IOWA CITY — What if Iowa senior football player Faith Ekakitie hadn’t reacted as calmly as a person could be expected to when stopped by several police officers without knowing why?
Two uniformed Iowa City police officers, two plainclothes ICPD investigators, one uniformed Johnson County Sheriff’s deputy and a uniformed University of Iowa Police officer stopped Ekakitie in Benton Hill Park on July 20?
“Today was the first time that I’ve ever truly feared for my life,” Ekakitie wrote in his Facebook post about the incident that got national attention.
“Four gun barrels staring me in the face.”
What if the officers hadn’t been levelheaded themselves when Ekakitie didn’t immediately respond to their instructions because he was wearing headphones?
In his post, Ekakitie said he had reached into his pocket for his phone, “but for all the cops could have known, (I) was reaching for a gun.”
What if Ekakitie had written an angry post about his experience and stirred hostility inside Iowa City and beyond? Instead, he closed it with this:
“I would like (to) thank the Iowa City Police department for handling a sensitive situation very professionally. I would also urge people to be more aware of their surroundings because clearly I wasn’t. Lastly, I would urge us all to at least to attempt to unlearn some of the prejudices that we have learned about each other and now plague our minds and our society. I am convinced that in the same way that we learned these prejudices, we can also unlearn them.”
You know the answers to all those what-ifs. It could have been a tragic situation, and the effects from it would have been explosive. Especially with the nation already on edge because of fatal police shootings of black males in Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn., that are widely perceived as unjust killings, followed by multiple police getting shot to death in Dallas and Baton Rouge by suspects that are African-American males.
Ekakitie is a black male from Brampton, Ontario, by way of Lake Forest (Ill.) Academy. He was stopped because about 15 minutes earlier and a quarter-mile away, a black male was identified as the suspect in a robbery at First American Bank.
The suspect, about six feet tall, was dressed in black with a black covering on his head. Ekakitie, 6-3, was dressed in all black and was wearing black goggles on his head when police spotted him, asked him to raise his hands, and searched him and his backpack.
The stop-and-search took six minutes. It was recorded on Iowa City Police body camera video that was made public. It isn’t what you’d call overly dramatic. When you watch it, you don’t find yourself waiting in dread for something horrible to happen.
“He’s got headphones on,” a female officer quickly noted as police approached Ekakitie.
“It’s probably not you, but we’ve got to check, you understand?” the player was told.
When asked what he was doing in the park, Ekatitie said “Actually, playing Pokemon GO, believe it or not.”
“I believe it, actually,” said an officer.
But if you had been Ekakitie, suddenly facing police and guns, it would have been easy and perhaps natural to panic.
“I may have seemed calm,” he said at his team’s Media Day Saturday, “but my heart was probably racing 170 beats a minute. I was sweating. If anything, football helped with that situation.
“It was a pressure-filled situation, not just for me but for the cops, also. In situations like that, our coaches expect us to be levelheaded, cool, confident that we know what we’re doing, what we’re supposed to do.”
But there was no playbook for this one. Ekakitie’s instincts were good. Then, the short essay he wrote about it on social media made him fans he probably would never have gotten from football.
“For me,” he said, “writing things out and then rereading it and going over it that way kind of helps me sort through things.”
Once people beyond his core of Facebook friends discovered the post, things quickly mushroomed. Responses poured in from strangers, and they were positive. He heard from police officers in other parts of the country.
“I think a lot of it was just that I was able to sympathize with both sides,” Ekakitie said. “Obviously, I had my side of the story of what I was experiencing at the time. I was able to kind of sit back and realize there are always two sides to a story, there is always more than what may meet the eye. Especially in that moment.
“It would have been very easy for me to go home and be upset about the situation. But I understand that the police have a job to do. Police officers nationwide have a job to do. In that moment they were just doing their jobs.”
Maybe most people wouldn’t have gone public with their story in that situation. Maybe most who would have wouldn’t have tried to look at the other side. Maybe some would have used inflammatory language at a moment in which anger and distrust were already plenty inflamed across the nation.