Emerson professor faces traffic citation and discrimination

by Laura King / Beacon Staff • September 17, 2015

On June 22, writing, literature and publishing Associate Professor Jabari Asim was cited for a traffic violation he did not commit. On Sept. 8, the charge was cleared at a hearing at the Newton District Court, but Asim, 53, said his experience reflects racial biases in the criminal justice system.

Asim said his citation was for driving without a license in Newton, a suburb of Boston. The officer reported seeing the professor driving with through the town at 6:15 p.m., according to Asim. After determining the driver to be a “nervous-looking” black man, the officer ran the plates of the car, which belongs to Asim.

Asim, a black man, said that while the car is registered to him since he bought it, he does not drive it because he doesn’t have a license. He said he was at Emerson at the time of the citation, still working in his office. Asim’s wife was driving the car that day, but she had been shopping during the time the violation supposedly occurred. Asim provided a receipt from Target showing she had gone through checkout at 6:20 p.m. that evening.

When he received the citation, Asim said he approached the officer who filed it to deny being in the car, suggesting maybe the officer had seen Asim’s wife. Asim said the officer told him that he was sure it had been Asim in the car, and that he would see the professor in court.

“[The officer and I] were face to face,” Asim said. “He looked me in the eye, and told me he saw me. Then he said it under oath. That really disturbs me.”

It was at this point that Asim posted pictures of the citation and incident report on his social media accounts and local news organizations began to follow his case.

Asim’s hearing last week took two hours. His citation was vacated after he presented cellphone GPS records and witness statements that proved he was at Emerson at the time of the citation.

Asim said that he was both frustrated and amused through the entire legal process, but never surprised. He said that he and many of his family members have had encounters with the police without committing a crime before.

“It comes with the skin,” Asim said.

Asim said the larger issue is what he calls “challenging the narrative.” Author Toni Morrison, who coined the term, explained in a 1990 interview with Bill Moyers that the “master narrative” is a story that is only told from a white perspective and denies people of color their voices.

“This is the narrative police perpetuate in harassment of African Americans,” Asim said.

He said this applies to his own case and national examples of police brutality.

Asim said the part that bothered him most is that no one from the police department reached out to him after the hearing to acknowledge their mistake.

“Some of the courtesy and the dignified treatment that some Americans consider part of their birthright,” Asim said, “are things that I’m still looking for.”