Writing Crime into Race

Photo by Stu RosnerPhoto by Stu Rosner
Harvard Magazine
June 20, 2018
“You should have a record.” That sentence dropped like a hammer inside the meeting room where Khalil Gibran Muhammad, then 21 years old, was sitting across the table from a Philadelphia police-union lawyer, answering questions about the day he’d briefly been arrested.
This was late May 1993. Several weeks earlier, Muhammad and a few other University of Pennsylvania students had organized a demonstration, with plans to seize copies of the student newspaper from distribution boxes: a last-ditch protest against a series of racially provocative op-eds that had roiled the campus for much of the school year. When Muhammad, dressed all in black, began stuffing newspapers into a trash bag a few minutes after six in the morning, he was cuffed and taken to a police station in the back of a patrol car. A couple of hours later, the police figured out what was going on (“There were reports of students running around with newspapers all over campus,” Muhammad says), and he and the others were released without charges. But because an officer had hit him on the legs with a baton during the arrest, and he was a student, a disciplinary process lurched into motion, to determine if the officer had overreacted. The final step was the meeting with the police-union attorney. 

Penn’s general counsel, representing Muhammad, had warned him not to lose his cool: don’t show any emotion, don’t react, just tell your story. So that’s what he did, he says, “And it drove the other lawyer bananas.” Finally, in frustration, the man banged his fist on the table and said, “You should have a record.” It felt like a mask had slipped. Muhammad was a recent graduate of an Ivy League university. He’d just started a job at the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche. He was well-spoken and self-assured and steady and genial. And also, he was black. “And it just hit me in that moment,” he says, “what he was really saying.”

Read the full article at the Harvard Magazine website.

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