This is not Ferguson, Los Angeles or Baltimore … it’s Berwyn, Pennsylvania in 2015

This post is about an upper middle class family who live in the Berwyn Estates community of Easttown Township, where house values average in the $1 million+ category. The parents, the father a vascular surgeon and the mother an attorney, have twin teenage sons.  The 15-year old boys, both boy scouts, attend Friend’s Central School and Lawrenceville School respectively, and are active in their church.  The family is African-American.

On Friday, July 24, the brothers along with a friend, rode their bicycles to a friend’s house in the Greens of Waynesboro to go swimming.  Another upscale neighborhood in Berwyn, the ‘Greens’ is located next to the Waynesboro Country Club and its streets are named for famous golf courses (St. Andrews, Augusta, Stanwich, etc.)  It is my understanding that currently no African American families reside in the Greens.

The mother of the twin boys (remember, she is an attorney) shared ‘Biking While Black’ of what happened next in a letter to friends, neighbors and on social media.  She recounts that “a white woman with short dark brown/black hair who was driving a white Jeep SUV” followed and videotaped her sons and their friend as they cycled in the Greens.  As they were leaving the neighborhood, two Easttown Township police cars stopped the boys because “suspicious activity” was reported. The mother of the twins states that, “the boys were sandwiched in between the [police] cars and terrified.” The police filed an incident report with the Easttown Township Police Department.

After hearing the story from her sons, the mother went to the Easttown police station and was told that the complainant (the Greens resident) called the police because of recent burglaries and that she was worried because she was leaving town and that the “boys had on backpacks”.  According to the mother of the boys, the backpacks contained wet swimsuits and towels.

In her letter shared with the Greens of Waynesboro community, the mother of the twin brothers states,

“… We all know that the real reason the call was made to the police was because they are black. I understand that there have been several recent burglaries in your community and everyone is on a heightened sense of alert because of that. I want you to understand the kind of heightened alert I am on every day and every time my sons leave the safety of their home.

To the woman who was following and videotaping my sons, you frightened two young men who have lived in this community their whole lives. Please explain to me why my sons were so frightening and suspicious? Do you fear every child riding a bicycle in your community? Are backpacks the Berwyn PA equivalent of a hoodie?

Please understand where my heightened alert comes from. Whatever you think of the Trayvon Martin verdict several things are clear. The young black man (who is now dead) was perceived as one who was “suspicious and did not belong in that community”. These are the words told to the police about my boys.

To the parents in the Greens at Waynesboro, how would you feel knowing that a stranger has a video tape of your children? How would you feel knowing that there is now a police incident report with your children’s names, address and birthdays permanently a part of an official record? How would you feel if your children tell you now that they no longer feel comfortable going to their friends’ homes, or riding their bicycles?

The mother closes her letter with a plea for people to, “please stop seeing stereotypes” and to instead “see human beings.”

In a follow-up comment to her initial letter, the mother graciously explains why she chose to make this situation public,

I have gone so public with this event because I understand that racism is a part of all of us. It’s impossible not to have quick impressions when confronted by a group of people or things that are different. We all live in a country where the media seems to thrive on perpetuating fear and stereotypes. What we do with those reactions is what makes the difference.

I hope through this very public display of our families experience, a few more people will stop….acknowledge the fear/thought they have as a reaction that should be changed…breathe….and then see the person they are interacting with as just another one of God’s children.

We all watch the news but this story brings the troubling, ugly side of racism right to our doorstep. Racial discrimination is a deep-rooted part of this country’s history, and it’s going to take substantial work for change to happen. People talk about diversity in communities during Black History Month, but other times of the year, this conversation disappears. Black Lives Matter – All Lives Matter.

I applaud the mother for standing up and speaking out but I don’t know that I could be as tolerant and gracious in my response. Bravo to her for setting the bar high as a parent and as a role model to us all!

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24 Comments

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  1. I’m curious as to the contents of the police report that was filed. Were the backpacks searched? How were the boys treated?
    Although the resident calling the police is abhorrent, I’m more interested in how the police handled it.
    From the lack of information from the mother on that end, it seems they may have handled it appropriately.

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    Jeff Reply:

    Except they weren’t because they were not doing anything wrong besides going out to go swimming. White entitled people like yourself who feel that the police can do no wrong are part of the problem.

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    Another Jeff Reply:

    I agree with Jeff. The police should have gone after this ignorant woman for harassing these kids. No files should be kept on these boys at all. A file should be kept for the woman.

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  2. It is Ferguson if you are Black in T/E, the police have always targeted certain streets….there are good and bad in all races . I would love to know the outcome of this story, has the Easttown Township police stop all kids riding bikes and why is there an official record?

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  3. After going to the police station this week, the mother of the twin boys followed up with the following comment. Based on the mother’s remarks, it sounds like the police chief fully understood the situation and reacted accordingly. I’m still shaking my head over the woman driving around in her call videotaping these boys in the first place! Wow, and then to call the police!

    I went (with the other boys mother) to the police station Monday and asked for a copy of the police incident report.the boy’s and the complainant’s names were visible. A detective spoke and with us for a moment generally, and then the chief of police came and asked if we’d like to talk. I was impressed with his forthrightness and demeanor.
    I explained that I had several concerns:
    1.) that that two police cars intercepted the boys when they were going home,
    2.) that their names were included in the report,
    3.) some of the language in the report (given that they were mentioned was troublesome…this was more bothersome to the other parent than me as the fact that there is a report at all is my problem, and
    4.) I also mentioned an earlier incident to him where one of my sons was skating in our driveway. An officer turned around to pass in front of our house again (after having driven by it), watched my son for awhile…at which point my son ran into the house…and then sat in our driveway for awhile.
    The chief explained that for purpose of officer safety, it is standard procedure to have more than one police car respond when there is this type of interaction. He said that there were three cars patrolling and only two were called because it wasn’t perceived that there was a threat to their safety.
    I was told that their names would be redacted from a report given to anyone else as the boys are juveniles. I then stated that I am an attorney and know for a fact that juvenile records are often mysteriously revealed all the time. He did say that if the boys were involved in criminal activity in the future this record would go to the State of Pennsylvania and be a part of their criminal file. I explained that given the world is, I can not be sure that the boys (correctly or falsely won’t have future involvement with the police as this whole issue arose because they were riding bicycles).
    The chief agreed to have the reporting officer make the corrections the other mother wanted.
    I did not know the name of the officer who sat in our driveway and I understand that no direct response could be made to that issue. I was pleased that the chief seemed to recognize the complaint for what it was, and he indicated that he would email the officers about issues of racial profiling. I hope that this will make it easier for children of color in our community.
    Here is the language in the report about this incident:
    “Dispatched to…..Saint Andrews Drive for two black and one white males described as suspicious male juveniles riding bikes throughout the neighborhood. The reporting party felt they were suspicious due to extremely large duffel backs they had on their backs. Prior to my arrival SGT LaRue made contact with the three males at the intersection of Darby-Paoli Road and Grubbs Mill Road. All three were juveniles, they were identified as (names included in the report)….who live locally. The extremely large duffel bags in fact were regular sized book bags being used to carry a change of clothes. This was in no way a criminal contact, and the three juveniles were extremely cooperative during our entire conversation. I thanked them for their time and told them to have a nice day.”

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  4. Teenage boys do not deserve to be video taped, or stopped and sandwiched between two police cars because they were walking down a street on a summer afternoon. It is degrading, humiliating and terrifying. This is the type of thing that alienates law enforcement from the very people they are sworn to serve and protect.

    It is disturbing that the boys names are in a report that could go to the State of PA and be part of a criminal file. The boys have a record because they were walking down a street on a warm summer day carrying “large” backpacks.

    I live in the Greens at Waynesboro. I saw the boys walking down St. Andrews Drive on the day in question. They were in NO way inappropriate, threatening or menacing in any way shape or form. Their backpacks were normal sized, the same back pack my kids carry, on warm summer days walking down St. Andrews Drive. To my knowledge, my kids have never been followed, videotaped or sandwiched between two police cars for doing the same thing.

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  5. The point to the civil rights movement of the 1960s was framed by Dr. King “A man should be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin.”

    All of us harbor stereotypes in our thinking in some form or another. Having been recently the victim of such stereotyping myself, I would urge my fellow citizens to always check our initial impressions against Dr. Kings standard.

    Seek first to understand, then seek to be understood.

    Dr. Anderson

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  6. I realize that we may all be a little on edge due to the societal and world situations in which we live today, but, IMHO, that is no reason to create a permanent file for innocent juveniles the basis of which is a false report to police by an insecure area resident. The report seems defamatory, is unsupported/without merit and needs to be expunged for all three juveniles involved. Perhaps the Complainant should be required to take a sensitivity course so as not to waste taxpayers’ money on unnecessary police activities.

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  7. It goes without saying how pathetic this woman is. She should be ashamed of herself. And…. Why Was she not ticketed for using her phone while driving her vehicle??? She’s the real criminal!

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  8. I lived in Chestnut Hill from 2005 until just last year. It was a living hell. To the rest of the world we blend in as just a “white” middle aged couple. But in Chestnut Hill, because our name ends in a vowel, we never had one neighbor exibit any sort of kindness or neighborliness. We were treated like we just got off a boat w 50 cents in our pocket hoping for “opportunity.” Talk about time warp….

    It got so bad that all the neighbors used their political pull and called L and I and all other city departments on us weekly. If we had guests or even pruned a tree they would have an ex mayor or city counsel person call in a favor and send all sort of threatening letters and suprise visits and inspections. On one occasion we were forced to open our home to the authorities to prove we were not running an illegal catering hall…we had a large kitchen and a very large house so we entertained a lot. The inspectors actually couldn’t imagine it wasn’t a restaurant as they admitted they’d never been in a house that big or seen a kitchen like ours…try explaining that it isn’t a resatuarnat. there is no way to prove it if you just have a big kitchen and big (seats 40) dining room….
    Anyway it was so bad I was having a nervous breakdown. I threatened to sue the city and it finally stopped but the damage was done. The dream was definitely shattered. I left the house. It is sitting now, vacant and overgrown. That is what the locals wanted so they win…I feel for these kids. But what can we do. Things seem so hopeless right now. No one has a voice. The world is ruled by others and they make sure we, the little people, know it.

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    Pattye Reply:

    Thank you for sharing your experience; I am truly sorry.

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  9. Besides being totally unfair to the boys, this is an example of how police officers get put in difficult situations. Someone else’s racial bias initiated their involvement. The police must respond by showing up, assess the situation, and respond accordingly. Making a record is part of their procedure. It’s what they do. The problem here is that they were called in the first place. It sounds like they handled this as well as they possibly could.

    For this to have a positive outcome, the woman who called the police would need to come forward, apologize to the children and their parents and the police. More importantly, she needs to acknowledge to herself and her heart that she has a racial bias problem. She needs to change her heart. Seeing teenage boys riding bikes in the summer could make her feel joyful. She could have driven by and later tweeted about seeing a fun sign of summer; a group of boys on bikes having some kind of adventure, backpacks filed with all the supplies they need on their journey. Instead, she chose to see the negative. She saw their blackness, not their innocence of youth.

    “We do not see things as they are, we see things as WE are.”

    Until she (and we) changes, she will see things with her fearful, suspicious filter. She’s missing a beautiful world out there.

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    Pattye Reply:

    I agree with you – the police officers were placed in a difficult situation as a result of this women’s actions.

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  10. This is a situation they are in every day. Don’t see the difficulty. It was two teenage boys walking/biking down a street. It was the middle of the day. Necessary to sandwich them between two police cars? Don’t think so.

    The woman over reacted. Doesn’t mean the police should.

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  11. As a former main line resident,Conestoga high school graduate and juvenile criminal defense attorney (I now live in Lancaster), this happens all the time especially in high income areas. Kudos for Mom for getting their names out of the report. Thank God these 2 kids acted perfectly or this would have been different, even in Berwyn.

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    Pattye Reply:

    Thank you counselor.

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  12. I don’t think the police over reacted. They didn’t know the real situation when they arrived, they took necessary steps to stop possible “burglers” because that’s what the lady in the jeep reported. Presumably she might even had still been following them when the police arrived. If the boys were being followed by the jeep lady, then the police blocked her out, potentially for the safety of the boys. A woman who thinks these are burglars, followed them while video recording them, might also decide to crash into the “burglars” thinking she’s a hero.

    I’m not applauding the police for doing their job as they should – responding to calls and assessing the situation and handling it appropriately. I’m just pointing out how they were put in an awkward situation here.

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  13. My parents lived in what had once been a strictly middle class neighborhood but had aged well past it’s prime. Due to it’s location in the richest zip code in the STL area, developers were coming in and buying the old houses, knocking them down and putting up McMansions. Once every week or 2 I would head over to see them and take the long way around to their house as it was fascinating to watch the place I grew up in disappear one house at a time.

    The inevitable happened as I was followed one day by some overly bejeweled nouveau riche individual because I drove an older p/u truck. After I parked and got out of my truck she pulled up next to me and started giving me the 3rd degree of questioning. I did not react well.

    “I grew up here b***h.” I had a few more choice words for her and her threats of calling the police, but that was the end of it. If I had been black I am sure it would have ended differently.

    These people are everywhere. They think it is their world and the rest of us are just in it.

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  14. I was so sad to read this story. Black children are never seen a children. They were IN THEIR OWN NEIGHBORHOOD. Why shouldn’t they be riding their bikes.

    Biking While Black is real.
    Existing While Black is real.

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  15. The part of the story I want to hear is where the cops – three cars worth of them, because she’s dangerous – show up at the racist with the SUV’s doorstep, preferably at 4:30 AM, and have a long, stern talk with her about racism and using the police to harass people.

    When is that part going to happen? And will it be public? With body cams? Please?

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  16. As others have stated on other web pages, I’m concerned about the affect this experience will have on the boys —how will this shape their views on police and others as they grow into mature adults. 15 is a very impressionable age- especially for boys.

    I hope they and their parents can find support in the many who have come forward to stand by them and I hope the boys can go forward realizing that the actions of a few do not reflect the attitudes of many.

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  17. after reading these entries, it seems the police acted appropriately.. the real problem is that videographer.. shes a psycho…perhaps she should be infirmed… If these were my kids I would be pissed.. was this videographer “good samaritan”s name revealed anywhere?

    She should be watched… kids riding bikes….geez

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  18. Dear T/E Parents,

    Recently Philadelphia Magazine published a story titled “Racial Profiling on the Main Line.” The article shares the perspectives of several African American Main Line residents about their experiences in local communities and schools. As it is the responsibility of the T/E School District to create an educational environment where all students feel respected and can flourish, it is important to listen to personal accounts such as these.

    There is no place for discriminatory actions or speech anywhere. In T/E schools, we fully investigate any such reports when brought to our attention. The journey toward cultural understanding and respect is lifelong. As adults, we know we must consistently reflect on how our words and actions impact others every day. In our schools, we provide opportunities for students to grow in their acceptance and celebration of cultural differences.

    The District currently offers many opportunities at all grade levels for students and staff to learn about diversity, including classroom discussions of historical and literary characters representing different backgrounds, specific instructional units designed to promote tolerance, as well as periodic speakers and assemblies to offer new perspectives. Some of these curricular examples were referenced in the article. In addition, all teachers receive training in cultural competence as well as ongoing inservice work to ensure that the needs of all students are addressed.

    The District Diversity Committee provides an evening forum for students, teachers, parents and community members to engage in conversations about diversity, tolerance and acceptance. Recent topics discussed by the Diversity Committee include fostering a culture of acceptance and respect; and how student groups promote diversity within their school community. We are looking forward to the next meeting of the Diversity Committee on February 17, 2016 at 7:00 pm in the Tredyffrin/Easttown Administration Offices (TEAO) to discuss the topic of diversity and the curriculum. All meetings are open to the public.

    Our work is not complete. I mention these initiatives to highlight our ongoing commitment to understanding and promoting tolerance of cultural and individual differences. We continue to refine, replace and add to these efforts as new ideas and concerns emerge. Please contact Dr. Wendy Towle at (610) 240-1903 if you would like to share ideas regarding curriculum or staff development. Dr. Oscar Torres is the District contact for the Diversity Committee and can be reached at (610) 240-1909. Please call me at (610) 240-1901 if you would like to share any thoughts with me directly.

    I provide a link to the article below, so you may read it and review with your children if you choose. The conversation must continue throughout the community. No school can achieve its fullest potential until all students feel accepted and valued.

    Sincerely,
    Dr. Richard Gusick
    Superintendent of Schools

    http://www.phillymag.com/articles/racial-profiling-main-line/

    [Reply]

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