Image by Tak Toyoshima
A police cruiser pulls up to the left side of the cab, and an officer riding shotgun yells to the driver, “We have reports of somebody in a red sweatshirt. Is there anything red?”
My friend, we’ll call him Taylor, was sitting in the back seat of the taxi and was ordered out of the car. He was then seated on the curb, questioned repeatedly, flipped onto his stomach, and placed in handcuffs before being brought in for further interrogation. In minutes, he went from being an ordinary citizen to being surrounded by police, to being a suspect in what many consider to be the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11.
The week leading up to the April 15, 2013, bombing of the Boston Marathon was typical for Taylor, a lifelong American citizen and Massachusetts native of Pakistani descent. Then twenty-one years old, he spent most of his time attending classes at Suffolk University, interning at a tax firm, and hanging out with friends. He was at his internship on the day of the bombings, and learned of the attack from his boss.
The morning he was stopped in the cab, Taylor had been going to meet friends at South Station. They had tickets for the Tribeca Film Festival, and had planned to take the Megabus to New York City, leaving at 7am on Friday, April 19. It was just four days after two explosions near the finish line rattled Boston, and smack in the middle of a citywide lockdown and the dramatic pursuit of the suspected bombers.
Taylor had gone to bed early Thursday night, eager for following day. As a result, he missed the news about the shooting of MIT police officer Sean Collier and the ensuing manhunt for Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Taylor woke up early, took a shower, dressed in a grey sweatshirt and jeans, and was out the door of his Long Avenue apartment in Allston by 5:45 in the morning. In his rush to catch the bus, he hadn’t had a chance to check his email. Had he done so, he would have seen the message from his mother—“Don’t go outside”—and the following events likely wouldn’t have occurred.
TO MISS THE BUS
With the Griggs Street Green Line station just a kick away, Taylor was awaiting the arrival of his train within minutes. When it didn’t come, he asked some people near the opposite platform if they knew when the next train might arrive.
“The T isn’t running right now,” muttered one young woman, eyes glued to her iPhone. The city was closed. Just hours earlier, Tamerlan had been killed in a shootout with police in Watertown, and the hunt for Dzhokhar had turned into a SWAT-led house-by-house search of residences in the area.
Taylor was in the dark. Still stressing about catching his bus to New York, he began jogging down the median of Comm Ave towards Harvard Ave in an attempt to flag a taxi. That’s when he picked up on a second clue that something was strange: Several cabs whizzed by him without stopping. After a short wait at the intersection, a cab traveling outbound took a U-turn and scooped him up.
“What are you doing? You haven’t heard the news? I shouldn’t be driving you right now. What are you doing trying to catch a bus to New York?”
The driver had a flurry of questions. Taylor was confused, so the cabbie cranked the radio and started to explain what happened the night before. Between the news coverage on the radio and the play-by-play, it was a lot to digest. Heading downtown on Comm Ave, the taxi pulled over near Babcock Street to pick up a man on his way to work. As they rode along together, the man in the front and my friend in the back, both passengers were in shock. The driver filled them in.
The car pulled up to a stoplight just before Kenmore Square. Taylor, sitting in the back seat, noticed a police cruiser pulling up on the left. A police officer in the passenger seat of the cruiser rolled down his window and asked the taxi driver if anyone had a red sweatshirt on.
Taylor wasn’t wearing a red sweatshirt. He was, however, in possession of a red backpack. “Give it here,” the cop ordered, approaching the rear left window of the cab. With nothing to hide and aiming to cooperate fully, Taylor says he immediately rolled his window down and handed his bag to the officer, who began rifling through its contents.
“I’m not one to stand up to police officers,” he later told me in an interview about the incident for this article. “I really still didn’t fully understand what was going on.”
The driver was ordered to move ahead and pull off to the side just before the intersection of Comm Ave and Charlesgate West. An officer then opened the back right door of the cab and told everyone to get out. The driver, the passenger in the front seat, and Taylor exited the car and sat on the curb—without handcuffs—while officers created a perimeter with police tape.
“Next thing you know, there really are like 15, 16, 17 cops,” Taylor recalls. They asked for identification, and Taylor provided his Suffolk University student card as well as his Commonwealth-issued ID.
Taylor says he wasn’t nervous. He knew he that he was innocent and suspected it would only be a matter of time before they let him go. “As long as I’m being obedient, like, what’s going to happen?” At this point, he still assumed the reason that the cab was pulled over was that no one was supposed to be on the streets at the time.
Then came some peculiar questions: “Were you in Cambridge recently?” “Do you know anybody from Cambridge?”
“I was answering every single question very genuinely,” he says more than a year and a half later.
Within a few minutes of Taylor’s being removed from the cab and set on the curb, another officer approached. Taylor can’t recall the exact line of questioning, but explains the moment thusly: “Next thing you know, they’re just like, ‘Get him!’”
“Out of nowhere, then . . . they flipped me over and . . . they’re cuffing me and giving me a full search down.” The situation escalated quickly. Taylor continues: “One guy had his knee on my back . . . I was face first on the pavement . . . that was the most vulnerable I guess I’ve ever been in my entire life … [N]othing seemed to trigger that. That was what was always so confusing to me.”
Taylor remained in handcuffs for another 20 to 30 minutes while police ran background checks on him, the cab driver, and the other passenger. At no point was he read his Miranda rights. Through it all, Taylor says he was adamant about making sure the cops knew he wasn’t the guy they were after, and to that effect began asking questions like, “Hey, can you loosen these cuffs? I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be a burden,” and “Will I be able to catch the bus to New York after this is all over?” To which an officer replied, “Don’t worry about that right now.”
Before long Taylor began to notice members of the media, now out in force, trying to get footage of the scene while police shooed them away. It was around then that a cop dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt arrived on the scene. He introduced himself as Detective Kelley.
Kelley started questioning the passenger in the front seat of the cab, who claimed to attend the University of Richmond. In his attempt to find out anything suspicious, the detective asked the passenger to name that college’s mascot, but Taylor, a hardcore fan of college basketball, chimed in: “Oh, the Richmond Spiders!”
“Was I talking to you?” Kelley didn’t like the interruption. Looking back on the incident, Taylor doesn’t know why he felt that it would be okay to speak out of turn. “I just was not afraid to verbalize in front of these cops,” he says.
Once the detective finished questioning the other passenger, he turned to Taylor and proceeded to treat him to the same line of questioning. As did other officers on the scene.
About a half-hour after the cab was approached outside of Kenmore, Taylor was taken to a station in an unmarked vehicle. Taylor doesn’t know what happened with the driver or the other passenger, but photos of the scene indicate a bomb squad was called in to detonate an item found in the taxi. In custody, Taylor says he was told by one of the detectives, “We’re just getting you out of here for your protection … The world is too fucked, you guys have to stop this.”
While the officers at the scene of his arrest were, for the most part, polite and nonthreatening, Taylor says things changed dramatically once he was brought into the station. At least for a moment. Seated at a table, a new detective got aggressive.
“Sit down! Has he been searched!?!?”
The others followed suit. One detective who had been civil toward Taylor en route to the station told his colleague to calm down. He was then brought to another office where he sat alone before speaking with a female FBI agent and Detective Kelley for another 15 to 20 minutes. Taylor once again retold his story—the bus, meeting friends, going to New York—and was asked more questions in several different ways. At one point they asked where he was when the bombings happened. He kept his cool.
“They were really trying to analyze every part of my answers to try to find any little crack,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, Taylor’s friends were curious about his whereabouts. It was more than an hour past the time when the bus—which had been canceled—was supposed to be leaving Boston.
“[E]veryone’s calling you.” Taylor says Detective Kelley was holding his cell phone, asking him to list the names of contacts. “Oh I guess you’re a TV star, one of your friends says he saw you [on the news].”
Taylor says Kelley was ultimately polite, and that after about 30 minutes his belongings were returned to him. The detective even apologized. “It was very clear to him that I wasn’t who they thought I was,” says Taylor. A handful of other officers approached him and offered similar sentiments.
“Hey, you know, I get it,” Taylor said in response. “Honestly, I do get it. It’s a very tense situation.”
Taylor says Kelley drove him downtown, where he had intended to meet up with friends hours earlier. It was approximately 9am, roughly 12 hours before Dzhokhar would be found inside a dry-docked boat in Watertown.
The ride with Kelley was a friendly one. They discussed racial profiling; Taylor remembers saying, “I could understand from a cop’s perspective how . . . a person of my skin color jogging down the street sometimes is going to seem.” Kelly explained, “There are scenarios where these variables would come into play, as unfortunate as it is.”
They spoke about the manhunt, with Taylor asking, “So how long have you been onto these guys for?” He says Kelley implied that authorities had leads on the Tsarnaevs from early on, which intrigued him. “The way he was saying it was like, they always kind of had a gauge on it. Like, they were never too far behind.”
Once he was dropped off, Taylor spent time decompressing with friends. After retelling the story of his detention six or seven times, he called his mother to tell her what had happened. Unlike Taylor, she was immediately upset about the racial profiling.
“I guess inside I just didn’t necessarily view it that way,” Taylor says. “Maybe it was. I just didn’t really think of it that way because of the context. I wasn’t very angry about it . . . the only reason I would have been pissed off is if that bus had still been scheduled to leave and I missed it.”
Although he doesn’t know exactly what prompted police to pull over the cab and detain him, Taylor believes that somebody had seen him trying to flag a taxi and considered his behavior to be suspicious enough to warrant a call to the cops. Reflecting on this in our interview, he says, “It was impressive how they actually got me by Kenmore Square . . . how they tracked down that cab is interesting.”
As one of the accused Marathon bombers stands trial coming up on the two-year anniversary of the attacks, Taylor harbors no ill will toward the officers who detained and interrogated him. The experience of standing up for himself, of holding his own under so much pressure, actually helped boost his confidence.
“I’d say more positives than negatives,” he says. “I don’t look back in anger or anything.”
While Taylor has taken ownership of his experience, his story nevertheless raises questions. Specifically, he says detectives mentioned that his taxi wasn’t the only vehicle pulled over that week. Going off that observation, I went looking for other examples similar to that which my friend had endured. In an attempt to ascertain how many others were detained and interrogated, I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the FBI and police in Boston, Watertown, and Cambridge.
In response, Boston and Cambridge police claim to have “no responsive documents.” The FBI was no more helpful, and claimed an exemption to the disclosure of such info on the grounds that its release “could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings,” presumably due to the ongoing trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Watertown Police Department has yet to acknowledge my request, originally filed four months ago.
For the most part all I have on the others stopped by police is vague leads, but there is at least one other known instance of a suspect being detained and questioned, and his story doesn’t have a happy ending.
Just minutes before the two explosions that locked down Boston for several days, Abdulrahman Alharbi was trying to get a glimpse of runners crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The then-21-year-old Saudi was walking away from the finish line when the first explosion went off; shrapnel from the second bomb ripped through his jeans, leaving his legs bloody and him in need of medical attention. He was directed to an ambulance, but curiously, three police officers came along for the ride. Along the way they asked about his involvement in the bombings, and demanded access to his Facebook account.
Abdulrahman was likely the first suspected Marathon bomber. In the hospital, he was prevented from making phone calls and the police officers, agents from the FBI, and “other guys” surrounding him did not inform him of his right to legal counsel. As many as 20 law enforcement agents watched over him for days. He learned from the television in his hospital room that a Saudi national was being questioned as a suspect.
Abdulrahman is now suing Glenn Beck for defamation. In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, among other false and damaging statements circulating in the media, the conservative firebrand repeatedly accused Abdulrahman of participating in the attacks, being a member of Al-Qaeda, and being involved in a massive cover-up by the Obama administration.
Taylor’s experience was different, though a Suffolk classmate did ask him, “Yo, did you get pulled over by the cops?” In any case, his story, as well as that of Abdulrahman, cuts to the center of the eternal ethical conundrum that is racial profiling. Particularly if one considers that the young man facing the death penalty in federal court is, after all, Caucasian.