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‘One of the most racist places I’ve ever been’

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Anwar Sanders, a black police officer in Santa Fe, has become part of the national conversation on race and law enforcement.

And his assessment of attitudes about race in the City Different, which prides itself in acceptance of alternative lifestyles, is far from flattering.

SANDERS: “I feel the energy or I see the way they’re looking at me.”

SANDERS: “I feel the energy or I see the way they’re looking at me.”

The 27-year-old New Jersey transplant who lives in Albuquerque says he sees a lot of racism here and gets the most disrespect when he is wearing his gun and badge.

“When I’m dealing with the public and doing my job, I feel the energy, or I see the way they’re looking at me,” he said. “I see their disgust and disappointment that a black cop is … giving them this ticket, and they want to fight it and they want to complain.”

“People are just so racist,” Sanders said. “It’s like almost sickening. Just because you’re gay-friendly doesn’t mean you’re black-friendly.”

“This is probably one of the most racist places I’ve ever been,” he said.

Sanders gained national attention with an essay he wrote 1½ years ago providing a black cop’s perspective amid the turmoil over police shootings. In recent days, he has been interviewed by CNN and NPR in the wake of the July 7 shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers at a Black Lives Matter rally. Sanders was in tears during the CNN interview and said he felt like “a victim of both sides.”

Interviewed by the Journal earlier this week, Sanders talked about local issues and was pointed in his comments about Santa Fe.

Sanders believes the attitudes come from a lack of education about black people and their culture. According to U.S. Census data from 2015, only 2.6 percent of New Mexico’s population identifies as African-American. In Santa Fe, it was only 1 percent in the 2010 census.

“If all you know about black people is what you see in the movies, then of course you’re going to be scared,” he said. “Our culture just happens to be perceived as more threatening, more dangerous, and sometimes black men are bigger and stronger and more confident, and we have to be because we’re always walking around dealing with racist people.”

But he said the bias doesn’t stop him from doing his job. And he wants to come up with a curriculum about black culture and addressing the perception that black men are dangerous, while giving people a glimpse of what police officers face every day. He says he plans using such a program to speak at schools.

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales said it was heartbreaking to hear his town described as racist.

“What it shows is that Santa Fe is not exempt from racism we’ve seen across America,” he said.

When it does happen, “it’s our responsibility to call it out and talk to our kids about it. And then I think we have to start having broader conversations about it,” he said. “We can confront it and need to call it out. There is work we have to do as a community to overcome that. It’s all our responsibility to do that in our homes and as a community.”

Anwar Sanders, right, a New Mexico State Police officer stationed in Santa Fe, wipes away a tear during a recent interview with CNN anchorman Don Lemon about being "a victim of both sides" amid the conflict between African-Americans and law enforcement.

Anwar Sanders, right, a police officer stationed in Santa Fe, wipes away a tear during a recent interview with CNN anchorman Don Lemon about being “a victim of both sides” amid the conflict between African-Americans and law enforcement.

City Councilor Ron Trujillo, who has lived in Santa Fe all his life, said he doesn’t see the city as racist. There may be some racist people here, he said, “but there are racist people in any city and any state you go.”

That doesn’t make it OK. “If this is happening, change will have to occur,” Trujillo said. “It’s 2016. We’re seeing all these things happen in other places around the county. If it is indeed happening in the city, it needs to stop.”

New form of racism

TheGrio, a respected website providing news and commentary from an African-American perspective, published Sanders’ 2014 essay called “A police officer’s open letter to black protesters.” It was reposted on other news sites and led to his first appearance on CNN. He wrote that he was frightened by “the vitriol and misconceptions directed towards law enforcement” in the wake of high-profile police shootings.

“I recognize the burden of my identity in this country,” Sanders added in the essay. “When I’m in uniform, I am a peacekeeper and a protector of people with the ability to save lives. When I take my badge off at the end my shift, reality quickly sets in. Walking past white women on the streets who clutch their bags and being followed around the convenience stores are a part of the many frequent reminders that I am just another black man in America.”

Sanders has been in law enforcement three years and is assigned by a New Mexico police agency to a Santa Fe district. He asked that his agency not be identified to make it clear he’s speaking for himself, not the agency.

He said black people are now faced with a new form of racism, different than the in-your-face vitriol African-Americans faced decades ago.

“I call it 21st-century racism,” Sanders said. “… It’s not the blatant ’60s racism where people spit on black people – 21st-century racism is where you’re at a bar and you can see that everybody is uncomfortable because you’re in there.”

He said he has been pulled over by police more than 30 times in his life, yet he received only two tickets and the rest resulted in warnings. “At this point, I feel like, if I get pulled over, I’m just going to put both my hands out the window, put all the windows down and just wait until I get ordered, so there’s no doubt the whole time. That’s how I feel off-duty.”

SFPD officer speaks

Jacquaan Matherson, a 25-year-old African-American officer with the Santa Fe Police Department who grew up in New York City, said Thursday that he also gets a lot of racist comments while in uniform, especially from people he puts in handcuffs. “I’ve been called the ‘N’ word repetitively. They referred to me as a gorilla or a monkey.” But the comments don’t just come from people upset at being arrested. He said he and two other officers were responding to a call recently when a man walked by.

Santa Fe Police Department officer Jacquaan Matherson said New Mexicans may need a better understanding of other cultures, reflecting his own efforts when he moved here. “Sometimes the green chile might be too hot for me, but I’ll give it a go,” he said. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Santa Fe Police Department officer Jacquaan Matherson said New Mexicans may need a better understanding of other cultures, reflecting his own efforts when he moved here. “Sometimes the green chile might be too hot for me, but I’ll give it a go,” he said. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s the middle of the day and he calls me ‘shadow man,’ just like that,” Matherson said. “He was like, ‘Oh, shadow man, stay out of the sun, you might get darker.’ There was nothing I could do. What am I going to tell him? ‘Don’t say it,’ or run after him and try to scare him? You kind of just have to take it and keep moving, and let it roll off your back. I have an obligation. It’s my job to make sure I remove my emotions at that time for that situation.”

Matherson agrees with Sanders that some of the bias comes from a lack of education – that a lot of the confrontations he has stem from the fact that some New Mexicans don’t understand black culture and might not realize that something they say is offensive.

“Certain things that are said are blatantly disrespectful,” Matherson said. “It’s almost like people don’t recognize that they’ve said such disrespectful things.”

Matherson said he hasn’t had unfavorable interactions with other officers in New Mexico, but said some should become more acclimated with other cultures, just like he did with New Mexican culture when he moved here after graduating from high school.

“Sometimes the green chile might be too hot for me, but I’ll give it a go.”

Mayor Gonzales, who is openly gay and has felt discrimination himself, said he understands where the officers are coming from.

“They are right; unless you are African-American, you can’t understand how hurtful it is. As we’ve seen over time, even as a society, these are all areas we have to change at a national level and confront these stereotypes, and start doing away with them and address them broadly in the community.”

Sanders said the good that he can do as a police officer far outweighs the negative comments and glances thrown his way.

“I like helping people, I really do,” Sanders said. “I like that you can … really make a difference in someone’s life. You can be that 911 call that stops someone from ever doing drugs again, or stops someone from ever getting beat again or saves somebody’s life. I like that feeling. You’re in a position where you can actually make change.”

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