It’s been weeks since Mike Brown was shot down by officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson PD. I still don’t know what to tell my 10-year-old, Sol, about it. But I know I have to.
We need to talk. About Mike Brown and Eric Garner, Oscar Grant and Rodney King, and too many others. We need to talk because he won’t always be young and non-threatening. In a few years, he will look more like the man he is becoming than the child he was. Things will change.
Should I tell him that there are good cops out there? Show him the videos of police walking blind men across the street, playing basketball or dancing with neighborhood kids? The phrase sours my stomach. It is the useless cousin of, “Some of my best friends are Black.”
But I found myself saying those very words to him as we drove to his capoeira class. I said it because it’s true. I’ve known some good cops.
I can still remember the Pennsylvania State Trooper who came to our house after my brother was killed by a drunk driver. He didn’t have to, but he returned for weeks after the funeral, just sitting in the living room with us, talking. It was 1979. He was tall and white and he made my mother laugh when I wasn’t sure that she would ever laugh again. I know he was just doing his job, but I’ll never, ever stop being grateful.
I know some good cops. Those aren’t the ones I have to prepare my son for. How many young Black men have found themselves in jail because they trusted the police to respect their rights? Rights that they, themselves, didn’t know.
The Central Park Five are a perfect example. We’re about the same age. They went to jail the same year I graduated from High School. I went to college, graduated, built a profession and started a family. They simply did time. Now that I’m middle-aged, New York has finally gotten around to acknowledging what a whole lot of people have been saying since 2002. They didn’t do it. Interestingly, there were six teenagers brought in that night. One, that nobody talks about. Despite coercion from the police to do otherwise, he chose to exercise his right to remain silent and attain an attorney. He didn’t believe in the good cop. It saved his life.
We have to stay out of trouble. Even car trouble. Recall the shooting death of former Florida A&M football player Jonathan Ferrell at the hands of officer Randall Kerrick. Ferrell had crashed his car. He was hurt. And after knocking on the door of the nearest house, he ran into the street to flag down the police. Police he thought were coming to help. What he didn’t know was that the woman of the house had dialed 911 to report a burglary. Officer Kerrick shot him dead in the street.
A similar thing happened in Detroit to Renisha McBride. She crashed her car, and then wandered for hours, injured, around a strange Detroit neighborhood before knocking on the wrong door. The resident Theodore Wafer, opened the door just enough to get off a clean shot with his 12 gauge shotgun. She died on his porch. She was 19.
Black men and women walk a tightrope. Watch how you dress, how you talk, where you walk and how you look. Don’t drink or do drugs or bend your fingers in a manner that may be construed as a gang affiliation. In other words, don’t be a thug. Easy, right? Do the right thing, keep your hands to yourself and study hard.
It’s actually harder than it seems. You see, white children are immune to Thuggish behavior. When they vandalize a house, they are just being kids. When they shoot up a movie theater or an elementary school or random people that they pass on the street, they are troubled. The nation scratches its collective head and wonders what signs they missed. When the largely white crowds rioted after Joe Paterno was fired from Penn State, the nation issued a collective, “meh…” A far cry from the almost universal condemnation levied at the largely peaceful residents of Ferguson.
When Black children are involved in crime, even when they are victims, the narrative shifts. Black children are thugified. Even if they have to post pictures of someone else with your child’s name on them, they will be painted as a lost cause. A sub-human. And it’s okay to kill animals, isn’t it?
Remember my brother? The one who was killed by the drunk driver? The autopsy report came back that he had marijuana in his system. He was a senior in High School in 1979. Maybe he did smoke. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the only High School senior toking up in the late 70’s. But how did the man who drove up on the sidewalk Saturday morning, hit him from behind and kept going, know that? And why would it matter?
My brother was a good kid. He was a straight A student and a letterman at both baseball and basketball. His girlfriend was pretty and he excelled at both architecture and Mathematics. He was good right up until it became legally expedient to turn him into a threat for the jury.
His killer on the other hand had a history of alcoholism. He would go on to injure someone else in a hit and run accident. But he was acquitted. Just like the cops who shot Jonathan Ferrel, or the ones who beat Rodney King in the street. The officer who killed Oscar Grant as he sat handcuffed on the Marta platform? He spent less than a year in prison.
There is comfort to be found in the thugification of the victim. It enables people to go to sleep easily in the belief that their child won’t befall the same fate. After all, their child isn’t like them. His pants don’t sag, and he’s respectful. You taught him better than that.
Even if your child is perfect, remember this. If something bad ever happened, his or her thugification might begin before the funeral. By the time the obituary is printed, there will be a thousand Facebook posts recalling the time he gave that boy a black eye, or the time he crashed his car into the stop sign. Anything to make us believe that the world is better off without him.
So what do I tell him? I’ll tell him not to be afraid. I’ll tell him to stand up straight and walk with confidence. And I tell him his rights. I won’t always be there to protect him. I naively ask that the constitution do so for me.
One thing I won’t tell him is, Don’t be a thug. Why bother. Like I said, he’s a good kid. But if anything ever happened to him, you can trust the world would conspire to thugify him.