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Bias by cop inspires her to seek change

Updated: November 3, 2011 11:31AM

Even in this first week of classes at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as students look ahead to the promise of a new semester, there are moments that can carry you back.

Such is the case for Chicagoan Michelle Martinez, a 21-year-old senior in psychology, whose “How I Spent My Summer” story is a curious blend of accomplishment as a summer scholar and disillusionment as a target of police authority.

It all began in July, when friends finally persuaded Martinez to take a break from her summer research project. A Ronald E. McNair Scholar, Martinez had succeeded in the highly competitive program named in memory of the African-American physicist who perished along with six other astronauts in the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle explosion. Selection is considered an honor.

None of that mattered when she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time — an outdoor public space that was a popular nighttime spot for students of color to congregate. And that popularity apparently made it a target of Champaign Police, who have come to see these kinds of groups, these kinds of gatherings, as potential threats. Even when, as on this night, students were orderly.

Perception is reality here, and on multiple levels. It was all that mattered for a white cop who saw what his experience had caused him to see, and for Martinez, a Latina, whose experience on this night would cause her to see things in a unique way from then on.

As she would come to appreciate, the way she is seen — rightly or wrongly — affects the way she is treated in society. At that moment, though, on that night, Martinez was unaware of the way local cops perceived student gatherings on that particular site. She hadn’t hung out there before. In fact, Martinez, who grew up in Humboldt Park, was not allowed to hang out as she was growing up. Among other things, she was too busy as a serious-minded student at Lane Tech (“where I was known as Michelle, not some Latina chick”), preparing to become a successful student at Illinois, which she did.

That night in July, though, it seemed that the cop who drove up only saw difference — cultural difference — more threatening than worthy of any value, or credit for accomplishment.

The cop ordered the students to move away and issued them a warning — a first step to a citation. Martinez didn’t move quickly enough, or moved in the wrong direction toward a friend for reassurance, or any of a list of possibilities that can have seismic consequences in these hyper-sensitive moments. The cop repeated his order.

“OK,” she responded, perhaps a little too strongly. In the to-and-fro street-corner discourse that resulted, Martinez tried to draw on her experience as a Counseling Center paraprofessional in the Psychology Department at Illinois, experience that requires students to master techniques in social interaction, the active listening and intentional interviewing methods that make for productive encounters. But things began to spiral. There was no reason for the confrontation, and there was no way to reach reason in attempting to sort it all out.

What was said in the moment that followed will have to await confirmation from a dozen cellphone videos. But what was said is not nearly as important as the impact of it all on Martinez, whose father is a retired Chicago cop.

She was ticketed, but there was no violation checked off, so at first felt she relieved — until she learned from her own investigation that she had been charged with jaywalking. A $120 offense. A nuisance claim, which she has had to contemplate at the expense of her study time for the Graduate Requisite Exam.

The cop’s badge number, I should add, was not included on the ticket, and I could not reach him for comment. If he has another story to tell, I’ll be the first to tell you.

“We’re trying to better ourselves here, only to be treated as if we’re nothing,” says Martinez, who is intent on fighting the charge. “It’s as if all the things we face in trying to accomplish some success, as if none of it amounts to anything. They don’t recognize you as a person. They see you as a minority.”

Still, she is determined to be a change agent, to be seen as a person, as an individual, one who has found purpose. “Our paths crossed for a reason,” she says of the cop, who has inspired a new sense of social advocacy in her, to tell stories that can make a difference. “Now, I am going to seek a master’s in journalism.”

Christopher Benson is associate dean of the College of Media and an associate professor of Journalism and African American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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