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State rep wants to talk about race, face masks and why a cop stopped him outside a South Loop store

Democratic state Rep. Kam Buckner says the officer told him: “I couldn’t see your face. You looked like you were up to something.”

Kam Buckner
Democratic State Rep. Kam Buckner
Provided

State Rep. Kam Buckner wants to spark public conversation about why a Chicago police officer stopped him outside a big-box store Sunday in the South Loop and asked for a receipt for the items in his cart, as well as an ID.

Buckner, 34, who was wearing a state-mandated face mask, a hoodie and sweatpants, told the Chicago Sun-Times he remained calm and complied.

The officer, who was white and in uniform, walked back to his squad car for a couple of minutes and then returned the ID and receipt to Buckner.

“He said, ‘All right, thanks.’ And that’s when I asked, ‘What was the impetus for you stopping me in the first place,’ ” Buckner recalled.

“He told me: ‘People are using the coronavirus to do bad things. I couldn’t see your face. You looked like you were up to something.’ ”

Buckner declined to name the store where this happened so it wouldn’t reflect poorly on the business. Without that information, police were unable to track down any record of the incident, Chicago police spokesman Rocco Alioto said.

“All investigatory stops must be predicated on reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred, is occurring or is about to occur,” Alioto said.

Buckner, who lives in Bronzeville, said he was one of the few black people in the well-trafficked area outside the store but can’t say with certainty why the cop singled him out.

“What I am sure of is there’s a deeper underlying history of racial biases with certain members of law enforcement when it comes to the black community,” he said.

“I’m an attorney and an elected official, and I know how to deal with that in the situation. But it gave me pause because I was worried about folks who may not have as effective a resolution.

“I think about young boys who may not understand how to interact with law enforcement, who may assume that they’re grown men, and then how they would act in that situation. Something like that could escalate quickly,” said Buckner, the son of a retired Cook County sheriff’s deputy.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday called wearing a face covering or mask “a collective act of patriotism” and one of the best things one can do for public health.

But the governor also addressed reports of “misplaced assumptions about masks, leading to incidents of racial profiling” against Latino and black Americans, especially men, as well as xenophobic attacks against Asian Americans.

“I want to call on the public to help us stop these hateful incidents by speaking out and standing up for others in your community,” Pritzker said. “If you witness or experience mask-related discrimination or any form of discrimination, please report the incident to the Illinois Department of Human Rights at idhr.webmail@illinois.gov.”

“There’s twin issues here,” Buckner said, “the issue of protecting yourself from the virus while also protecting yourself from being perceived as a threat, or criminally, when you are not.

“I know this is not an isolated event,” said Buckner, who posted a thread about the encounter on Twitter.

Amanda Lewis, director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was not surprised to hear about the incident.

“There’s a long history in Chicago of racial disparities and how people experience the police,” she said.

“And the class dimensions of being a politician and lawyer, those aren’t protective. What matters the most as the kind of signifier in that moment is your race, and the consequences can be really dangerous.”

Buckner, who never mentioned his job as a legislator to the officer, is considering filing a complaint about the officer’s conduct.

But he’s more interested in offering the story up as a teachable moment.

“If this is a spark to create better community police relations and kind of bridge some gaps and start some connectivity, I’m all for that. It would have definitely been worth it,” he said.

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles