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Steven V. Roberts: Turning pain into purpose

When I read about the senseless killing of Daunte Wright by a Minnesota police officer, I thought of my friends Isaac Cudjoe and Kevin Isabelle-Peete. Several years ago, while living and working in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., they got pulled over for a phony traffic violation. They survived the encounter, but their terrifying tale tells the rest of us what it’s like to be Black and male in America.

After meeting through a chatroom devoted to sports, they soon realized they attended the same church, and their conversations broadened to include family, faith and the future. One summer evening, Isaac texted his friend saying, “I’m going through something. Do you mind if we can meet up?” 

They drove to the parking lot of a nearby shopping center, but soon saw a dark gray Dodge Charger hovering nearby that had “undercover cop” written all over it. As Isaac recalls, “Kevin and I immediately went through our normal steps as young Black men do. When we both saw the undercover cop car, it was almost instinctual. We both patted ourselves.”

That’s when Isaac realized he did not have his wallet or his ID. Immediately, they decided that Kevin would drive Isaac back home, just a few minutes away, so he could retrieve his license. But as they left the shopping center, the police car followed them, and a few blocks later, pulled them over. 

What followed was a two-hour nightmare. They were told their infraction was “inching” across a white line at a stoplight, but that was obviously a lie. They were ordered out of the car. The vehicle — and their bodies — were thoroughly searched. Three other police cars joined the gathering, and the two men were fingerprinted.

“Gradually this process became more and more demoralizing because every car passing by just assumes that you are doing something very bad,” says Isaac. 

Adds Kevin, “it was just so, so, so overwhelming.”

Demoralizing and dangerous. “In that moment, I realized that this is a universal truth for Black boys,” Isaac says. “Kevin and I both had the same mannerism, the same process immediately.”

They had the same mannerisms because they’d been taught the same lessons and indoctrinated with the same fears, says Kevin: “I’ve got to be grateful for my dad because he taught me every single step. I remember, at a young age, I was like, ‘Why are you teaching me this?’ And I remember he was practically in tears telling me the story because my mom was sitting there as well. He said, ‘If you ever get pulled over, these are the steps that you need to take because I need you to stay alive.’ ”

Fortunately, Kevin had been listening to his father. “I followed every single step,” he says. “It was like, you prepare for a test and then now is the actual test.”

Some steps they both absorbed: Be polite, don’t argue, and don’t make any sudden movements. But at one point, Isaac got so frustrated that he grabbed his phone to show an officer his Facebook page and establish his identity.

“And as he was looking at my screen,” says Isaac now, “I thought to myself, ‘Man, he could have thought that was something else I was reaching for.’ And my heart was racing. That could have been a different story.”

Finally the cops let them go. There had been some burglaries in the area, one told the men, and they “matched the description” of the suspects. “It was complete and total racial profiling,” recalls Isaac. “Kevin and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is really happening.’ This isn’t Houston. This isn’t St. Louis. This is Germantown, Maryland, by a dog park, by single-family homes in suburban America in one of the richest counties in the nation. This is here, this is home. You can imagine the trauma after that.”

The trauma galvanized both men to deepen their commitment to their community. Isaac earned a graduate degree, and at 27 is an executive at an online university. Kevin, now 25, finished college and teaches fifth grade in a local public school. Together they’ve formed Brothers With Books, a nonprofit that distributes free books to kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods. 

They did not end up dead like Daunte Wright, but they know they could have, and that memory motivates them. 

“I don’t want anyone else to hurt this way,” says Isaac. “I want it to be when you Google two Black men, Kevin and Isaac, that something positive pops up.”

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Email him at
stevecokie@gmail.com.

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