Before Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., there was Erin Forbes in Lower Merion, Pa.
Forbes, the African American son of a microbiologist and a Temple University professor, was a student who worked nights as a security guard in the Philadelphia suburbs. He once told a relative that Lower Merion police stopped him at least three times a week as he drove through the Township for work. One night, after Forbes was accused of stealing $4 from a convenience store clerk and leading police on a chase, Forbes was shot dead by a police officer who claimed the 26-year-old came at him with a walking stick.
Forbes’ tragic story is just one of many tales about the tensions between Lower Merion police and black men. Law enforcement in the affluent, largely white Township is infamous for its heavy handed approach to people of color. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I heard the outrageous story of two young black men who were stopped last week for the high crime of shoveling snow in Lower Merion.
The incident began innocently enough, according to Deborah Saldana, who hired the two men to shovel outside the Wynnewood home she shares with her elderly father on Tues., Jan. 27.
“We’ve had plenty of shovelers over the years who just do a job and save us–saves my dad mainly because he’s the homeowner–the work,” Saldana told me. “So there was no issue with us as far as what they were expected to do. They’re honest [young men] so we opened the door …”
Her story, which she told me during an interview on 900 am WURD, gets complicated from there.
“They were about halfway around the house because we live on a corner and they were back towards the driveway,” Saldana said. “No problem. Then I’m observing that police cars are pulling up, blocked off the back road with their car so basically no cars could go through there and were questioning [them] and sat them down in the snow.”
Saldana watched the police questioning the young men, who were reportedly 30 and 18-years-old, respectively. And even after the police told her father that they stopped the shovelers because adults who solicit to shovel snow are now required to have a $50 permit in Lower Merion, the incident didn’t sit well with her.
That’s why she posted her story, along with a picture, in a Facebook group called Lower Merion Community Network. She believed it could be racial profiling, and she said as much during our interview.
“My gut feeling is if these boys are any other ethnicity or white—let’s just put it out there—would they have been sat down and stopped?” Saldana asked me rhetorically. “There’s been plenty of solicitors through the neighborhood that come for signatures, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or whatever, and I’ve never seen them stopped that I know of … This felt wrong.”
Saldana should know. Her family hails from Peru, and though she believes Lower Merion has a good police force, her impression of what happened on that snowy afternoon is informed by historical context and shared experience.
“My friends of color who have kids are always concerned about their kids being stopped,” she told me. “My own brother for years back in the 80s was detained all the time because we were the only Hispanic family in Lower Merion at that time … It just seems that they are on high alert for anything different coming through the neighborhood.”
For their part, Lower Merion officials have acknowledged why Saldana might feel that way.
“Long ago, Lower Merion Township had a history of being a place that was – being polite – less than tolerant of diversity,” Lower Merion Board of Commissioners President Liz Rogan said in a statement after the incident. “Well, that intolerance is history. If remnants of that prejudice remain in our municipal organization, then they will be brought to light and addressed in a direct and straightforward manner…
“Lower Merion will not be a community where minorities are profiled, and where families of color feel they must talk with their children and warn them [about police],” Rogan said.
But right now, Lower Merion is just that. And the Township is not alone. All across America, there are places where young men of color are profiled and harassed for next to nothing. Those who are lucky are only made to sit in the snow. But in some cases the outcome is much deadlier.
That reality isn’t lost on Deborah Saldana.
“This obviously brought up a lot of emotion and resentment from just years and years and years of many people who have been targeted,” she told me. “A lot of friends in Ardmore that are African American, and in that area, their kids are stopped, etc. I want to say the police are doing their job. Obviously they are, but sometimes it seems like it’s unnecessary attention to certain race issues. I think it’s just good that we’re opening up a dialogue about the whole thing.”
I think it’s good that we’re talking about it, too. I just hope the talk will bring about change.
Listen to Solomon Jones weekdays from 7am to 10 am on 900 am WURD.