The scariest thing about the conversation I had with my children after the grand jury refused to indict a police officer in the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was that they had no questions for me. When the shooting first happened they had many.
“Was he under arrest?”
“Why was he shot?”
“Was he shooting at the officer?”
“What did he do wrong?”
I tried to explain, laying out scenarios based on the information we had at the time and asking them after each to tell me when they thought it would be appropriate for the cop to shoot to kill.
First, I removed race from the equation: A young man is walking in the street when he’s stopped by an officer; the man’s hands are in the air when he is shot to death by the officer; his body is left on the road for hours.
Then, I gave it to them with two scenarios of an alleged crime: 1. A teenager recently involved in an unarmed robbery is stopped in public by an officer who is unaware of that incident; the teenager’s hands are in the air when he is shot to death by the officer. 2. The same situation but the officer is aware of the alleged crime.
Finally, I gave it to them with the racial overtones: The two people in this situation are a young black man and a slightly older white officer.
At times their answers suggested it might be OK for the officer to shoot; at others, they weren’t sure, and what followed was a long and interesting discussion.
Two kids who’ve grown up knowing and trusting police officers had naturally assumed that a cop who shoots must always be in the right. I had to explain that officers are no different than teachers, priests, firemen or anyone else—among the legions of good ones there are some who abuse their authority and act outside the law.
I also told them that when the police believe someone has done something wrong, the accused person has a right to due process. I explained that this means a person has the right to have the allegations put to him or her alongside the law and that they are presumed innocent until proven guilty. We talked about the fact that that right to due process affords the accused a chance to provide their side of the story and that when a police officer kills someone before they’ve had that opportunity, it strips them of that right.
We also talked about self-defense, about when it would be OK to use deadly force. And we talked about the importance not only that justice be done, but that it be seen to be done—that we as a society need court processes so that we can better understand the facts before us whether we like them or not.
Although I hate it, I don’t shy away from having these conversations with my sons.
They are smart, savvy boys who question my assumptions as much as I challenge theirs.
And so the scariest thing about telling them that the officer who killed Mike Brown would not stand trial was that they asked me no follow up questions. Not one “Why?” or “How come?”
They listened. They nodded. They carried on.
That scares me because it means that my sons, at 10 and 12 years old, already feel like the outcome isn’t a surprise. Can you blame them?
For years I’ve been having the obligatory “talk” that black parents tend to have with their sons.
“Please be careful.”
“Always be respectful.”
“Use your words, not your fists.”
“Pick your battles. Better wrong and alive, than right and dead.”
Of course, some white parents similarly admonish, but their sons are less likely to be stopped without cause or mistaken for someone who fits the description by an authority figure with a gun.
My husband has lost count of the times he’s been stopped/followed/questioned by police here in Canada for driving while black, walking while black, breathing while black. We are trying to raise confident young men who are prepared for the similar interactions that may lie ahead for them—simply because of the colour of their skin. We’ve felt we had to teach them—to train them—for their own survival.
Still, the successive grand jury decisions in Ferguson and then New York were like having a sleeping mask yanked off my face at high noon. There was something blinding about having to tell my children that despite our discussions about police officers, about race, about being good people, about watching out for situations where trouble can arise, that you could still not live long enough to tell your side of the story, and that made me angry.
In that bright light, it dawned on me that the “talks” aren’t helping, because they’re asking the victim to be the better person—and after decades, generations, of conversations, the victim is no less victimized.
I’ve been telling my kids that the things that Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and others have said and accomplished over the years are steps toward a greater world. I’ve told them, as my parents once told me, that the world is theirs to explore, and that an injustice in one place is an injustice to us all. That good people, whatever the colour of their skin, stand together when a wrong occurs and work together to right it.
But do we? Are we?
It’s not enough to show solidarity on social media or by liking this post.
Recent events have made me wonder: What are you telling your children?
You: The parents of children who aren’t black.
You: The parents of children who may grow up to stand in the very positions of power that are currently being abused.
You: The parents of the future white police officers, white judges, white prosecutors, white jury members.
What have you told your children about justice and due process and history and equality? The responsibility to prevent is yours as much as it is mine, and my race has been shouldering the burden for generations.
Are you talking to your children about race and power and history? Are you demonstrating how even a casual joke about race can blossom into acceptance of stereotypes? Do you discuss why someone might find a 10-year-old black boy cute, but fear him a few years later when he’s taller and wearing a hoodie pulled low? Do you explain the historical context that would lead an officer to shoot and kill a 12-year-old black boy holding a toy gun within seconds of arriving on scene?
Are you having the conversations around the dinner table that I have to have?
I hope so, because I’m tired of talking to my boys about deference and death.
It’s time you shared the burden for turning the tide.