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The cost of freedom: Priceless 

Hugh B. Price is the president of the National Urban League, and he has committed the crime of Driving While Black.

click to enlarge Hugh Price, President of the National Urban League
  • Hugh Price, President of the National Urban League

Here's Price's story:

"I don't want to make my life seem lavish but I get driven around. So, I was in a car being driven through the heart of downtown Brooklyn and we were stopped by the police. The policeman approaches the car -- with his hand on the gun. It was at 6 o'clock in the evening and we were in a car just like everybody on Wall Street drives. The policeman asked for our license, registration and puts us through the third degree and only after all that does he tells us we are stopped because it's a seat belt violation.

"Now this cop scared the life out of me and out of the fellow who was driving. Had we made some kind of jumpy move we might not be here right now. And I have no doubt that they do not stop the white Wall Street stockbrokers who are driving through downtown Brooklyn to get on the highway to get home. So there was no reason to stop us."

This weekend, Price is scheduled to be in Colorado Springs to participate in the Urban League's regional conference at The Broadmoor.

From his New York office, Price recently had a few other things on his mind, like racial profiling, fixing public schools and reading through the soundbites of the presidential election.

Indy: Let's talk about cops. In New York City, there was the police killing of Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old kid who had done nothing. Here in Colorado we've had major controversies over the Denver Police Department's no-knock practices, which led to the death of Ismael Mena. Are these isolated incidents?

Price: It's part of a pattern of events that are quite alarming. When the country declared war on crime in the 1990s, police dramatically increased both the size of their forces and they escalated the kind of tactics used in order to combat crime. There was a time when the only way you could stop and frisk someone is if they were caught in the commission of an illegal activity, if police were in pursuit of someone who had just left the scene or if they had a warrant. Now, people who are deemed suspicious acting -- like Amadou Diallo -- can become the subject of police attention and as we know, under horrible circumstances actually lose their lives.

From the unfolding scandals in Los Angeles we see that police departments have increased their manpower but not provided adequate training or supervision. You find a lot of renegade police officers operating according to rules they set for themselves. This is not a general indictment of the police, the vast majority do a terrific job. But there are techniques -- patterns of racial profiling, devaluation of life -- that apply to minorities that we don't see applied to the majority community and that is very, very disturbing, very disturbing.

Indy: Another trend is that cops are being exonerated for these crimes, often after being investigated internally as well as by juries. What fundamental changes are needed?

Price: Police departments realize that these cases are not helpful to them; they roil the waters politically and it causes the demoralization of police forces when they become the objects of the ire of the community. There needs to be much more attention to recruitment screening and training. Police forces need to take community policing very seriously rather than using dragnet tactics of stopping and frisking any young person who seems to be behaving in any suspicious manner.

Even if (cops) are not prosecuted criminally or convicted, they will come through the civil courts where the standards are not as stringent and there could be very, very steep financial damages. Los Angeles is facing $200 million in settlement costs, and that's not a sum of money they can budget every year.

Indy: So it will come down to the cash?

Price: That will be one of the incentives. Another is these kinds of tactics increase the dangers to the police officers because they make everybody jumpy and on guard.

Indy: The other day, syndicated columnist Ken Hamblin, who is black and from Colorado, wrote a piece claiming that minorities are lying with regard to getting pulled over for Driving While Black.

Price: That's nonsense, it's utter nonsense.

Indy: Is it frustrating to you to have an African-American columnist still denying it actually exists?

Price: He's entitled to his view. Perhaps it hasn't happened to him yet. But I've talked to so many African-American fathers of teenagers who it's happened to, it's happened to me, it's happened to many friends of mine and their children, so I know it's a reality. The fact of racial profiling has been well-documented. It's not isolated and it's a fact of life.

Indy: Political and business leaders in Colorado are using the real and perceived public education crisis to push vouchers. Is this a good idea?

Price: It's a terrible idea. The overwhelming number of young people in this country are enrolled in public schools -- that's more than 90 percent of African-American children. There is abundant evidence that public schools in urban and rural areas can perform quite well. The challenge is to get more public schools to perform well than to siphon resources away. We've got to pay teachers more money. We've got to equip schools technologically. We've got to fix up the leaky roofs. We've got to make sure children are meeting higher standards.

So at a time when we ought to be investing more in making certain that the schools function well, vouchers and education savings accounts would siphon public dollars away. It's interesting to me that in the name of education accountability, vouchers and education savings accounts would move public money into totally unaccountable systems, nonpublic schools would not have to report their results to anybody.

Indy: The National Urban League has taken a position in opposition of vouchers; however, some chapter presidents have been approached by pro-voucher folks to support the cause.

Price: We haven't issued an edict -- thou shalt not support vouchers. And I understand the frustration of someone saying, 'how long do we have to wait until someone figures out how to improve my local schools?' So I understand why the folks in our movement have grown impatient. That doesn't convince me as a matter of national policy to cross the line to support vouchers.

Indy: The Urban League launched "Opportunity Watch" to monitor the issues being talked about during the presidential election. So who's winning?

Price: We have tried to tag the key questions and help people make a judgment about which of these candidates is most appealing. We do feel very strongly that the American people ought to judge the candidates based on their track records and on the thoughtfulness and comprehensiveness of their policies. The presidential election shouldn't be a popularity contest, it should be a contest of ideas and commitment. Our role is to pinpoint what the issues are and present them to voters.

Indy: What issues have you flagged?

Price: We've got what we call ten opportunity commandments -- the first couple are high access to preschool education and improving the performance of urban schools. Are the candidates serious about providing high quality teaching and learning in the schools? We'll move next to issues of providing affordable health care to people who don't have it now and looking at commitment to affirmative action, whether candidates are serious about the issue of inclusion in our society.

Indy: What topic do you fear will not be broached during the campaign?

Price: I worry about whether there will be a full-blown debate about affirmative action and the need to commit to making sure our society is fully inclusive.

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