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On playing Pokemon while black

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Jessica S. Welburn, guest columnist

Last week Iowa City Police surrounded a University of Iowa student at gunpoint in a local park. The student, who is African American, was playing Pokémon and apparently had his headphones on so he did not hear the police approaching. The police allege that the student fit the description of a bank robbery suspect and so when he did not immediately respond to them they assumed that he might be the assailant. The story has since gained national attention as part of the ongoing conversation about race and policing.

While the student has thanked the police department and both parties appear to be on good terms, the incident raises disturbing questions about racial profiling and the experiences of African Americans in Iowa City. While police must certainly work to apprehend dangerous suspects, it is difficult for many to imagine that an unarmed student playing Pokémon appeared so threatening that multiple officers had no choice but to draw their guns. For me, this incident reveals how African Americans continue to be deprived of the simplest of life’s joys. It highlights what many people of color already know: even leisure time can present a risk.

As the national conversation about racism and policing continues, cases of aggressive policing and brutality across the country are tied together by a common thread. Racial minorities are often unable to engage in the most mundane of daily activities in public spaces, from driving to shopping to playing in parks. Doing so can result in arrest, injury, or loss of life. Data reveal that for minorities in Iowa City, the risks associated with daily life are no different. For example, minorities in Iowa are significantly more likely to be incarcerated than whites. In fact, the difference in incarceration rates for blacks and whites is one of the largest in the country. The Iowa City Police Department’s own research has shown that minorities in Iowa City are over-policed. Their data reveal that minority drivers are significantly more likely to be stopped, receive citations, and be arrested than white drivers. Data from a separate study also demonstrate that African American youth are more likely to be suspended from school and arrested. Last summer, our community was painfully reminded of the risks that African Americans face while engaging in basic daily activities when a noise complaint at a local recreation center resulted in an African American teenager being aggressively restrained by a police officer.

Since the Pokémon application was released, I have noticed people of all backgrounds strolling through public spaces in Iowa City glued to their smartphones. Last weekend I sat in the pedestrian mall and watched young people playing the game and what was exciting was the way in which it seemed to bring people together—people of different backgrounds were approaching each other asking if they were playing, and groups of friends walked together while following along with the application. Unfortunately, last week’s incident suggests that for African Americans, even simply engaging in this type of collective leisure activity can be potentially dangerous.

As a community, it is important that we do not try to sweep this incident under the rug. As we find ourselves in the national spotlight, we must use it to have an honest conversation about ongoing racial profiling and the over-policing of minorities in our community. Police in particular must acknowledge the severity of this incident and provide community members with a plan for moving forward.

• Jessica Welburn is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies at the University of Iowa. Her research focuses on race and ethnic relations, social mobility and urban inequality. Comments: jswelburn@gmail.com

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