Profiled – A Southern Souls Story; Black Lives Matter Edition

JoJo, 26 – Director of on Campus Recruiting; Mercer University

Southern Souls is a story-telling series that offers a personal look into the lives of people around us, showing that all souls can relate to one another through our laughter and tears, successes and failures. In keeping theme with the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re temporarily shifting the focus of the series to highlight what some have perceived as racially motivated incidents that have had lasting impacts on black people living in Georgia. The goal is to discuss, educate and grow as a community, so that we can all come together and create a more inclusive environment for generations to come.

I met JoJo one day on accident. The studio that I work from, behind the Center for Collaborative Journalism, is a small one that is shared with ESPN. It was there, in a conversation with colleagues, that I was told about JoJo. A former Mercer football player turned employee, he detailed repeated instances of being treated suspiciously by police just for doing everyday things like waiting on a ride home. So I, a complete stranger to JoJo, asked him to tell me these stories and much to my surprise, he agreed.

On the day of our interview, JoJo came to my office. He was very friendly and from what I could tell, slightly anxious, but he was ready to sit down and talk openly. “So,” I asked, “What happened?” His response caught me off guard. “Which time,” he asked?

It first started in high school, when JoJo was a freshman in Marietta, Georgia. It’s important to note that JoJo attended a pretty diverse high school and lived in a diverse neighborhood, with a ratio of whites to blacks at around 60/40%, by his own calculation.

“After a pool party with friends, I was waiting for my mom to pick me up,” he said. At this time, he was in a predominantly white neighborhood. “The person who threw the pool party (who is white) came up to me (in the parking lot), shook my hand, dapped me up and walked away. We said bye, see you tomorrow or whatever, I didn’t think anything of it. Next thing I know, a cop car pulls up and he’s just sitting there for a minute. Like he didn’t get out of the car but he’s parked next to me where I’m sitting. I tried to ignore him, playing on my phone. He (a white man) finally gets out of the car and starts questioning me. He asked things like, ‘What are you doing here, why are you still here?’ I told him I was waiting for my mom to pick me up and he said, ‘So, you’re not waiting on anybody to come up and make an exchange with?’ Exchange, I thought? I said, I don’t you what mean, because I was like 14 at the time. I’ve never done a drug in life. He told me, ‘I got a call that you’re out here making hand to hand drug sales with people in the neighborhood.’ He stood there questioning me and took all my information before leaving.”

I asked JoJo, why would they think you were out there selling drugs? He said to me, “I don’t know. I’m guessing a neighbor looked out the window and saw me shake my friends hand, sit back down to wait for my mom and immediately called the police.” So, sitting in the parking lot of a recreational department constitutes drug dealing? I don’t know, but that day in that lot, it appears it did.

Fast forward a year later, in that same neighborhood. JoJo’s friend, a white girl, took his keys and locked herself in his car as some sort of prank among friends, while the two were talking outside of her home. “I’m knocking on the window asking for my keys back. We were both laughing,” JoJo told me. “Maybe 5-10 minutes later, three cop cars pull up. They (all white) got out of the car and immediately started screaming, ‘Get away from her, get away from the car!” What was that like, I asked. “I was scared to death,” JoJo told me. “I put my hands up and started backing away from the car. She got out of the car and told them we were just playing. I guess they got a call and assumed I was attacking her. They questioned us both, took our identification. Luckily that ended peacefully but it scared me to death because they got out of the car screaming.”

I wanted to be sure I was understanding all of this. So, he was stopped and questioned about being a drug dealer, just for sitting on a curb waiting on his mom? Then, he was questioned with his hands up in the air, for trying to gain access to his own car? But wait, there’s more.

“My senior year in high school, I was in my own neighborhood this time. It was me, my (black) neighbor that lives across the street and our mutual (black) friend,” JoJo told me. “We were walking around the neighborhood just talking about high school boy stuff, like girls and everything, and a (white) cop pulls up and asks us what we’re doing. We told him we were just walking around. We live in the neighborhood. He asked for our ID’s but my neighbor didn’t have his. He had just walked out of the house when we came by but he told [the officer] that he could show him his house right down the street. (The officer) started to pat him down, put his hands behind his back and pressed his chest to the hood of the car. Me and my other friend are just watching and freaking out, wondering what they’re doing to him. (My friend) started to get angry, shaking around so I didn’t know what was going to happen next,” JoJo said. “I called his mom, luckily she answered and came and raised all kinds of you know what. They let us go but if his mom didn’t answer my phone call, who knows what would have happened.”

So, here we have a high school kid, questioned by law enforcement on three separate occasions for doing something most high school kids do; waiting on a ride from mom, playing around with friends and walking the neighborhood with a few buddies. Keeping that in mind, I wanted to know, “What did this do to you mentally?”

“It’s almost discouraging,” JoJo responded. “I feel like as a black man in this country, you can do almost everything perfectly and it still not be good enough. Like, you’re still going to get that stereotype, you’re still going to be labeled as that thug that’s not supposed to be in that ‘middle class’ neighborhood. And then, I mean, I (had) some identity issues.”

JoJo, albeit seemingly a very passive in person, still presents himself as a very confident man. “What kind of issues,” I wanted to know.

“I didn’t want to dress a certain way when I was with white people and I know that’s really bad to say, but I had those thoughts. Depending what party I was going to or what group of friends I was hanging out with, like, if I was going to hang out with a group of white guys or going to a white neighborhood, I would wear a polo shirt or khaki’s or something. If I was hanging out with my (black) friends, I would just dress like me,” he said.

It made me sad and angry thinking that this smart, talented and accomplished young man was once hesitant to be himself.

“I feel like it was just a judgement factor of being amongst my skin color. I’m secure in myself now, so I’ve grown past that. Luckily, well, not luckily, I did experience more peaceful endings to my encounters. My parents sat me down; my dad was angry that I had to go through that and I understood him because I was angry, too. And I was sad at the time. But (my dad) raised all kinds of you know with the a police chief and then he sat me down and told me how to act around police,” he said.

And how should one act? JoJo’s dad, like a lot of other black dads, including my own, told him what so many of us have been instructed to do. “If you get pulled over, turn your music down, make sure your seat belt remains buckled, hands in plain sight on the steering wheel, stuff like that,” JoJo repeated to me.

In keeping with the theme of wanting these stories to offer both insight into the lives of black people living in Georgia and wanting to get the conversation started of how we can all treat one another better, I asked JoJo what does he want someone to know who perceives him as a threat?

“I want them to come and say hi to me. They shouldn’t walk past me and, like I’ve had happen, see white ladies grabbing their purses a little tighter or go out of their way to walk around me. I feel like you shouldn’t see just the hoodie and the jeans. You shouldn’t see the skin color, you should just see a man. I’ve had a couple of (white) friends reach out to me to say they can’t believe I went through that and it’s like, I mean, bro, I’m black. I feel like having those tough conversations with your white friends and educating them on what you go thru from a black man’s or woman’s perspective, I think that helps what’s going on and it brings a little bit of unity.”

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Southern Souls is comprised of actual, in-person interviews conducted by Amyre Makupson. Some statements may not be in chronological order. Names and locations may be changed to respect the privacy of participants. The views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Amyre Makupson or The Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University.