A Change Needs To Come

"In New York City, police targeted Black men and boys, deeming them permanent suspects who had rap sheets stapled on their backs."



If you do not know what the acronym DWB means, then you are probably not Black. I didn’t know what it meant until a friend said to me, after being pulled over by a police officer: “It was just the typical traffic stop for DWB.” He told me it stood for Driving While Black.

We have greater awareness of the term today because we see it on social media posts, cell phone videos, and even police bodycam images. In one of the more recent instances that went viral, Army Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario was brutalized by police while he was in uniform in Windsor, Virginia, at a gas station. It’s not just DWB though, it could be Walking While Black, as was demonstrated in a viral video in which Army officer Jonathan Pentland accosted a young Black man who was walking on the sidewalk in a South Carolina neighborhood.

It’s become an all too familiar scene today, but tragically, it’s not a new one. As legendary Voice writer Peter Noel shared with me and my colleague Bob Baker via email:

“The ’90s were perhaps one of the deadliest periods in the history of policing Black lives in America. In New York City, police targeted Black men and boys, deeming them permanent suspects who had rap sheets stapled on their backs. Blacks like me were illegally tailed, pounced upon and jacked up by mostly undercover white cops who bloviated about owning the streets—and the night. The stops were systemic and threatening to all aspects of African American freedom of mobility. Those who resisted wrongful arrest went to jail on the most frivolous of reasons for stopping, questioning, and frisking them in the first place. Cops, in essence, were criminalizing law-abiding Black citizens.”

Even during the ’90s, writing about issues of racism and police brutality in NYC and beyond was considered somewhat taboo. In fact, Noel, in the reprinted piece from 1998 on these pages, aptly chronicled the racial profiling of Black men and women on the Jersey Turnpike. However, his use of the phrase “racial profiling” caused an internal debate with top Voice editors at the time. Despite Noel’s advocacy for the phrase, it was not allowed to be used in the original headline.

What is so striking about Noel’s words, then and now, is that nothing has really changed. The only thing that is different today is that technology allows us to see and share these appalling occurrences readily and rapidly. The advent of social media has allowed for any incident of discrimination, racism, police brutality, and more to be instantly streamed for the country (and world) to watch in horror. And, of course, the immediacy of digital sharing obliges for greater collective consciousness, outrage, and activism.

There are countless issues that merit the attention of columns like this one, commemorating the rebirth of the Village Voice, such as: media bias and out-of-touch reporting that has led to the erosion of public trust in journalism and thus the rise of conspiracy theories taken as truth; or the unthinkable, unregulated power of large technology companies that have more data on individuals than any government in the world; or the number of overbearing (and increasing) laws that restrict actions that ought to be a matter of personal choice but rather are used to unnecessarily incarcerate more Americans; or Governor Andrew Cuomo’s alleged cover-up of nursing home death tolls from COVID; or our country’s response to the pandemic; or President Joe Biden’s apparent continuation of disturbing border policies for which he lambasted his predecessor; or the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Every one of those subjects warrants the attention of the Voice—and they will get it— but the issue of the day is the treatment of Black Americans. While the trial for the murder of George Floyd is ongoing, new examples of racism against Black people surface almost daily. And that is why I felt a duty to republish Noel’s original piece on DWB in the Voice.

Although Noel’s story was first published in 1998, when reading it one cannot help but think it could easily have been ripped from today’s headlines. “Driving, walking and simply trying to live while in our skins had become hazardous to our health,” Noel wrote via email about his reporting a quarter-century ago. “And, again, we had the bodies to prove it.”  ❖