Man Arrested While Picking Up His Kids: 'The Problem Is I'm Black'

A controversial video documents the St. Paul resident being harassed and tased.
HHA124L/Flickr

If you've never experienced arbitrary harassment or brutality at the hands of a police officer, or seen law enforcement act in a way that defies credulity and common sense, it can be hard to believe people who tell stories of inexplicable persecution. As I noted in "Video Killed Trust in Police Officers," the dawn of cheap recording technology has exposed an ugly side of U.S. law enforcement that a majority of people in middle-class neighborhoods never would've seen otherwise. 

Today, what's most disheartening isn't that so many Americans still reflexively doubt stories of police harassment, as awful as it is whenever real victims are ignored. What vexes me most is police officers caught acting badly on camera who suffer no consequences and are defended by the police agencies that employ them. 

The latest example of abusive, atrocious police work posted to YouTube comes from St. Paul, Minnesota, where a black father, Chris Lollie, reportedly got off work at Cossetta, an upscale Italian eatery, walked to the downtown building that houses New Horizon Academy, where he was to to pick up his kids, and killed the ten minutes until they'd be released sitting down on a chair in a skyway between buildings. Those details come from the Minneapolis City Pages, where commenters describe the area he inhabited as a public thoroughfare between commercial buildings. If you're 27 and black with dreadlocks, sometimes you're waiting to pick up your kids and someone calls the cops to get rid of you. The police report indicates a call about "an uncooperative male refusing to leave," which makes it sound as though someone else first asked him to vacate where he was; another press report says that he was sitting in a chair in a public area when a security guard approached and told him to leave as the area was reserved for employees. The Minnesota Star Tribune visited the seating area and reported that "there was no signage in the area indicating that it was reserved for employees." 

So a man waiting to pick up his kids from school sits for a few minutes in a seating area where he reasonably thinks he has a right to be, private security asks him to leave, he thinks they're harassing him because he's black, and they call police. This is where the video begins, and that conflict is already over. The man is walking away from it and toward the nearby school where he is to pick up his kids.

So problem solved? It could have been.

Instead, this happened:

What the video shows is a man who is politely but firmly telling a police officer that she has no right to ask him for identification, because he hasn't done anything wrong or broken any laws, and is present in the building to pick up his kids. "What's the problem?" he asks at one point, and answers his own question: "The problem is I'm black." We can't see inside the heads of the people who called the police or the officers who showed up, but that seems like a highly relevant factor–it certainly wasn't unreasonable for him to reach that conclusion. 

His story about getting his kids wasn't merely plausible, given the man's age and the fact that there was a school right there–it was a story the female police officer shown at the beginning of the video or the male officer shown later could easily confirm. 

Lollie is also absolutely correct that no law required him to show an ID to police officers. As Flex Your Rights explains, "Police can never compel you to identify yourself without reasonable suspicion to believe you’re involved in illegal activity," and while 24 states have passed "stop and identify" statutes "requiring citizens to reveal their identity when officers have reasonable suspicion to believe criminal activity may be taking place," Minnesota isn't one of those states.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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