Outraged civil liberties groups called the detention of the black actor Alton Fitzgerald White, 35, who plays a leading role in the award-winning show Ragtime, an example of "racial profiling at its worst". Mr White called it a case of life imitating art: his Ragtime character, Coalhouse Walker Junior, is a black man whose path is blocked by racist firemen as he drives through New York at the turn of the century.
Mr White was leaving his apartment building in Harlem on his way to Broadway, intending to stop off first for a session at his local gym, when police stopped him and three other black men who were walking with him. All four were arrested, handcuffed, locked up and strip searched.
"They took us out of the cells and made us strip and squat," Mr White said afterwards. "They made us take all our shoe strings out and then they put us back in the cells to take us out one at a time."
He said the ordeal, which left him in tears of anger and frustration, had shattered his faith in the police and justice system and that his reaction mirrored that of Coalhouse in Ragtime. "When I was sitting in that cell I realised that my perception about good and justice would never be the same, just like Coalhouse, not to the point of violence but the naivete." He felt utterly powerless, he said. He cancelled his Saturday performance because he had still not recovered.
Mr White is now considering bringing a federal civil rights law suit against the police.
A police spokeswoman apologised to Mr White, admitting it was a mistake, but defended the strip searching as "routine" in drug-related arrests. Officers were looking for armed drug dealers, she said. Mr White and the other men "fitted the description" supplied by a local resident.
Anti-racism campaigners said the incident highlighted the harassment frequently endured by black men at the hands of the New York police.Reuse content