IOWA CITY, Iowa — We assume, 140 characters at a time, and paper over the rest of the cracks where it’s convenient. Faith Ekakitie is a senior majoring in human physiology at the University of Iowa; a decorated defensive line prospect with a sack and 1.5 tackles under his belt last fall; a Canadian, a warrior and a poet.
Around 2 p.m. on July 20, the Hawkeyes’ senior defensive tackle was wearing all black, listening to music cranking through his headphones, black goggles perched atop his head, walking through Iowa City’s Benton Hill Park, playing Pokemon Go.
Unbeknown to him, police were at the same time looking for an African-American man wearing all-black with a black covering on his head as a suspect in an armed robbery at the First American Bank — an incident that took place roughly a quarter mile from the park some 10-15 minutes earlier.
You can see where this is going.
Or could have gone horribly, terrifyingly wrong.
“You see someone walking down the street, you judge them, whether you want to believe that or not,” Ekakitie said as he reflected on that afternoon at Iowa’s annual preseason media day. “You judge them based on what they’re wearing, what they’re doing, how they look, how they speak. And it’s not until you take the time to actually get to know someone that you can undo and reverse some of those judgments that (are) kind of preset in your mind.”
If there’s a lesson the Iowa defensive lineman wants people to take away from his particular narrative, it’s this: Think. Ask. Take time. Make time.
During a summer in which African-American men have been killed by police in Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn., in a summer in which cops are being shot at in retaliation, here was a black man stopped by police for — well, for being black. Which is where the story might stop in some circles, and cue the rage. But after the confusion, after the guns were drawn and searches were made and identities were checked and individuals questioned, Ekakitie flipped the script. He went to Facebook and thanked the officers for doing their jobs:
In this situation, what the media would fail to let people know is that the suspect had his headphones in the entire time the Police Officers approached him initially. The suspect had actually just pulled up to the park because he was playing a newly popular Game called Pokémon Go. The suspect didn’t realize that there were four cops behind him because his music was blaring in his ears. The suspect had reached into his pockets, for something which was his phone, but for all the cops could have known, he was reaching for a gun. The suspect could very well become another statistic on this day. I am not one to usually rant on Facebook or anywhere else, but with all of the crazy things that have been happening in our world these past couple of weeks it is hard to stay silent. I am thankful to be alive, and I do now realize, that it very well could have been me, a friend of mine, my brother, your cousin, your nephew etc. Misunderstandings happen all the time and just like that things can go south very quickly. It is extremely sad that our society has brainwashed us all to the point where we can’t feel safe being approached by the police officers in our respective communities. Not all police officers are out to get you, but at the same time, not all people who fit a criminal profile are criminals.
So with that, I would like the 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.
As of early Sunday morning, the note had been liked/wowed by more than 7,200 Facebook users and shared more than 4,250 times.
“As far as the feedback I’ve gotten, I think a lot of it was just the fact that I was able to sympathize with both sides,” Ekakitie said. “Obviously, I had my side of the story, and what I was experiencing at the time.
“But I was able to kind of sit back and realize that there (are) always two sides to the story. There is always more going on, there is always more than meets the eye, especially in that moment, I think it would’ve been very easy for me to go home and (have) been upset about the situation. But I understand that the police have a job to do. Police officers nationwide, they have a job to do, and at that moment, they were just doing their job.”
Ekakitie was approached by six officers, four in uniform. Because of the music blaring in his ears, he couldn’t hear their initial approach – or their initial shouts to him, which only heightened the tension.
“The whole situation probably took five to seven minutes,” Ekakitie recalled. “As soon as I left the park to get in my moped to go home, I was like, ‘Wow, that could’ve gone south very, very quickly.’ Because I did have my headphones on, I couldn’t hear anything. I didn’t realize they were behind me until I kind of turned and noticed there was a cop in my peripheral (vision). And I was kind of like, ‘Oh, what’s going on?’ And I turned around and sure enough, they’re all there. Yeah, it could’ve gone very wrong, very quickly.”
Videos from the body cams of officers on the scene were released by the Iowa City Police Department a few days after the incident, and they’re remarkable for their relative calm, given the news cycle of late:
“We don’t like doing that,” one officer told Ekakitie, “but you get it.”
Even if it worried him half to freaking death.
“I may have seemed calm,” Ekakitie said. “But I could tell you, my heart was probably racing 170 beats per minute. I was sweating.
“If anything, football has probably helped me in that situation … every practice we’re put under pressure situations and we’re required to perform.
“And in that situation — obviously, like, a pressure-filled situation, not just for me, but for the cops also — in situations like that … our coaches expect us to be level-headed and cool, confident that we know what we’re doing and what we’re supposed to do in that situation. So with that, when they did approach me, from what I’ve been taught, at least I figured that, if you cooperate pretty well, things will take care of themselves.”
Which they did. Fortunately.
“Faith, he’s a great kid,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “He’s a great, super kid … and he really handled the situation with unbelievable (poise), just the way the world is nowadays. And to me, that just shows me what kind of program we have, what kind of kids we have in the program. He’s just out playing a game in the park, right? It’s just crazy.”
Crazy? Try scary as hell.
“Obviously, I shared it with my girlfriend, I shared it with my brothers and sisters before I wrote about it (on Facebook),” Ekakitie said. “Unless someone asked about it, I wasn’t really going to talk about it. I kind of had it out there — at first, it was a private (note), and then a couple friends, they were like, ‘Hey, I think you should consider making this post public.’ And I was like, ‘Sure, whatever.’ And I made it public. And then a couple days later, it did blow up.”
Ekakitie went viral, the kind of story that ticked all the digital boxes, a search engine’s dream: Race, police, football, Pokemon. It was if some higher media power were playing Mad Libs with the news topics of the day.
But the responses from strangers and – especially – from other police officers who thanked him, were the biggest takeaway. The most rewarding, at any rate. The encounter didn’t change his affections for Iowa City. He told reporters he could raise a family there, someday.
“I think the biggest thing is that there’s always more to the story than meets the eye. Or than is shared, obviously,” Ekakitie said. “It would’ve been real easy to write that post and just share from my perspective and that’s what people would’ve taken from it: That I was profiled and I was stopped and I was searched. And people could’ve been in an uproar about it. But there is, at the very least, a second side to the story.
“It’s easy to say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s another thing to actually live by that, you know? I think, unfortunately, it might take something traumatizing for you to kind of (change) the way of thinking that way. But I mean, it’s just who you are, to an extent. It’s tough to change.”
Think. Ask. Take time. Make time. Whether it’s dangerous being an African-American in Johnson County is open to debate. What isn’t is how dangerous it is to assume.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler