Exclusive: Michelle Obama and Brother Craig Robinson Talk About the Incident That Changed the Way They Look at Police

Illustration for article titled Exclusive: Michelle Obama and Brother Craig Robinson Talk About the Incident That Changed the Way They Look at Police
Photo: Spotify/Higher Ground Productions

On the season finale of Michelle Obama’s self-titled podcast, the former first lady returns “home”—talking at length with her brother, former basketball coach Craig Robinson and mother Marian Robinson about childhood and parenting. It’s fertile and intimate ground for the threesome, who discuss everything from the first night bringing home a newborn and how to properly hang toilet paper to dropping your kids off at college.

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But, as many African American families know all too well, coming of age also means learning how to deal with the police. In a clip shared exclusively with The Root, Obama talked to her brother about one memory that stands out vividly to both of them: the day a young Craig Robinson was accused of stealing his own bike.

The bike still shines bright in both siblings’ memories: a yellow ten-speed Goldblatt gifted to Craig Robinson by his parents. Craig Robinson, who guesses he was about 10 or 11 years old at the time, was stopped by a couple of police officers while riding it.

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He described the officer grabbing the bike and not letting it go, despite his pleas and protests that the bike was, in fact, his.

“I was always taught that the police are your friends...and they’ll believe the truth, and I was tellin’ ‘em the truth and this guy would not believe me,” Robinson recounted.

“I was like ‘Oh, you got this all wrong, this is my bike. Don’t worry, this isn’t a stolen bike,’ and [the cop] would not believe me, and I was absolutely heartbroken. And I finally said to him, ‘Listen, you can take me to my house, and I will prove to you, this is my bike.’”

Luckily for Robinson, his mom was home to deal with the police. She ushered him into the house, where he watched her, visibly upset—“she had that tight lip”—confronting the cops accusing her son of stealing his own bike.

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As Marian Robinson reveals, she discovered the cops were friends with the people who initially accused Craig of stealing the bicycle. She demanded they come to her house so they could “admit [they] made a serious mistake.”

Craig Robinson called the experience “heartbreaking” multiple times throughout the interview.

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“I could tell [the cops] were trying to ask me questions that would trip me up,” he recalled. “If I wasn’t so sure that that bike was mine and showed any kind of reticence, I could see them taking me off to the police station, not calling mom until after I’ve been, you know, booked or whatever they do.”

Obama chimed in, noting how the story illustrates an established fact of life among Black families—that no matter what you know yourself to be inside your own home, how you’re perceived outside of it is often outside of your control.

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“Nobody thinks about, you know, the fact that we all come from good families that are trying to teach values, but when you leave the safety of your home and go out into the street, where being Black is, is a crime in and of itself, we have all had to learn how to operate outside of our homes with a level of caution, and fear, because you never know,” Obama said.

Marian Robinson also noted that this discriminatory treatment was “part of a culture” among police.

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“Because those two policemen were Black. And they were acting exactly the same as any other policeman,” she said, as Obama murmured her agreement. “It’s almost like, this is what they thought they were, how they were thought they were supposed to act.”

The story reminded both Obama and Craig Robinson of young protesters in today’s Black Lives Matter movement, noting how little had changed since Craig’s confrontation with the police. Until the podcast taping, he wasn’t aware that the cops were friends with the people who accused him of stealing his own bike.

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“That’s the perfect example of what all of these young, Black people are dealing with now, because this was, almost fifty years ago?” he said.

You can listen to the clip here.

Staff writer, The Root.

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DISCUSSION

For a short time, I belonged to a Black triathlete group on Facebook, and I remember when someone found a FB page dedicated to “black people on bikes they had stolen” - i.e. nice bikes. The triathlete group reported that page in enough numbers that site got shut down fast!  Black people on nice bikes is apparently a thing that can’t be on the up and up!