer did not understand, and instead of communicating with the kids called for backup, and now four officers, none them black, repeated their demand and told the team to "disperse."
What a strange word. As a person privileged enough to be born white in America, I'm not sure that I've heard that word addressed to me.
But wait a minute, the team thinks: Here comes our coach, Mr. Scott. The police will listen to him.
The coach pulled up and saw that two of his team were in the back seat of a police car and one was being frisked, and the coach told me that his heart was in his throat as he jumped out of his car. But he also told me that even while doing that, he made sure to take off his hat and keep his arms in plain sight because he knew, had been taught, and has had modeled for him his whole life, that a white authority figure being approached by a black man will view him as a threat.
Scott told me that he purposefully slowed his speech down, and since he was headed to a scrimmage and he was not wearing one of his usual suits, he recognized that the white police officers might not view him as the coach and school counselor who knew that all these boys wanted to do was play ball this cold November morning, that they had been told to wait on Main Street and were freaked out by this whole affair.
That is what he is told. And through it all, he recognizes the context. There have been fights downtown this year, and Main Street has been a trouble spot for police, but things have gotten better as the district worked with the city to change transportation policies. And after all, it was not a school day. There was no reason for 16 African-American kids to be standing at a bus stop at 8:30 in the morning the Wednesday before Thanksgiving unless they had a purpose.
Mr. Scott thought that he would clear things up. But instead he was told to get away or he too would be arrested.
So Mr. Scott told the rest of his team to slowly walk down to the library and he would meet them there, and he started to call the families of the three young men who had just been arrested – at 8:45 a.m. for leaving home to play basketball on a cold Rochester morning. Not at 11:45 p.m. in front of a nightclub or even at 2:45 on school day. Nope; arrested at 8:45 a.m., with 13 of your teammates looking on, because you did not disperse.
Then, two days later, after booking, fingerprinting, hours of waiting in court on Friday feeling helpless because they still could not believe this happened: dropped charges. Just a big misunderstanding. After all, they were black kids standing in a group downtown. And even if they had ID's and bags filled with basketball equipment, they did not disperse when instructed to. These things take time to work out. You don't understand the context, we are told. It is not about race.
But every African-American who has ever been pulled over for Driving While Black knows that it is about race. And every person born white who thinks about it knows that 16 white kids waiting for a bus on a cold November morning would never have experienced this.
As a black teenaged kid in the City of Rochester, how would you feel? And as a professional counselor and coach charged with serving as a role model, how would you feel? And how do you explain to your team and the parents of 16 students that something is broken? And that the break affects not only the 16 kids, it affects us all. Because those kids and their coach will never forget how it felt to be helpless, knowing they were doing nothing wrong and yet experiencing that sinking feeling in their stomach – something few white people will ever feel when told to disperse.
Linn is Associate Professor of Educational Administration at SUNY Brockport's Metro Center, where Edison Coach Jacob Scott is taking a Foundations of Educational Leadership class taught by Linn.
What a spectacle! / From around the world / Masters of war gather, / Honoring a man of peace / Revealing the face of hypocrisy;
From around the world / enslavers and dis-enfranchisers gather, / Honoring a man of freedom;
From around the world / Power-seekers gather, / Hoping the embrace of well-crafted words / will disguise pretentiousness and self-importance, / Honoring themselves;
Look closely / For the Emperor's clothes....