Life shows us clearly that parents, relatives, and communities are our children’s first teachers. Those of us who can read to our kids, teach our kids how to tie their shoes, show them how to go “potty” for the first time, and, if you are parents of color, remind them to put lotion on them ashy knees and elbows. –
As parents in turn, we teach our kids to blindly trust schools to educate them equally and we even teach them to blindly trust law enforcement to protect and serve all communities justly, all because we were also taught these things. Especially when it comes to our police officers. In my town, I grew up in a time where kids were taught to like police officers because they are our friends. So we introduced our own children to Officer Friendly, too.
But as we have learned a long time ago about trusting traditional public education, we have now learned that we can’t trust our police officers either. And incidents such as the alleged murder of 17-year-old high school graduate Michael Brown have made mothers and fathers like me afraid of Officer Friendly, because he doesn’t seem to be so friendly to young black men that look like my son.
If you are white, you may ask why black parents such as I are fearful of law enforcement, and why we believe that law enforcement officials are enemies to young black men that look like my son.
The first reason is that as we get older, the lessons we are taught as a child are replaced by the history lessons about young black men like James Earl Chaney, who was murdered by police officers in Philadelphia, Miss., because he was fighting for equality. Then we watch news stories about young black men like Sean Bell, who was murdered by New York City police officers who misidentified him as a suspect in one of their investigations – and then watch how the officers get away with their crimes.
Then we watch how the police department in Sanford, Fla., initially let George Zimmerman off the hook after he murdered Trayvon Martin, a boy whose only mistake was to wear a hoodie, hold a can of iced tea, and eat a bag of Skittles. If not for the protests of black mothers and fathers like me, Zimmerman wouldn’t have even faced a jury trial for his crime.
For black parents like me, men and women who work hard every day to teach and raise our black boys, Officer Friendly is no longer so friendly. He’s a buddy of men like Zimmerman, who walked free after committing cold blooded murder of an unarmed young black man. He’s the comrade of Paul Headley, Michael Carey, Marc Cooper, Gescard Isnora, and Paul Oliver, the men who murdered Bell, an innocent man just hanging out at a club with his friends. He is the successor to Cecil Ray Price, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Deputy who orchestrated the murder of Chaney and the two white men who were with him, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner.
So we fear for our sons. We fear for our daughters too. But especially our sons, because they are no longer cute little tykes white people smile at. They are now the big black men that many of our teachers fear –and many cops fear them too. They are just young men. They can barely pat their heads and rub their bellies at the same time. But for so many people in authority, who have bought into myths about how black men are dangerous, our sons are to be feared instead of loved.
For me, I tossed out those hoodies I bought for my son right after the Zimmerman verdict because it isn’t safe for my son to wear one. Unlike white parents, we don’t get to only focus on “stranger danger”. We talk to our sons about the facts of life being black men, how they can’t walk too proud like Richard Sherman, or talk too loud either. I explain to my “husky built “son with deep mellon skin tone that he had to be careful about Walking While Black and Being Black in School. As with so many teenagers, my son says “mom, you are just overreacting”. He doesn’t think that what has happened to Trayvon and to Sean can happen to him.
Then our children have their Trayvon moments, their Sean Bell moments, and now, their Mike Brown moments. And that changes everything for them – and for their parents, too.
For me, that Mike Brown moment came this past winter, after a snow storm that hit Connecticut and the rest of the Northeast this year. That day, my son, my huskily built son, my 15-year-old son, walked home from school around 2:15 in the afternoon, was walking down the street behind some kids who moved slower than him. To get around them, he walked around the kids onto the street. But then, as soon as that happened, a cop car was coming fast toward them. My son got back onto the sidewalk as the cop car screeched to a halt next to him.
The cop called for him. The officer thought my son moved too slow in response. He then threatened my son saying “I swear to God if I have to get out of this car there is going to be a problem”. Once my son was next to the cop, the officer searched my son’s back pack without any probably cause. My son didn’t give him any consent for such a search. Then my son was placed into the back of the squad car, and taken to the police station. He wasn’t even read his Miranda rights.
I only learned about what the cop did after the police department called me. The good news is that he wasn’t charged with any crime.
Clearly, what happened to my son is better than what happened to Mike Brown, to Sean Bell, and to James Chaney. At least my son was not shot down in the street like an animal, his body left there for hours uncovered. But the officer didn’t treat my son like a human being worthy of respect. The officer didn’t behave like Officer Friendly. He behaved like a man looking for a reason to arrest any young black man. And as a black mother, who knows the stories all too well, it scares me.
Listen, I try to be fair and open minded, I try to believe that we don’t live in a country in which significant numbers of people don’t believe that the lives of black children have no value. I know that there are teachers who want to nurture our black children. I know that there are also police officers who follow the law and behave justly for all people regardless of color.
But as I help black (as well as Latino) parents every day fight for high-quality education for their children, my hope is slipping. After my son’s incident, and now, the savage murder of Michael Brown, my belief that we will all be treated equally under the law is slipping as well. It is increasingly clear to me that many who work within our public education and law enforcement systems do not believe that black boys like mine are even worthy of life.
What is a black parent to do? Seriously, what is a black parent to do. The only answer is to keep fighting. Because our sons deserve better than this.