Anthony Wilkerson, or “Tank” as he is better known to his friends, knew the drill so well. After all, this was the 14th time in seven years the 26-year-old has been picked up for what African-Americans call “driving while black.”
This time it happened as he turned onto Robb Avenue in his Chevrolet Impala. It was daylight, around 6 p.m., and Tank noticed a police car pull out from behind a row of buildings.
“I had made eye contact with the officer. All young blacks know, you need to avoid that,” Tank said.
The officer began to follow him, so Tank did what anyone would do. He made sure he wasn’t speeding, he was staying in his own lane, and he was using his turn signal. As he neared the Lima city limits by the Robb Avenue overpass, the lights from the police cruiser began flashing in his rear-view mirror.
“I knew to mind my P’s and Q’s and to fully cooperate with the officer,” Tank said. “She told me her reason for pulling me over was that I had a problem with my license plate. Then she asked me if I had been smoking marijuana and if I had marijuana in the car. I told her no, but she said she smelled marijuana.”
That gave her probable cause, and after another officer arrived, they asked Tank to step out of his vehicle and then searched his car. Nothing was found, and he was sent on his way.
No ticket for the alleged bad license plate.
In fact, in the 14 times Tank has been pulled over by either a Lima police officer, state trooper or Allen County sheriff’s deputy, he said only once was he given a citation. That was for running a stop sign, in which Tank went to court and was found not guilty. (The officer noted Tank’s car had passed the white stripe on the road by the stop sign, but photographs showed there was no white stripe.)
The council meeting
Tank’s father, Tony Wilkerson, is in his first term as Lima’s 2nd Ward councilman. During last week’s city council meeting, in which members addressed Lima’s need to tackle racism, Tony shared the number of times his son has been pulled over by police.
For those who know Tony Wilkerson or his son, the details were startling.
They were coming from a man who is one of Lima’s biggest boosters. He grew up in this city, raised his family here and is well known for his work with youth — coaching football for more years than you have fingers on your hands and toes on your feet. He and his wife, Brenda, are strong advocates of personal responsibility and teamwork.
“We told our kids that you will love and respect every human being. That’s how we were brought up; that’s how we raised our children,” Tony said.
But he worries the traffic stops may sour Tank, now a young man. After earning his college degree, Tank brought his talents back home. Now sometimes, he must wonder “why?”
A father’s fear
The 14 traffic stops, both Tank and Tony say, is not an oddity in the Lima African-American community. It happens all too often, the scenario often the same. It can be when a young black man takes friends home after playing video games, or when he or she goes out for a snack.
Tony remembers taking Tank to college five years ago at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne. It was the same day Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot by a University of Cincinnati police officer during a traffic stop for a missing front license plate.
“There was gnashing of the teeth as my wife and I tried to get a rebellious young man to understand the significance of events,” Tony said. “Our nightmare, our worries, were a group of young football players walking downtown to have a good time. They’re walking back from campus being loud, obnoxious and annoying, like young men do. And some officer takes exception to that, and the next thing you know we’re living a tragedy.”
Two weeks ago, Tank was at the virtual wedding of a former teammate. As they waited for photos, one of the groomsmen, who was white, asked Tank his thoughts about George Floyd’s death in Minnesota and the protest that followed.
“He said he didn’t quite understand what’s going on with all the protesting,” he said. “He asked if I thought what was happening was real, and I told him it was very much real. I told him when I started driving, the first thing my dad told me wasn’t about fastening your seat belt, it was how to behave if you were stopped by a police officer. … You remain in your seat, keep your hands where the officer can see them, and slowly, with his permission, go into your glove compartment and get the registration.”
Tony recalls that conversation. He said not a day goes by when he doesn’t worry about his son.
“I’m like any parent,” Tony said. “I want my kids to bury me, not me bury my kid.”
The next step
Lima Police Chief Kevin Martin insists racial profiling is not taking place. He, like former chief Greg Garlock before him, has made efforts to curtail it. On Thursday, Martin shared with The Lima News a directive on rules of conduct that officers must follow. It forbids any type of discrimination and demands officers to be respectful.
“Anyone in the community who feels they have been profiled should contact the department,” Martin said.
He pointed out patrol officers are required to wear body cameras, which are to be reviewed at least once a month. The body cameras run in sync with the cameras in the police cruisers and are activated automatically when an officer turns on the cruiser’s flashing lights.
The public has a right to review the recordings, Martin said, but that has rarely happened, maybe a dozen times at most.
All three men believe Floyd’s tragic death needs to serve a purpose.
“It was gut-wrenching,” Tony Wilkerson said. “It brought so much out in the open. In that regard, it may be a blessing that people no longer can say, ‘I didn’t know.’”
He praises the action plan put together by Lima Mayor David Berger, saying some type of reform and behavioral policy needs to be enacted. Berger has proposed a number of countywide policies to address the issue. They include working with other county organizations and nonprofits to increase board diversity and creating a metropolitan Human Relations Commission to facilitate communications.
“Officers need to see and understand that African-Americans are real people. They are daughters, mothers and fathers. They’re brothers and sisters with the same concerns and worries that everybody else has,” Tony Wilkerson said.
Black adults also need to be part of the solution, he added.
“There are good police officers who do good things. Don’t keep those things hidden from our kids. They need to hear us talk about positive experiences. We have to encourage our kids to become law enforcement officers.”
Change is coming
Tank says Lima is no different than any other community. “My friends from college say they are all dealing with this,” he pointed out.
But both Tony and Tank believe change is coming. They look at the peaceful protests that have taken place the past four weeks, including those in Lima, and feel hope.
Tank said his generation is determined to make a difference. He feels they are united and believe in each other, more than any generation since the 1960s.
“It’s refreshing. We are making our voice be heard. We understand the power of social media better than anyone. We communicate with each other about events, music and politics,” Tank said.
“What’s happening right now is awesome. It’s young people of all races and backgrounds uniting for a common cause … to end racism. I and others are about solutions. That’s why I’ve done this interview. What’s the next step? We’re looking for answers. That’s where we are going. … and we’re not stopping.”
ROSES AND THORNS: A man who was there at the right time for a young couple is welcomed into the rose garden.
Rose: To the stranger who saw the concern on the faces of Jason and Jeanne Wehri, of Ottoville, as they sat in a waiting room at Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center with their newborn daughter, Josilyn. He told the young couple to remain positive and gave them a $50 bill to start a bank account for their child.
Rose: To Irma and Thomas Buettner, of Delphos, who celebrated 70 years of marriage on May 20. They are parents to 10 children and have 18 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren.
Rose: To Father Bruce Lewandowski. He has gone from attending elementary school at St. Gerard Catholic School in Lima to becoming an auxiliary bishop at age 53 at the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He’ll be ordained Aug. 18.
Rose: To Andrew Crust, who was selected from 187 applicants to be the next conductor of the Lima Symphony Orchestra.
Thorn: To state trooper Kenton Gibson, 29, of the Lima Post of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. When he was dispatched to investigate a reckless driver complaint Thursday on state Route 117, he did a U-turn in front of another vehicle and was struck.
Thorn: Ohio law requires fewer hours of training to become a police officer than the person who cuts your hair: a minimum of 737 hours for officers compared to 1,500 for licensed cosmetologists and 1,800 for barbers.
PARTING SHOT: A husband’s plea to his wife: “Don’t get in the car with me if you’re going to scream every time we almost wreck.”
Jim Krumel is the editor of The Lima News. Contact him at 567-242-0391 or at The Lima News, 3515 Elida Road, Lima, Ohio 45807.