“OFFICER, WHY are you stopping me?”
School food service manager Steven Brinkley recounted the following experience in January, during the AFT’s first forum in a yearlong initiative on racial justice.
It happened a few months ago, on a Wednesday night at about 11. Brinkley left a Masons’ meeting and was driving his SUV to his suburban Philadelphia home in Glenolden, wearing a black suit, a white shirt and a black bow tie, when he noticed police lights and heard a siren.
A Delaware County police officer pulled him over. He asked Brinkley if he’d been drinking.
“No, sir,” Brinkley answered in his quiet, polite way. “I’ve just come from a Masons’ meeting.”
Brinkley knew the taillights on his Chevy Tahoe were working; he’d checked. He knew he wasn’t speeding. He thought he may have swerved a bit as he reached for a cigarette, so he asked the officer why he’d been stopped.
He never did get an answer, but one answer suggests itself. Brinkley is African-American.
“Officer, why are you stopping me?” he asked, and later asked again. Anyone acquainted with Brinkley knows that he is soft-spoken, unassuming. He has worked for the Philadelphia public schools for 21 years, and has served on the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ executive board for about a decade. He is a member of the AFT PSRP program and policy council.
He also is persistent: “Officer, why are you stopping me?”
The police officer called for backup. Instead of telling Brinkley why he’d been stopped, the first officer said to the second, “You know, I’m tired of listening to this.”
They took Brinkley’s car keys and closed the door to his Tahoe, handcuffed Brinkley, put him in the first policeman’s car and drove him around, with one police car following the other, for about 20 minutes.
Finally, the police stopped in a residential neighborhood, told him to get out of the cruiser, turned him around and uncuffed him. “Next time I ask you to do something, you do it and don’t give me any back talk,” the first officer said, after which he threw Brinkley’s keys on the ground and told him to find his way home “as best you can.”
Alone in the darkness, Brinkley, in his own words, grew “angry,” then “livid.”
He found a Wawa convenience store and paid someone $5 to borrow a phone and call his wife, who mapped the address and came to get him. They found his truck not far from their home. Then he told his wife, and only his wife, what had happened— until the AFT forum on race (go.aft.org/psrps_justice), which took place at a meeting of the PSRP program and policy council.
“Who was going to believe me?” he asks.
It does seem incredible. In fact, some PSRP council members first thought he was describing an incident from 40 years ago.
Brinkley’s own reaction shows just how far we still have to go. How many others never speak up because they’re afraid they won’t be believed?