On Aug. 24, sophomore Leonard Blair, Jr. was about to celebrate his birthday in downtown Wheaton when what should have been a joyful day turned into a heartbreaking one.
While his friends were waiting to surprise him in a restaurant right outside of Wheaton College’s campus, Leonard, a black student, was stopped by a Wheaton police officer.
At the time, Blair’s friends requested that he wait while they finished preparing for his party at a restaurant, and Blair started walking around downtown. As he looked around downtown shops, he saw a police cruiser driving around. After a few minutes, the police cruiser disappeared.
“I’m a black man, of course I paid attention to the cop’s car, but I wasn’t going to start looking at it as if I’m suspicious,” Blair told The Record.
Soon, he heard a car door shut behind him. He thought, “This can’t be for me.” Half a block later, he noticed that a police officer had started following him. Blair said he was “looking like an urban black youth,” wearing a bucket hat, a gold chain, a baseball jersey and Jordans.
Finally, the officer approached Blair and told him to “freeze.” “My first thought was that I better get my hands out of my pocket,” Blair recalled in an interview. Blair is from St. Louis, Mo., where he used to play on a football team composed mainly of young black men. The school had even provided the team with small wallet-size cards containing specific instructions for what to do when stopped by the police.
“I dropped my phone on the ground. I tried to ask him how he was doing. He didn’t answer,” Blair said. The white officer explained that somebody reported a fight in the park nearby and Blair matched the physical description. Blair said that he thought, “Of course I fit the profile.”
Blair doubted that anybody had reported anything since he had been walking around downtown for at least 30 minutes and had not seen or heard anyone fighting. To him, it seemed like the officer simply wanted an excuse to interrogate him.
Blair was able to put the policeman’s suspicions to rest by displaying his Wheaton College student ID card. Blair explained, “It was definitely the name Wheaton College — they love Wheaton College around here.” The officer allowed Blair to leave, saying that he did not look like the type of person to be in a fight. Blair explained that the shirt he was wearing was ironed with no trace of blood or dirt on it. Confused, Blair went to the restaurant, not caring if his friends were ready or not. He said he felt unsafe. “That’s exactly what it is: I don’t belong here,” Blair told The Record.
Nathaniel Chiruyi, a sophomore from Kenya, also shared his experience as a black male in downtown Wheaton. On Aug. 16, around dusk, he was stopped by three police officers, while accompanied by two white students. The officers ignored the other two students and walked straight up to Chiruyi — “As if I were a target,” he said. They asked him why he was out so late. “They told me to move my legs to the side, he put the torch (flashlight) underneath my legs,” Chiruyi said. “As an international student, I have no clue what my rights are as a black male, (so) I let them do whatever.”
“While ‘dumpster diving,’ a Wheaton tradition, I am always the one stopped even though (there are) many other white kids next to me,” Chiruyi explained.
“In the U.S.,” Blair said, “black males are often judged and discriminated against simply because they do not seem to belong. There’s just a mindset about us.” A Sept. 10 survey by the National Bar Association found that African Americans believe race relations are worse now than 10 years ago.
Both Blair and Chiruyi believe that conversation between races “will allow (us) to slowly change the situation for the better.” Blair and Chiruyi told The Record that they are fearful. They cannot leave the campus wearing a hood or walk fast “without having my ID checked more than once,” Chiruyi said.
The events discussed above took place in downtown Wheaton, not on Wheaton College’s campus. “Wheaton College works very closely with the city of Wheaton’s police department,” Paul Chelsen, vice president for student development, said in an email interview Wednesday night. “Wheaton College’s Chief of Public Safety Bob Norris communicates and collaborates on a regular basis with the leaders in the Wheaton police department.
When asked for a comment about black students being stopped by Wheaton police, Chelsen initially said that he was not aware of incidents of that nature occurring.
Upon being further notified of this article and the incidents reported within, Chelsen said, “It is critical for me to know about Wheaton College African American student experience with the Wheaton police. I am committed to initiating a conversation with the Wheaton College African American student leaders I know in an effort to find out what they know and in an attempt to identify affected students so I can also speak with them.
“Such information will help me to be able to initiate a conversation (with) the Wheaton Chief of Police, Mark Field, to address these concerns with him. I am confident that he will want to hear about any concerning student experience with his officers so that he can address these concerns.”
Wheaton College has a robust diversity program run through the Office of Multicultural Development (OMD), and one of the college’s strategic priorities is deepening ethnic diversity.
The young men ask the college community as a whole to act. They said, “The action to change must come from the white community. They could change things.” Blair and Chiruyi said they believe their stories are relevant to the entire community even though not all students are directly affected.
Chelsen said last April the Wheaton police and student government were hoping to co-sponsor an event, “Real Talk: Race and Policing in Modern Society,” but it was canceled due to scheduling problems. Wheaton police said they are willing to participate in future events.
Editor’s note: The Record contacted the Wheaton Police Department, but they were unable to provide additional information on the two incidents. A follow-up article will be published in a future edition.