A Minnesota educator who mentored Daunte Wright while he was in high school said he is haunted by conversations the two had—and by his perceived failure to mention that police sometimes use the sight of car air fresheners as a pretext to stop Black men.
Jonathan Mason mentored the 20-year-old when he was at Edison High School in Minneapolis and recounted to the Minneapolis Star Tribune how they often discussed police targeting of members of the Black community. He said he felt sick to his stomach when he heard his former mentee was killed in suburban Brooklyn Center on Sunday afternoon at the hands of police. “He was afraid police would do something like this to him,” Mason told the paper.
Mason said those fears in part drove him not to talk about ways police sometimes arrest Black men for minor infringements: by finding reasons to search their vehicles or investigate their suspicions. “We talked about this daily. We talked about police brutality. We talk about these things in the Black community,” he told the Star Tribune. “Those little things will haunt me. That maybe I didn’t talk to him about the air freshener.”
Minnesota is one of several states that prohibits hanging anything from a vehicle’s rear-view mirror that might obstruct a driver’s vision. But the law and other minor infractions are often perceived to target Black drivers as a reason to stop them and check for illegal weapons, drugs, or other crimes. In 2018, two Black men in Chicago were stopped after police saw a pine-tree-shaped air freshener and found illegal weapons in the car. (Illinois prohibits anything dangling from rear-view mirrors.) The case was unsuccessfully challenged in federal court after the men argued that the air-freshener suspicion was not sufficient reason to stop them, according to CNN. The federal appeals court ruled against the men, who are now in prison.
In 2012, Women’s NBA star Seimone Augustus, who is Black, was also pulled over in Minneapolis for air fresheners on what she tweeted was a pretext for police to ask her about her out-of-state license plates and crimes in the area. “Supposedly he stop me for an air freshener hanging in my window, but then went on talking about theft at the mall,” she tweeted.
Arizona, California, Virginia, and Pennsylvania also have laws against air fresheners or other objects hanging from a rear-view mirror.
Daunte Wright’s car also had expired license-plate tags, Brooklyn Center police said Monday. When officers stopped him to question him on Sunday afternoon, they also noticed the air fresheners—which Wright told his mother in a phone call. A name-check then pointed to a misdemeanor arrest warrant tied to a failure to appear at a hearing. The officer who shot him later admitted she thought she had pulled her taser instead of her service weapon.
Mason, the mentor, said he had grown particularly close to Wright when they met. He said he hopes people remember Wright for the person he could have been. “The reality is, Daunte is still a young man, under 21,” Mason said. “He had a huge future and it was snatched because of a huge mistake.”