When I first met my son, he was five years old, and terrified of police officers. I discovered this fear on one of our first outings in Montego Bay, where he had lived in a children’s home, which he hadn’t left for three years. The noise and hustle and bustle in the streets took some time to get used to, as did having to wear shoes, which he would rip off his feet, sometimes reaching down in the middle of crossing a street; (children didn’t wear shoes in the home, even when they went out to play in the yard covered with sharp gravel and dry grass).
In the first few weeks, my son would become agitated from all the excitement of the busy town, or dwell in the other extreme, standing in one spot in scorching island heat to watch construction workers, or vendors in a busy market. It was in one such market, while we were browsing fruit stands for the ripest pineapple and sweetsop, that my son experienced a veritable fright attack. He hid behind me, digging his fingernails into my hips. He became loud. He cried, as I held him and tried to understand what had so frightened him. He didn’t speak much yet, not in words I could piece together to understand his meaning. Then, he pointed at a police officer disappearing into the crowd.
“Oh, no, baby,” I told him. “That’s a police officer. His job is to keep us safe. He will never hurt you. You don’t need to be afraid of police officers.”
A few weeks later, on a visit to see his friends at the home, I realized that my son was afraid of police officers because they were the ones who brought children to the home, and took them away when their time at the orphanage came to an end. As we watched a police car pull up to the gates of the home to drop off a little boy, my son hid behind me again, and again I told him he need not be afraid of police officers, that they would never hurt him, or take him away from me.
When we arrived in New York, my son stiffened in paralyzing fear each time we walked by a police officer. He began to speak, and suddenly, there were words, sentences stringing together long bottled up fears of police officers and their weapons. I began to wonder if the caregivers at the home had threatened children with calls to the police, or whether he might have a latent memory of the armed robbery that had sent bullets flying in the orphanage when he was two-years-old. This fear concerned me enough that I reached out to a friend, and asked him to host us at the precinct where he worked, so my son could meet some police officers, talk to them, see that they are just people, just like us, so he could understand that guns stay safely tucked away in their holsters, and that he has no reason to fear the police.
That was before I had a revelation that my son was a black boy on his way to becoming a black man in America, before doctors diagnosed him with several irreparable mental and cognitive challenges, which make him impulsive, spontaneous, defiant, and difficult to understand.
It was before two police officers came up to my husband in the park down the street from our Forest Hills home, claiming that he fit the description given by the woman who had called to report someone suspicious. My husband was sitting on a bench, browsing Facebook posts, our son riding his bike a few feet away. When he looked up from his phone screen and asked what the woman had reported, the officers walked away, and approached the other black man in the park. The two men later joked about the incident, calling it a case of being guilty of being black in a park. I know from having lived in a Communist country that humor is the best antidote for the kind of fear that paralyzes once it is allowed to enter the mind.
It was before one of my students was arrested for walking her bicycle on a sidewalk in Harlem, another sent to Rikers Island for smoking a joint on the stoop of his East New York home. It was before I met a nurse who told me her brother served two years for a robbery he hadn’t committed before anyone even realized that he hadn’t been involved in any such crime. It was before a colleague told me her now senior citizen brother has been sitting in a cell for over forty years for selling marijuana on the street.
It was before my son and his then year-old sister wore hoodies up to remember the slaying of Trayvon Martin by a gun-wielding beast. It was before I kissed my children goodnight and told them I would miss bedtime because I would be out on New York City streets to remind the world that Eric Garner couldn’t breathe. It was before Michael Brown was gunned down for running from cops his mother had likely taught him to fear. It was before Sandra Bland was found hanging in a cell after a routine traffic stop in which she exercised her right to demand explanations and fair treatment. It was before Alton Sterling received gunshots to his chest by officers who had him on the ground, on his back, subdued, and helpless. It was before Philando Castile was shot four times, a four-year-old child witnessing the murder from the backseat.
It was before we had smart phones with which to document execution after execution of black men; before social media opened our eyes to the violence against black men and women that has always existed and never, ever ceased in this country.
It was before gunned down black men and women turned into daily hashtags screaming for justice.
It was before all this that I would tell my son that police officers are here to keep us safe.
Today, I tell my son, “Be afraid. If a cop comes up to you, say nothing. Don’t run. Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Be still. Be silent. Ask for your parents. No matter what they say, no matter what they do, don’t fight, don’t contradict. Question nothing. Do nothing. Be afraid.”