Sunday, December 03, 2006

What Do You Teach Your Child about the Police?

Especially when your child is a black boy (yes, I think that makes a difference)? That question is on my mind this week because of Sean Bell and Kathryn Johnston. My son saw me reading an article about the Bell case and asked me what happened. After I explained to him, he asked me, "But why did the police do that?" And in a fit of angst, I told him, "Because they can. They can just kill us for no reason." That is unlike anything I've ever told him before, and I am worried about it.

Over at BfP's, Luisa made this observation on a post (in which BfP asks "does it make sense to give a group of people who put on a specific outfit the power to kill, rape, violate, and otherwise cause destruction and devastation to a particular area and its occupants?"):
I was not raised to respect the police or military. and this gets me in a little trouble ever now and then… I can feel myself becoming anxious around them. I always want to say something rude but, I also fear them. It is a strange emotion. I feel queasy when cop cars pass me. They are the only people who I fear in my neighborhood because if they force me into their car late at night, my fellow humans might just let it happen and who knows where I will end up. who knows what story they’ll tell…

I know that strange mix, the loathing that comes from knowing that, when this person puts on a uniform, he (yes, he) somehow assumes a power that makes his actions unquestionable (even if those actions include demanding a minstrel show). That fear that he can do anything to me and get away with it. And I'm not just saying that; it is a very real fear for me. My experiences with the police have included:

  • My father and I being pulled over while I was an undergraduate, separated, and questioned. We were in Texas, our car had Louisiana plates, and the cops admitted they suspected drug trafficking. Similarly, I was tailed closely by a cop for a while in a small East Texas town who didn't turn on his lights, initially. He was following me so closely that I put on my signal and got into the next lane. Then he turned on his lights--said I was supposed to wait until I'd traveled at least so many feet after turning on my signal to switch lanes. The problem, again, was my Louisiana plates in a Texas town. He wanted to know where I lived currently, where I was traveling to, and why. I answered, simply because I didn't know if I was allowed not to answer and I had no intention of disappearing in East Texas.
  • Coming from a club one night, my sister and I were pulled over by two white male cops who made us get out, shined flashlights in our faces and smirked the whole time. They asked us what we were doing out so late.
  • My male cousin, a minor at the time, being taken to the police station in the middle of the night and the police refusing to let any of us come in. When we began to loudly protest, my aunt begged us not to, scared what they might do.
  • Having a friend who was pulled over for a traffic stop quizzed about my car (I passed by twice to make sure he was okay). The officer, new to my hometown, asked why that "Texas car" was in town so much. What kind of business could I have there?

And so on. It's not that I don't have respect for people trying to do their jobs; it's that I've had a wealth of experience in which that job description has magically expanded in ugly ways. Quite often, the response from black parents I know has been to teach their children to always defer to authority, to not question, to do as they are told. For example, I hear parents say, about spanking their kids, "I'm whooping his/her ass now, so the police won't do it later." And no, this is not just an excuse to engage in teh evil spanking, it is evidence of a very real belief that teaching children to obey "authority" figures may save their lives.

Yet, just as I don't want to leave my son with the image of the police that I created with my comment, I don't want to teach him to blindly obey either. I did tell him later that there are "lots of good police who protect people," but that some of them feel like they have "superpowers over people" because they have guns and clubs.

And uniforms. Lord, the power of a uniform.

In the meantime, I am thinking of this. Sean Bell was 23. Kathryn Johnson was 92. Is there ever a time, an age when we are safe?

H/T Y. Carrington and Philip Arthur Moore


Zan said...

I don't know, Elle. I have the luxury of not having this problem, but I have seen it in action with my browner friends. I've only been pulled over twice and both times the officers were nothing but professional. Plus, well, I was speeding :) But I've seen how the police react to my black co-workers and friends and it's not pretty, at all. (And gods help them if they happen to be riding in a car with me. A black man riding around with a white woman? Oh dear. That way only leads to trouble.)

What I've always found funny (in that not-funny-at-all way) is when my friends tell the story about what happened, they get labeled as overreacting. But when I support their tale, suddenly the reactions change. Suddenly, it's all 'wow. those guys were really out of line. you should report them.' Because why? Because now you've got a white woman agreeing? I don't know. It's wildly unfair but I have no idea how to stop it. It seems like it will take a wholescale social change, but those do start with individual people.

As for Bell and Johnson -- oh gods. I was sick when I heard about it. Breaking into an old woman's home in the middle of the night and killing her when she defends herself? When you break in without announcing who you are and why you're there? Just kick down her door and expect her to, what? Sit there with her hands folded in her lap? Come on. And how many rounds fired a group of men, albeit drunken men? Hell, if someone were firing at me, and I was in a car, damned straight I'd be using it as a weapon. And again, firing without announcing who and what they are. What are people expected to do? Just give up, just not even try to defend themselves from what? It makes no fucking sense.

Anonymous said...

This is a fear I have as well. I have never been the subject of unfair/questionable treatment by the police, but I've seen it - many times. And not just by white officers.

I saw a black cop, who had been called by me and the husband of an alcoholic friend (who'd just lost a baby) barge in and strike said 4ft 11 inch female friend across the face with his flash light because she had the nerve to "touch" him. When I told him he needed to get his superiors out there he laughed at me. When they came they explained away his actions saying that you should never touch a police officer. Tell me, what was that 4'11" girl going to do to him that his first action was to strike her? Not once did he warn her verbally?

I've witnessed campus police at my college while I was an undergrad force two student football players (one is now my husband) on the ground face down and put their knees in their backs as I was walking home. When I asked what they were doing, they said the two "met the description of" some assailants who had just robbed the apartments we all lived in. Mind you, these two young men were STROLLING along with nothing in their hands whatsoever. So to fit the description, it meant they were black. I was so upset about it, I remember calling the one who is now my husband (but then was a friendly associate) and telling him he should report them. I remember the hurt I felt when it said it wasn't worth it, and it wasn't the first, nor the last time he'd go through that.

Is that what my son has to look forward to? My husband has a severe disdain for the police (not at all unfounded) and I know that will be passed down to my son. I worry now about my husband's safety if he's pulled over at the wrong time by the wrong cop and in the wrong mood. I know I will worry about my son as well when he gets older.

It's a damn shame we have to live like that. And it's a greater shame people are dying from such senselessness.

elle said...

there are moments, y'all, when i absolutely hate them. especially the sick mofos in my home town who don't even pretend to mask their prejudice towards black citizens(yep, the black ones included). they can make you feel so sick and powerless and impotent and i hate that.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...