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After A Traffic Stop, Teen Was 'Almost Another Dead Black Male'

Aug 15, 2014
Originally published on August 8, 2016 9:23 am

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story contains graphic descriptions and offensive language.

Alex Landau, who is African-American, was adopted by a white couple as a child and grew up in largely white, middle-class suburbs of Denver.

Still, "we never talked about race growing up," Landau tells his mother, Patsy Hathaway, on a visit to StoryCorps. "I just don't think that was ever a conversation."

"I thought that love would conquer all and skin color really didn't matter," Hathaway says. "I had to learn the really hard way when they almost killed you."

That was in 2009, when Landau, then a college student, was stopped by Denver police officers and severely beaten.

Landau was 19 at the time, driving around Denver with a friend in the passenger seat. He noticed red and blue lights behind him. The officer who pulled him over "explained I had made an illegal left turn, and to step out of the car," Landau says.

"So I get out of the car first," he says. "And then he goes around to the passenger side and pulls my friend Addison out of the car. ... Addison is white, and he had some weed in his coat pocket. So he gets placed in handcuffs."

Landau thought he was safe. He wasn't in handcuffs, he says, and he'd already been patted down. "Plus there's three officers on the scene. And I had never had a negative interaction with police in my life.

"So I ask them, 'Can I please see a warrant before you continue the search?' " Landau says. "And they grab me and began to hit me in the face. I could hear Addison in the background yelling, 'Stop! Leave him alone.'

"I was hit several times, and I remember gasping for air" and spitting blood, he says.

"And then I hear an officer shout out, 'He's reaching for a gun,' " he tells his mother. "I immediately started yelling, 'No, I'm not. I'm not reaching for anything.' "

Landau felt a gun against his head, he says. "And I expected to be shot. And at that point I lost consciousness. ...

"It took 45 stitches to close up the lacerations in my face alone," Landau says.

Hathaway was teaching a second-grade class when she got a call about Landau. "All she said was, 'You'd better come see about your son.' She didn't say anything about what kind of shape you were in," she says.

All she remembers from the moment she saw Landau, she says, "is involuntarily screaming."

Her reaction brought Alex to tears, too. "And it wasn't my injuries that hurt," he says. "It was just seeing how it devastated you. ... For me, it was the point of awakening to how the rest of the world is going to look at you. I was just another black face in the streets, and I was almost another dead black male."

In 2011, Alex was awarded a $795,000 settlement by the City of Denver. Two of the police officers involved have since been fired for uses of excessive force not related to this incident.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This morning and all this week, we have been reporting on Ferguson, Missouri, and relationship between that community and its police force. Today on StoryCorps, we'll hear about an incident that occurred in 2009 between police in Denver and an African-American teenager.

When Alex Landau was a college student, he was severely beaten by Denver police officers after a traffic stop. Alex was adopted by a white couple and grew up in largely white middle-class suburbs of Denver. At StoryCorps, Alex and his mother, Patsy Hathaway, talked about how Alex race has influenced his life and what happened that night when police pulled them over. And a warning - this story contains graphic imagery and language.

ALEX LANDAU: I was about four years old, and a little girl on the playground came up to me and said, not all white kids like to play with black kids. You grabbed her and told her, you don't talk to my son like that.

PATSY HATHAWAY: Yeah. The one that hurt me the most - you were eight years old and outside on a really, very hot day, covered from head to toe with a long sleeve shirt. And I didn't understand why you were dressed like that. And you said, because you don't want your skin to get any darker.

LANDAU: We never talked about race growing up. I just don't think that was ever a conversation.

HATHAWAY: I thought that love would conquer all, and skin color really didn't matter. I had to learn the really hard way when they almost killed you.

LANDAU: Yeah. I was 19 years old. I had picked up a friend, and I noticed we had red and blue lights behind us. We were being pulled over. The officer explained I had made an illegal left turn in and to step out of the car. So I get out of the car first. He pats me down, and then he goes around to the passenger side and pulls my friend Addison out of the car.

HATHAWAY: Addison is white.

LANDAU: Yeah. Addison is white. And he had some weed in his coat pocket, so he gets placed in handcuffs. I figure that everything's OK. I'm not in handcuffs. I've already been patted down. Plus, there's three officers on the scene. And I had never had a negative interaction with police in my life.

So I ask them, can I please see a warrant before you continue the search? And they grabbed me and began to hit me in the face. I could hear Addison in the background yelling, stop. Leave him alone. I was hit several times, and I remember gasping for air and spitting and blood flying across the grass.

And then I hear an officer shout out, he's reaching for a gun. I immediately started yelling, no, I'm not. I'm not reaching for anything. And I remember an officer say, if he doesn't calm down, we're going to have to shoot him. I could feel the gun pressed to my head, and I expected to be shot. And at that point, I lost consciousness.

I woke up to a multitude of officers just standing around me laughing. One officer was like, where's that were now, you [bleep] nigger. It took 45 stitches to close up the lacerations in my face alone. How did it feel when you got the call that I was in jail?

HATHAWAY: I was in the middle of teaching a second grade class. All she said was, you'd better come see about your son. She didn't say anything about what kind of shape you were in.

LANDAU: What about when you finally saw me?

HATHAWAY: All I remember is involuntarily screaming.

LANDAU: That was the first time I had cried the entire time I had been in there. And it wasn't my injuries that hurt. It was just seeing how it devastated you.

HATHAWAY: My whole worldview changed that night.

LANDAU: Yeah. For me, it was the point of awakening to how the rest of the world is going to look at you. I was just another black face in the street, and I was almost another dead black male.

GREENE: The voices of Alex Landau and his mom, Patsy Hathaway, in Aurora, Colorado. In 2011, Alex was awarded a $795,000 settlement by the city of Denver. Two of the officers involved have since been fired for their conduct in other incidents. The interview you just heard is archived at the Library of Congress. The StoryCorps podcast is on iTunes and at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.