A few minutes shy of 11 p.m. on April 23, 1998, Keshon Moore was driving south on the New Jersey Turnpike, less than an hour into a 12-hour trip to North Carolina. His silver Dodge Caravan was on a stretch of highway that cuts through the central part of the state. Sandwiched between the refineries and sports arenas to the north and the farms and water towers to the south, the road is straight, wide and flat. There are no smokestacks or tall office buildings to provide distractions. The challenge for drivers is to stay focused; for passengers, to stay awake.
State troopers John Hogan and James Kenna had been patrolling the turnpike for two hours when they spotted the Caravan. Keshon's heart began to race when he saw the police cruiser come up on his left, but he relaxed when it roared past. He figured it was chasing some speeder up ahead. Keshon, 22, hadn't owned a car for more than a year. He was driving a minivan rented by his girlfriend's mother. None of his three passengers knew that Keshon's license had been suspended because of a few unpaid parking tickets. "I was very leery because of my license," Keshon remembers. "I was doing 55 on the dot."
Crunched into the front passenger seat was 6'7" Danny Reyes, 20, Keshon's former basketball teammate at Curtis High on Stat-en Island in New York City. Behind them slept two friends from the city playground courts—Rayshawn Brown, 20, and Jarmaine Grant, 23—both oblivious to the hip-hop tunes of DJ Clue that were blaring from the van's tape deck.
Suddenly the police cruiser slowed, and the Caravan pulled even with it. The two vehicles rode side by side for half a mile before the cruiser backed off. Keshon, puzzled, drove on carefully, but then the police car slipped in behind him, and its flashing lights came on.
Even on a turnpike where driving 75 mph is rarely ticketed, this was not a night for speeding. Traffic was heavy, and a steady rain had left the highway glistening and slick. Keshon had traveled roughly 50 miles in 50 minutes to this rural patch of Mercer County. By the time the cruiser appeared, the Caravan's beige-carpeted floor resembled the floor of a college dorm room, littered with gym bags, cassettes, sneakers, two New York Yankees caps, bottles of Snapple, bags of chips, a Bible and a copy of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Keshon slowed down quickly when he saw the flashing lights in his rearview mirror, and the cruiser almost rammed him from behind. Both cars pulled into the breakdown lane.
The young men in the van had planned to drive all night and arrive before noon in Durham, where coaches at North Carolina Central University were holding an informal tryout for a few dozen players. For the four New Yorkers, it was a last chance. They weren't stars, and they were already in their 20s. Any hope they had of landing a college scholarship and keeping alive their dream of playing professionally, maybe in the CBA or in Europe, rested on this journey. Now the police were interrupting it. Keshon was sure he hadn't been speeding. He wasn't thinking that his race alone might be reason enough for the police to stop him.
It had happened to Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, who was wrestled to the ground at Los Angeles Airport in 1988 by police who suspected that he was a drug dealer. It had happened to Toronto Raptors guard Dee Brown, stopped at gunpoint outside a Wellesley, Mass., post office in 1990 (when Brown was with the Boston Celtics) by officers who suspected that he had been involved in a crime nearby. It had happened to track coach and former Olympic gold medalist Al Joyner in 1992, when he was stopped and handcuffed for suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle (it turned out to be his wife's, and he was released); he was stopped again two blocks later on suspicion of having committed a felony hit-and-run (he was again released). Racial profiling is one of the most volatile civil rights issues in the U.S., and even the most successful African-Americans are not immune to it. Blacks say the police target them for no reason but their skin color. On the roads they call it DWB: Driving While Black.
Tap-tap-tap. State trooper Kenna, then 27, in his navy shirt with gold shoulder stripes, banged his long black flashlight on the passenger window of the Caravan. Kenna held the flashlight in his left hand; in his right he held a 9-mm Glock. "Put your hands up!" he shouted. State trooper Hogan, 28, who had been driving the police car, stood 10 feet behind the van, between it and the cruiser.
Keshon thought he had slipped the van into park as he came to a stop, but he had mistakenly put it in reverse. When he saw Kenna's flashlight and gun and heard the officer order everyone to show hands, Keshon's foot came off the brake. The van lurched backward toward the idling police cruiser—and Hogan.
Both troopers were startled. Kenna stepped sideways to follow the van backward, shouting to Keshon to stop and everyone inside to put up his hands. Hogan jumped to the side to avoid being struck.