Toledo City Councilman Larry Sykes has a chip on his shoulder — and rightfully so.
He’s a black man who has been stopped by police more times than he would care to remember. He’s been harassed and even sued — and won a settlement — after he alleged that the Carroll Township Police Department in Ottawa County illegally detained him for racial reasons while he was taking a power walk back in 2002.
Mr. Sykes is a man who has experienced being pulled over — or stopped mid-stride, as it were — for reasons that were often unclear, or suspicious to him. Regardless, he’s shown poor judgment in having a plastic cover on his license plate — a vanity plate that reads “4DRWBLK,” which means “4 driving while black.”
I told him as much Wednesday as I sat in his office, moments after he held a news conference to apologize to the Toledo Police Department for the public imbroglio that followed his letter to Chief Bill Moton questioning why he was stopped by two officers last month.
In his letter, Mr. Sykes suggested that he was pulled over because he was profiled. Though he didn’t use the term “racially profiled,” that seemed implicit. Especially because he mentioned his vanity plate in the same paragraph of the letter, and explained its meaning.
In hindsight, Mr. Sykes said he defined profiling as meaning that the officers probably thought he was up to no good because he was driving in a high-crime area where a shooting had recently occurred at a bar, and where peddlers had been busted at a nearby store for selling drugs. Sometimes, he said, people get pulled over more frequently because police are patrolling certain areas more.
“It was not about race; that wasn’t the issue,” Mr. Sykes told me, acknowledging that the officers could not have seen him at night through the tinted windows of his sport-utility vehicle. “I know what racial profiling is. This was not racial profiling.”
Mr. Sykes also assured me he is getting rid of the vanity plate. Good. It’s ridiculous for a 65-year-old man — an elected official, no less — to be driving around with such a provocative plate. He’s said he has had the plate for more than 20 years. Well, Mr. Sykes, it’s time to grow up.
“I had been stopped so much, I wanted to make a statement,” he said. “I was stopped so many times, and all of my friends were stopped. It was from the ’80s and early ’90s, when drugs were big, and those of us who had expensive cars were being stopped because we were told we looked the part.
“That’s a humiliating and fearful experience, and it happened over and over,” Mr. Sykes said. “They never had a justifiable reason in stopping me, and they told me so.”
Mr. Sykes isn’t crazy. I believe him. Driving while black is a real thing, and anyone who would argue that the practice of pulling over people with brown skin doesn’t exist lives in a world of denial. There is a long legacy of racial bias by police officers, particularly when they make traffic stops.
If you are African-American, you’ve likely been pulled over for questionable violations. Because in this country, being black — especially black and male — means you are inherently criminal.
African-Americans can sympathize with Mr. Sykes’ frustrations, as can Latinos. Systemic and institutional racism has programmed us to ask: Did that happen just because I’m black? Or brown? Often, the answer is yes.
But Mr. Sykes doesn’t get a pass because of his personal experiences. None of us gets a pass. He was stopped by officers because he did not have a front license plate and because his back plate was obscured by a plastic cover. The officers had the legal authority to make the stop.
I am pleased that Mr. Sykes apologized to the officers; it took courage to admit publicly that he was wrong. He’s ready to move forward, though it still might be a bit of a bumpy ride for him. I hope this latest political fire storm will inspire him to chose his words more carefully.
Suzette Hackney is an editorial writer and columnist for The Blade.