The Stop. The Still-Ubiquitous Stop. A reporter gets personal.

March 13, 2018

Michael Fletcher knew he had to check in with someone when he got the assignment to write about racial profiling and police traffic stops for the special National Geographic issue on race.

That person? His son.

“I was so reluctant to put him out there,” Fletcher said. But his son, now 28 and finishing up law school at Penn, gave his blessing. More on that in a second.

The recurring fear of harm simply for Driving While Black — of even Walking While Black — is one of America’s many unresolved issues on race. That Fletcher had an example so close at hand, his own son, illustrates its ubiquity among people of color. It seems like every black parent, even Eric Holder when he was attorney general, has had The Talk with their teen children if they are stopped by police: Lower the car window so officers can see you clearly. Turn on the interior lights. Keep hands visible. Have your license and registration accessible but never never EVER reach for it without getting permission from the officer.

Michael Fletcher

Fletcher, who writes for ESPN’s The Undefeated, had reported a front-page story on the phenomenon for the Washington Post in 1996. There was such an outcry of unjust police stops — creating this never-ending fear in motorists of color and their children — that Fletcher let himself believe that America might turn a corner, deal with the issue, move on.

Then, a decade ago, it happened to his kid.

Fletcher’s son, in high school then, was returning from the barber shop when he was stopped. After a few minutes, he was let go without a ticket. He was told he drove a car that gets stolen often, a Honda Civic. The explanation was hard to accept on face value; the Civic was one of the most popular cars in America..

“He was so wounded by it in a way. At the moment, he was scared. As he thought about it, he got angry,” Fletcher said.

After his son went to Washington University, he and fellow students were walking home on campus after dinner when a police car cut them off. Another policeman zoomed up on a bike. Student IDs, please.

“Why are we being stopped?” Fletcher recounted his son as saying.

“There’s a report of suspicious people on campus.”

Suspicious people. His son quietly seethed.

That pattern of fear, humiliation and anger extended to everybody who Fletcher spoke with on his latest story on The Stop. Robert F. Smith, who Forbes calls the wealthiest African-American in the United States, said he was stopped more times than he can count —  and he flashes back to his frightened 17-year-old self every time the police lights flash behind his car. Fletcher talked with a Homeland Security worker in Chicago, an 11-year Navy vet, who has been stopped so often he bought a dashboard cam as protection. The church music minister in Bridgeport, Connecticut, who had always taught his two boys that police were superheroes, was unable to forget the way the kids teared up in terror in the backseat when he was illegally stopped and searched by police on the way home from pizza.

The new reporting jarred Fletcher. Why does this happen still? Why in 2018? Fletcher says recent accounts — like the police beating of a man supposedly jaywalking in North Carolina — hit him anew each time.

Of The Stop, Fletcher says: “It feels like it’s not a big deal, but it is a big deal, and it’s corrosive. It’s something that’s searing, like a brand. You don’t forget it.”

His story on The Stop, headlined on National Geographic as “For Black Motorists, a Never-Ending Fear of Being Stopped,” is being run as well on on the The Undefeated, ESPN’s site on race, culture and sports. To read more from Michael Fletcher, start with his 2013 “An Oral History on the March on Washington.” To read more from National Geographic’s April issue on race, click here.