‘You Never Know How You Will Feel Until You Have a Gun Put to the Temple of Your Head’

New Jersey Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet recounts his personal experience of police profiling and harassment as a student
Screengrab of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet telling an online state Board of Education meeting of a disturbing encounter with police when he was a graduate student.

In what may be his last state Board of Education meeting as New Jersey’s education commissioner, Lamont Repollet broke from script on Wednesday and shared an emotional story of his own singular encounter with police profiling and harassment as a young African-American graduate student, and how he sought to change “the narrative for black men.” The following is an edited transcript of his remarks.

“This is a little tough for me. I spent the last two weeks reflecting, watching, reading on the protests around the country around the murder of George Floyd and so many other countless black Americans.

“See, when the governor appointed me commissioner, I said at the podium at Asbury Park that education has saved my life. But people didn’t know that behind it, deep down there was a double meaning. Yes, education saved my life; it took me out of poverty and allowed me to live a decent life and to be able to provide for my family. However, also it saved my life.

“I’m going to recall a story, because I think it’s important as I have this pulpit to be able to talk about some of the injustices we have throughout this country. So sitting there watching that young man’s life being taken away from him, I reflected upon a time when I was 22 years old, driving to a stoplight. I had just gotten home from graduate school at SUNY Albany, I was excited, I’m at the red light, and police officers drove up on me, got out of the car, flashing lights. You never know how you will feel until you have a gun put to the temple of your head, asking you to put your hands out, asking you what are you doing here. ‘You look like you fit the profile of people who are carjacking in the neighborhood.’

‘I was a preppy black kid’

“If anyone who knew me in college, I was a preppy black kid; I wore khaki pants, shaved haircut, polo shirts and Nike sneakers. So to me, whatever description they felt, it wasn’t me. I didn’t wear a hoodie, I didn’t have a hoodie, I didn’t have braids. But it let me know that at this time, my life is in the hands of total strangers. I thought about whether they would drop drugs in the car, would they say that I’m this, would they say that I’m that.

“What would the narrative be when they talk about Lamont Repollet when he is dead? Would they say he was a decent student, a student athlete, a college graduate? Or would they bring up things that may have happened in my family, to talk about that. I didn’t have a record, I didn’t do drugs, but I knew there would be something.

“A lot of things went through my head, and all I thought was, ‘Think about a way, Lamont, to get out of there.’ I had my hands on the wheel, yes sir, no sir. But I thought about it, I said, ‘Excuse me, it can’t be me, because I was in graduate school at SUNY Albany last week.’ He said to me, ‘Can you prove it?’ In my back pocket, I had my college ID. ‘Is that OK?’ And I took out my college ID, and it said SUNY Albany Student. So when I say education changed my life, there’s that double meaning behind that.

“I said to myself, Lamont, you will probably be in that position again, but I was going to ensure that whatever the narrative is for black men in this country, that I was going to change that narrative. So God saw fit for me to be the first black principal of Carteret High School, the first black commissioner of education of the state of New Jersey, and I’ll be the first black president of Kean University.

“So, when given opportunities to level the playing field to being equal, it shouldn’t be the color of your skin to determine your destiny, it should be the character and who you are. As educators and parents and simply as citizens, we have a moral obligation as educational leaders to break down systems and policies that reinforce institutional racism. That’s why I’ve been adamant about equity and talking about equity in action. This was my moment and my time to honor those ancestors that came before me and I stood on their shoulders. So the department’s internal equity team is working to provide resources for our districts and employees to have these important conversations with our students and ourselves.

“At this time, if you’ll indulge me, I would like to have a brief moment of silence to honor the lives lost due to unjust murders.”