State Rep. Kambium Buckner (D-26th) has questioned why a police officer stopped him and demanded to see proof of purchase and identification after he left a retailer on May 3.
Under terms set by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Illinoisans are supposed to wear face masks in public when they cannot maintain six feet of social distance. In a series of tweets, Buckner called it "a responsible move that will save lives."
On Sunday, Buckner said he dressed in a hoodie, sweatpants, gym shoes, a face mask and gloves, "like many of the other shoppers I saw," as he made purchases at a store, reportedly in the South Loop.
After Buckner exited, a uniformed policeman stopped him and questioned his items, demanding to see a receipt and his ID before taking them to his vehicle.
When Buckner asked why he had been stopped, the patrolman reportedly said, "People are using the coronavirus to do bad things. I couldn't see your face, man. You looked like you were up to something."
“Which begs the question, what does someone who is up to something look like?” Buckner asked. “As scores of masked people walked in and out without encumbrance, I was reminded of the reality that I have been programmed to show as much of my face as possible and use certain cues to disarm anyone who might have a learned inclination to be suspicious of my very presence.”
Buckner, a tattooed, 6-foot-4-inch former University of Illinois football player, said experience "dictated to me the dangers that may wait to assail me for simply having my hood up, as "that's what someone who is 'up to something' looks like."
He recalled the talks African American boys receive "on how to maneuver a society that often looks at you as a threat first" and a mentor who told him as a teenager to "dress like a prospect and not a suspect."
“I am keenly aware of not looking like I am ‘up to something,’ but should I have to be?” Buckner asked. “I can't help but think about whether or not my friends of different races ever got the ‘prospect not suspect’ talk. How many of them needed it for their survival?”
In an interview, Buckner said he did not contact the police after the incident because he did not want to give off an appearance that he was battling one officer or the Chicago Police Department. The son of a sheriff's deputy, Buckner expressed appreciation for all first responders amid the pandemic, including law enforcement, and said he understands the stress they are under.
"I think that's an over-simplification of the issue, and I think there're broader issues at hand and at work here," he said. "But I wanted to make sure if I was going to come forward and have the conversation, it was about the broader context of what's going on here."
“It bothers me most because I can't help but think of the dangers that are inherent for a number of black men who are just adhering to the mask rule and by doing so, look like they are ‘up to something,’" Buckner said. “It is an indictment on the whole of society for creating a climate where this is normal and this is OK.”
“(This) virus shines an uncomfortable light,” he continued. “COVID will not break us. It will only reveal to us what is already broken. There's a lot to be fixed."
Under Gov. J.B. Pritzker's "Restore Illinois" framework, subsequent plans put forth by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the wearing of face masks will be a feature of public life for many months to come. For his part, Buckner said that everyone needs to be cognizant about the "brand new world" we live in now.
"We need this executive order to be able to function as a society. We've got to have it. It's important; it's responsible. But we can't just change the way everything works without having the conversation about what has to be different," he said. "The human mind loves shortcuts, and we go through a lot of shortcuts in our brain, because it's almost impossible to think out every decision or action that we make. But now some of the tools in our toolbox to go through those shortcuts are removed, because we can't see people's faces."
Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, a Kenwood Academy alumna, thanked Buckner for sharing his experience.
"I’m sorry this happened to you," she tweeted. "And you’re right, much work remains to be done on issues that pre-dated this pandemic and those that seem to be deepening each day."
Buckner said going public about the incident on Twitter led to a prompt reaction: "My phone, my email, my social media has been blowing up from folks saying, 'Thank you, this happened to me last week.' Or there was a woman who said something happened to her on 35th and King Drive on Wednesday. I've just gotten a bunch from both the people I know and people I've never met who said, 'The same thing happened to me. The same thing happened to me,' which is proof positive to me that it's a bigger issue, and we need to talk about it in an intentional way."
Buckner, an appointed freshman representative who won his first primary unopposed and faces no opponent in the general election, represents Hyde Park west of Ellis Avenue and Kenwood west of Woodlawn Avenue in Springfield.