‘Driving While Black’
Black men describe racial profiling by North Country police
In a videoconference last week, several Black men shared how police have frequently pulled them over in the North Country, apparently for no other reason than the color of their skin.
Thursday’s “Driving While Black” discussion was hosted by the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, based in Saranac Lake, and the Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake. The panelists were Dominique Boone, who lived in the Adirondacks from 2015 to 2019 while resurrecting Paul Smith’s College’s men’s and women’s basketball programs, and Matt Hughey, who was born and raised in Plattsburgh and now lives in the Saratoga Springs area. The moderator was Clifton Harcum, SUNY Potsdam’s diversity coordinator. He said others backed out of sharing their stories for fear of retaliation.
The most dramatic tale of alleged racial profiling came from Matt Hughey. He prefaced it by saying he has also had many good experiences with police and that “I’m not here to bash.”
He said he was 19 or 20 years old on a job site working for a local company, wearing a company uniform and using a work truck with a company logo on it, when police officers stopped him and asked to see his company badge and identification. He said these items were in the truck, which was about 300 feet away. One officer drove his patrol car over to the truck, drew his gun and aimed it at Hughey while shielding himself behind his open car door. As Hughey walked the football field’s length toward the truck, the gun was trained on him.
“My life was in this man’s hands,” Hughey said. “It was a he-said-he-said kind of deal if anything would have happened.”
Once at the truck, Hughey said the officer kept pointing the gun at him while he got out his work badge and identification. The officers searched the vehicle for drugs or weapons, found none, ran his name for warrants, found none, and then let him go with a “Have a good day.”
As far as he could tell, the only reason they put him through that ordeal was the color of his skin.
“At the time I worked with a lot of white co-workers, and that situation never once happened to them,” he said.
“I like to think if you don’t do anything wrong, you have nothing to hide. Unfortunately, I’ve learned with law enforcement that’s not the case all the time.”
“They will profile you”
Hughey told several other stories of being pulled over by state troopers or Plattsburgh city police. Describing one trooper who pulled him over on Interstate 87 when he wasn’t speeding, Hughey said, “He was waiting for something to pop off.”
He said he has asked trooper friends about this, and they advised him to take precautions any time he is pulled over: Make sure your baseball cap brim is pointed forward, turn on the light in your vehicle so the officer can see you, and keep your hands on the steering wheel.
“They will profile you,” he said he learned from these police friends. “That’s just the way it is up here.”
A spokesperson for New York State Police Troop B did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Boone said when he came to Paul Smith’s College, “In the first two months, I probably got pulled over six to eight times and only got one ticket.” At the time he was driving a lot to visit his wife, who was pregnant and hadn’t moved here yet. Then they lived on campus, didn’t drive as much and didn’t get pulled over. But later they moved to Saranac Lake, and he began to get stopped by village police — until they got to know him.
“It was always just constantly checking in: Who was that guy driving in that car?” he said. “It kind of felt like a sense of, we’re not supposed to be here.”
Saranac Lake police Chief James Joyce, who was a sergeant when Boone lived here, said he wants to watch a video recording of the forum on YouTube before commenting.
Harcum said when he first moved up from Maryland to work at SUNY Potsdam, he drove into the Adirondacks looking for activities he could do later with his fiancee. He said he was driving a BMW, was dressed professionally and had the cruise control set at the speed limit. A state trooper followed him for a while, passed him, went back behind him and then pulled him over. Harcum said the trooper walked up with his hand on his gun and told him his license plate had come up as stolen. That shocked him, partly because it wasn’t true and partly because in Maryland he wasn’t used to police running plates through their database so routinely.
“Since I’ve been up here, I’ve been pulled over a lot,” he said. “I guess that’s just what New York does.”
The atmosphere was tense, he said. So as not to alarm the trooper, he asked permission before getting his driver’s license from the armrest console. Then the trooper asked what he was doing, and he mentioned his new job at the college. Suddenly, he said, the tension was released, and they had a friendly conversation. He asked whether the trooper still needed to see his license and registration, and he said no and let him go.
“That was the only time I’ve been pulled over by a police officer — and I’m from Baltimore city — when I felt like my life was in danger,” Harcum said.
Hughey told of an awkward encounter in which a police officer, after pulling him over, recognized him for his basketball and football playing at Plattsburgh High School and asked for his autograph.
“It’s the only autograph I’ve ever signed,” he said.
“Many times I’ve been pulled over by city cops and, no joke, three, four cars deep … for a taillight,” he said. He’s seen white people pulled over by a single police car.
“Legitimate or not, you shouldn’t have to fear for your life for speeding or a brake light out,” he said.
He said when his grandfather died and left him his Cadillac, cops immediately started following him around Plattsburgh. He also remembers, as a boy of 10 or 11, riding home from the gym with his father in his BMW and getting pulled over. The officer told his father to turn the music down.
“I can definitely attest that if you’re Black and you drive nice cars, you’re going to get pulled over,” he said.
“I can attest to that,” Harcum added with a laugh.
Harcum relayed an online comment from a Black woman who said she has been pulled over at least 15 times and that when she told people, they didn’t believe it was because of her skin color. Boone added that while he didn’t tell his Paul Smith’s colleagues about getting pulled over, his wife, who is white, did. In response, co-workers talked about speed traps and how people they knew got pulled over as well.
“But the thing is, I wasn’t speeding,” Boone said.
Harcum asked Boone and Hughey about their non-police interactions in the community.
“For me, it was pretty isolating,” Boone said. He made friends at work, but “I didn’t really feel that sense of family or that sense of belonging.”
Hughey said his interactions were mostly “great,” but he added that, “Outside of officers, I’ve had four guns drawn on me.” He thinks most North Country people are not racist, but enough are to make life difficult for a Black man.
“They say it’s a few bad apples, but … there’s people willing to pull a gun on you.
“There’s an increasing percentage of white people who are trying to understand what we’re going through,” he said, but there are still many who, “if it doesn’t relate to them, they can’t understand.” Those are the ones, he said, who bring up rioters and looters when discussing this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Boone added, “I feel like I just have to be over the top to be non-threatening.”
Asked what they want listeners to get out of this discussion, Boone said, “Have an open mind, and be willing to step into someone else’s shoes.” Hughey said, “Not to be blind to someone else’s experiences just because yours aren’t the same.”
White audience members asked if they should video-record or intervene if they see police pull over a Black person. Boone and Hughey said filming would be good, but keep your distance.
“Don’t poke the bear,” Hughey said.
Another listener asked why neither man filed an official complaint about their treatment by police.
“The city’s not ready for that,” Hughey said of Plattsburgh.
“What’s it really going to do?” Boone said.
Asked if the North Country is ready for more non-white people to move here, Hughey said, “I think they think they are,” but he is not so sure.
“I agree,” Boone said. “The Adirondacks is kind of a progressive but not progressive area.”
30 years in Plattsburgh
Matt’s father Jeff Hughey joined later in the session. He grew up in Queens, came north for college and has lived in Plattsburgh ever since. He said the way his son has been treated is “heartbreaking,” but he is proud of him.
“All I can say to you gentlemen is kudos for staying cool,” he said.
He said more conversations about race are needed in the North Country. During his 30 years in Plattsburgh, he said, “I have been able to endure the cold shoulders, the poor treatment … and have great conversations with my Caucasian brothers and sisters. … When I allow them to ask questions, they come back and ask more questions and become more open-minded.”
Thursday’s forum was the second part of “Driving While Black”; part 1 took place July 23. ADI director Nicky Hylton-Patterson interviewed Gretchen Sorin, author of the book “Driving While Black,” about historical challenges to African Americans’ mobility.
These sessions are part of a free online series called “The Black Experience in the Adirondacks,” from 6 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays in July and August. On Aug. 6 is “Recreating in the Adirondacks,” and on Aug. 13 is “Driving While Black, Part 3.” Parts 1 and 2 of “Driving While Black” can be watched on the Adirondack Diversity Initiative’s YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClHXpdW683bPYXXjExmBqAw.