A Pennsylvania police officer stopped a group of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority women during their Adopt-a-Highway community service project because he allegedly said he received reports of Black women “fighting.” None of the women in the group were fighting, but instead collecting litter from the sorority’s designated section of the highway in Harrisburg. Regardless, the officer required the women to show him their IDs.
This latest incident of Black people being unjustly questioned for going about their business now adds “community service” to this lengthy list, including “having a cookout,” “sitting at a Starbucks,” and “sleeping in a dorm building.”
According to Shawna Harrell, one of the women questioned by the officer who later explained the situation on Facebook, the women were wearing their royal blue and gold sorority apparel donning the letters of Sigma Gamma Rho, a historically Black sorority, holding trash bags and wearing gloves when the state trooper pulled over toward where they parked their cars.
Add "performing community service while Black" to the list of things that make you suspicious.— Britni Danielle (@BritniDWrites) May 12, 2018
This happened to my #SGRho sorors in Harrisburg, PA this morning. Though they weren't harmed (Thank God!) the fact that the officer asked for their IDs is telling. #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/WsmMcA8O0N
The cop then asked the women if they were fighting, to which they said they were cleaning the highway and pointed to the Adopt-a-Highway sign that clearly stated the sorority’s name. Harrell said the officer then told then he’d never seen anyone cleaning the area and was “responding to a call.”
When one of them tried to explain what their service project was for, he allegedly asked them where they went to school (though the women were sorority alumni, as the highway sign stated) and asked to see their IDs.
After running them, Harrell said she asked him why he needed to see the IDs, to which he said they could have refused. When Harrell pushed back, saying that would have been seen as confrontational or disrespectful, the officer then reportedly stated he hadn’t been responding to a call, but had just seen them on the highway and called it in himself.
“We are on the side of the road with your car behind ours with your lights flashing drawing attention to us in a negative way and all we are trying to do is serve the community,” Harrell said she told him.
Harrell said she eventually had to walk away. The trooper said nothing back to her, got back into his car, and left.
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Britni Danielle, a writer and sorority sister of the women, shared Harrell’s account on Twitter, including the group picture the women had taken prior to beginning their cleanup effort.
Here's a group pic before they got started cleaning up the highway. pic.twitter.com/TqJaZsYKzB— Britni Danielle (@BritniDWrites) May 12, 2018
In response to the incident, the national Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority has demanded that the Pennsylvania State Highway Patrol apologize to the women. A statement from the sorority also said that the women had contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to inform them of the project beforehand.
“We ask that the Pennsylvania State Highway Patrol immediately issue a public apology to the members of the sorority questioned, have a renewed commitment to becoming a part of the community they police through diversity and town hall meetings,” the statement, posted to Twitter, reads.
Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority releases statement on sorority members being questioned by state trooper while engaged in an Adopt-A-Highway Community Service Activity. #SGRho #SigmaGammaRho pic.twitter.com/muJMpAZcfn— Sigma Gamma Rho (@SGRho) May 14, 2018
On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania State Police told the Washington Post in a statement that the trooper stopped “in response to a call regarding pedestrians along the highway,” while a spokesperson said the call did not “appear to have been…from [a] member of the public.” The statement did not respond to the concept that the women’s race contributed to the officer stopping them, but said that it’s “common” to assist pedestrians on the side of the highway for “safety.”
The Post reported that the trooper wasn’t identified and it’s unclear if there was a police report, or if there will be an apology.
“The State Police did not intend to inconvenience the volunteers, who had every right to be there,” the statement said. “And we commend them for their efforts to help beautify Pennsylvania’s highways.”