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A Hawkeyes lineman’s run-in with police shows the challenge of being black in Iowa

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“I’m just happy that he wasn’t shot,” a black councilman at-large in Iowa City said.

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NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Iowa Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

After news broke that University of Iowa defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie had reported a harrowing incident with local police, members of the community described experiences like these as being part of the black Iowan experience.

Many were upset but not surprised. Ekakitie described a traumatic example of what many community members believe was apparent racial profiling, writing about five police officers surrounding him from behind and shoving four pistols toward his nose.

“I’m just happy that he wasn’t shot,” Kingsley Botchway II, a councilman at-large in Iowa City, told SB Nation on Monday. “Based on the dynamic nationally, that’s a real possibility in every situation when an officer is in (contact) with an African-American. I have questions about deescalation. I have questions about the profile of what they were looking for, because if it’s a large black man, you can put me in that category as well.”

Ekakitie, according to his account on social media, was playing the popular Pokemon Go game on his cellphone in a local park minutes after an armed bank robbery occurred in Iowa City. While in the park, officers searched his pockets and backpack and he was asked to lift up his shirt while they searched his waistband. He said the officers didn’t identify themselves as Iowa City police officers, but he complied because he had guns in his face.

He wrote, “Today was the first time I’ve truly feared for my life." But it’s important to note that Ekakitie’s experience is not an anomaly to the black experience in America or Iowa in particular.

Criminal justice researchers from the Universities of Louisville and South Carolina found in April that police shoot unarmed black men at disproportionate rates to other races. In 2015, the Washington Post documented over 900 fatal shootings by police nationwide, in which black men accounted for 40 percent of unarmed people fatally shot by police, making unarmed black men seven times as likely as unarmed white men to die from police gunfire.

Black Iowans, like Ekakitie, are prone to disproportionate traffic stops and arrests by police, a 2015 Des Moines Register study showed. In Iowa City, officers arrest and conduct consent searches of people of color more than white people, which has caused black Iowans to feel racially profiled.

Jessica Welburn, an assistant professor of African-American studies at the University of Iowa, echoed sadness upon learning what happened to a student-athlete. But she was not surprised by the news. Within black portions of Iowa City, there was anger, but not shock, Welburn said.

“Blacks and whites don’t have the same experience as the police, and we can’t solve that until we acknowledge it,” Welburn said. “The Iowa City police have had constant complaints about racial profiling.

“I do understand there was allegedly a robbery that had taken place, but I can’t imagine that there weren’t a lot of people around, out and about doing different things,” she continued. “The fact that it wouldn’t cross their mind that a black man might just be hanging out in a park ... that’s disconcerting to me.”

The city’s police chief said in 2015 that the studies about racial profiling did not raise any red flags, because the department goes through annual diversity training. Sgt. Scott Gaarde, a public information officer for Iowa City police, told SB Nation that the case with Ekakitie wasn’t one of racial profiling. He said that at this time, the names of the officers involved were not going to be released.

“The only way race was a factor is that that was the description given by the victims,” Gaarde said, adding that because of Ekakitie’s proximity to an alleged armed robbery, this was a case of miscommunication. Ekakitie had his headphones on when police allegedly yelled orders to him before drawing their weapons.

Ekakitie ended up thanking officers for handling the situation professionally, with a caveat: “Not all police officers are out to get you, but at the same time, not all people who fit a criminal profile are criminals.”

Gaarde said it was unfortunate that Ekakitie was blocks from the robbery, but said, “Based on the information I’ve seen and Mr. Ekakitie, they both handled the incident as best as they possibly could have, based on the information I have at this time. If there were issues, he would have articulated them out a little more in his response. I can’t speak for him, but he probably would have penned a different draft if so.”

The fact that Ekakitie didn't specifically allege being racially profiled doesn't rule out the fact that the city's police department has had mishaps.

In July 2015, video captured an Iowa City police officer kneeling on the back and violently contorting the limbs of a 15-year-old black boy at a recreation center. The city maintained in a memo to city council that the officer didn’t violate the law or department policy.

The frequency of black people’s interactions with police and the quick escalation to the use or show of force leads to trepidation within black communities. Botchway, the city councilman, has worked with the city’s police department and says it’s attempting to remedy and deescalate incidents like these.

But he says Ekakitie’s stop might’ve been different if the suspect police were looking for were white.

“For me, I feel like it wouldn’t have been the same situation. That’s based on my background and my experience with police and how they’ve treated me. I most definitely feel like the situation would have been differently,” he said. “I think the police department does a spectacular job in Iowa City, but in my spectrum of overall fear in police departments and practices, I think it’s a real possibility that would have been handled differently. I’ve seen it.”

An Iowa football spokesperson said the team isn’t offering any additional comments, but did confirm the social media account is Ekakitie’s. Head coach Kirk Ferentz could be asked about the incident during Big Ten Media Days in Chicago this week.

The crux of the situation is what was saved and what was learned. Ekakitie wasn’t killed. That’s the saving grace. Yet he says five officers pulled guns on a 6’3, 290-pound black man who, based on images obtained after the fact, didn’t match a more defined description of their bank robbery suspect.

On social media, Ekakitie begged for "us" to unlearn some of the prejudices that plague "our" minds and society. But that starts with destroying a notion, Welburn agreed, that blackness is automatically linked to criminality.

“We see from the way things are happening across the country, African-American men are profiled. It can have a lot to do with the way people look. Police seem to have a blind spot for other characteristics,” she said. “It doesn’t really seem like they looked at his clothing or facial features or other things that would separate him from whomever they were looking for in this alleged bank robbery.

“They just see a big, black male and make assumptions,” she said.