Photo Credit Justice For Tamir Rice FB Page
My seven-year-old son said to me a few months back, “I don’t want to get shot and killed when I get big.”
This was out of the blue, as his thoughts tend to be.
I quickly assured him that he shouldn’t even worry about that. That wasn’t going to happen to him.
I purposefully dismissed the thought much quicker than I would have if he wasn’t seven.
A time when the thrill of his next basketball game, or lure of his next adventure with a friend should be occupying his mind.
He’s a deep kid though. And what came out of his mouth next left tears in my eyes.
“But what if I’m walking down the street and a police tells me to move and I’m just trying to get on the grass and he thinks I’m trying to run away and he shoots me?”
And so now I’m speechless. Because “what if” . . .
A Bad Mom Moment?
We live in St. Louis. A ten minute drive from Ferguson in fact.
When Michael Brown was murdered, I didn’t talk with my children about it for the first few days.
The older ones are 7, 8 and 11, and I didn’t want to take the piece of innocence away from them that would inevitably be stolen when they learned this happened, and why.
I thought about how freely my boys (the 7 and 8-year-olds) approach police officers and ask them about all the devices they wear around their belts.
I didn’t want them to fear the police. Most are good.
And it wasn’t time to caution them about how their “brownness” (they’ve always called themselves “brown,” which is accurate, so we go with it over “black”) will effect how they’ll need to interact with the police in the future.
They’re too young.
But you couldn’t live in St. Louis without hearing about Michael Brown in August of 2014. Even if you kept the TV off, which I do.
So eventually it came out.
And I decided to let it all come out, in hopes of using it as a “teaching experience” as much as possible.
I’ve wrestled for some time about whether I was too honest with them, considering their ages. I try to share only what’s within their ability to understand.
But hey, I’m “old” and even I can’t understand why Michael Brown was killed. And why Darren Wilson wasn’t prosecuted for it.
If I did have any reservations about whether I was “that” mom, who gives her kids too much information, they ended when a 12-year-old boy was gunned down by the police and left to die.
What Our Brown-Skinned Boys Need to Know
If it can happen to a 12-year-old child, who can it NOT happen to?
Maybe my 2-year-old is still safe. But not for long.
The reality is, there is no option to withhold the ugly truth from our children.
If you have dark skin, you should fear the police until they give you a reason not too. It’s guilty until proven innocent, if you value your life.
And if the police can (“legally”) shoot and kill a 12-year-old child within two seconds of seeing him, they can shoot my child for innocently approaching them too quickly, simply because he’s curious about some part of their uniform.
If you have dark skin, you may be thinking that I’m stating the obvious right now.
Having lived a life of white privilege, I have to admit that until Sandra Bland was killed, I never took the time to fully appreciate what it’s like to live with dark skin every minute of every day.
This N.Y. Times piece by Roxane Gay, relating to Ms. Bland’s arrest, brought it home for me. I was especially moved by this paragraph:
Each time I get in my car, I make sure I have my license, registration and insurance cards. I make sure my seatbelt is fastened. I place my cellphone in the handless dock. I check and double check and triple check these details because when (not if) I get pulled over, I want there to be no doubt I am following the letter of the law. I do this knowing it doesn’t really matter if I am following the letter of the law or not. Law enforcement officers see only the color of my skin, and in the color of my skin they see criminality, deviance, a lack of humanity. There is nothing I can do to protect myself, but I am comforted by the illusion of safety.
As Ms. Gay points out in her article, the entire black community in our country has to live on edge.
I can’t even begin to tell you how badly I don’t want to raise my children with that view of the world.
But, sadly, I’d be an idealistic idiot to try to make them think “everything will be okay” as long as they follow the law.
What Can We Do To Stop More Tamir Rice Stories From Happening?
Every time one of these shootings happen, I have two immediate reactions.
First, I have to write about this.
Second, we’ve got to do something to stop this.
I’ve been trying to write about this for months, but it always ends with me in tears and a half-written piece that I’m too sad to go back to finish.
It’s the second reaction that’s prompted me to actually finish this piece.
When a black person is murdered by the police, and the officer(s) get away with the murder, the media is awash with people saying “this has got to stop.” “Black Lives Matter” signs appear everywhere.
And then the media coverage dies down.
People get on with their lives.
And another black kid loses his life at the hands of the police.
So the cycle begins again . . . all of us “do-gooders” agree that this is unacceptable and must be stopped.
But it hasn’t stopped. It hasn’t slowed down. If anything, it’s getting worse.
Who is going to stop this backwards spiral into racial inequality that threatens to tear our country apart?
I admit to feeling completely lost when it comes to how I can do my part.
I share the defeat Benjamin Crump echoes in his Time article entitled “The Bundys and Tamir Rice are Proof of Two Americas.”
Crump is an attorney who represents family members of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice.
Sadly, Crump seems resigned to the fact that, in America, a group of white men with an arsenal of weapons will be approached by the police with “restraint;” while a black child on the playground will be killed by the police within two seconds. (Should we bring back separate drinking fountains too?!)
It’s All About the Money and the Power
So what do we do to make the police stop killing young black males?
Writing about the atrocity of it has obviously done nothing to stop it, or even slow it down.
And here’s why. The people in power think it’s okay.
That’s the scary reality of it.
As long as the cops keep getting away with it, they’re going to keep doing it.
And, they’re going to keep getting away with it.
Unless we can change who has power, which requires money (and we’ll get to that in a minute).
Our criminal justice system is disgracefully biased in favor of police officers who kill black people.
Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is a liar, or laughably ignorant.
I spent 25 years as a criminal defense attorney, and let me share just the tip of the iceberg with you here.
Prosecutors and police are on the same team. The prosecutor’s office has the entire police department at its disposal to investigate crimes.
Officers sit at the prosecution table throughout trials.
They freely talk with prosecutors about their cases as the two agencies work together to put criminals in jail.
The defense, on the other hand, must almost always settle for one underpaid investigator, and would never have the benefit of a law enforcement officer to do some investigation that may exonerate their client.
Officers refuse to return the defense’s phone calls, won’t talk without a subpoena and the prosecutor’s presence, and are often uncooperative when forced to answer to the defense.
So what happens when a member of the prosecutor’s team gets accused of murder?
Naturally, the prosecution rises to the cop’s defense.
I have read hundreds of grand jury transcripts in my career.
Never have I seen a prosecutor work even .01% as hard to see that the accused is not indicted as the prosecutor in Darren Wilson’s case did.
Here’s what happens when a grand jury convenes to hear the case of one of my indigent black (or white) clients.
The prosecutor calls one or two witnesses (usually cops) to tell what evidence there is that my guy did it. And the grand jury indicts.
In troubling contrast, the prosecutor in Darren Wilson’s case took on the role of defense attorney. And he went to great lengths to put on a case that argued for Wilson’s innocence.
In what possible world is this disparate treatment okay?
Sadly, right here in our world. Apparently.
And even more sadly, I don’t predict a change in the near future.
Essentially, the prosecutors control who is charged with a crime.
Claims that they’ve left it up to a grand jury of local citizens are complete BS.
The only way change will come about is if we stop electing and promoting the same prosecutors, judges, and politicians who ~ largely as a result of the lens of “white privilege” they live life through ~ think it’s okay to kill black people.
And that takes money. Lots of money.
Money that lies mainly in the hands of those who control through white privilege, and refuse to acknowledge it.
And it’s one of the reasons that I will never apologize for always looking for ways to make more money.
No amount of marching around with signs, or sitting in our comfortable homes writing about the injustice of it all, will even come close to doing what money can do to change our country’s rapid decline into an atmosphere of racism as frightening as the days of public hangings for runaway slaves.
If we cannot change the balance of power, innocent black lives will continue to be lost.
If You Think the Threat Isn’t Real, You’re Wrong
In 2015, young black men were nine times more likely to be killed by the police than other Americans.
Studies show that police officers have a subconscious bias against young black males.
And that black boys tend to be held responsible for their actions at an age when white boys are still given the presumption of childhood innocence.
But really, who needs studies?
We’ve got the dead body of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Indisputably shot within two seconds of the police rolling up on him.
And the dead body of 16-year-old Kimani Gray. Shot 7 times by New York City police officers after leaving a friend’s birthday party.
His crime? Standing on a corner and adjusting his waistband in a “suspicious” way (a.k.a “being black in public”). Police claim Kimani pointed a gun at them. The uninvolved eyewitness says Kimani was unarmed, and that the undercover officers never identified themselves as police officers.
And the dead body of 14-year-old Cameron Tillman. A talented freshman athlete with a 3.7 GPA, shot 4 times by police as he was opening the door.
His crime? Being in an abandoned home with a group of teens, with the apparent consent of the home’s owner.
And it goes on . . . and will continue to go on.
My 7-year-old is very intuitive. Somewhere inside his first grade body he knows enough to be scared. Already.
I’m scared too.
My boy has “issues.” Sometimes the only way he can feel okay is to leave the house and walk down the street.
More than once I’ve pictured him walking down the sidewalk in his footed Ninja Turtle pajamas, carrying his brown plastic bo staff (the 3 foot long “weapon” used by Donatello, one of the Ninja Turtles) across his chest.
And what if an officer stopped to question him . . . and what if my baby, in his emotional state, responded inappropriately to the cop . . .
Would the plastic bo staff suddenly look like a shotgun? And my 7-year-old be deemed armed and aggressive by the police?
What if . . .
I know as mothers, we shouldn’t have to fear that our children will be killed by the police.
Yet I know that we do.
And that it is justified.
But I still don’t know how to change it.