It is comforting for a parent to hear validation from one’s young adult offspring as he/she refers to something “you always use to say”, or some other precaution that was given when the child was growing up. As real Life experience would have it, that young adult can now see that some of the parent’s admonitions and imposed rules did serve a purpose for the child’s well-being.
Yet, this time for me, it is bittersweet. When my son was of high school age I cautioned against him going out in public with friends who dressed in a manner that could likely cause hassles from authority figures. When he was eleven or twelve years old, I began to engage in conversations with him that I knew parents of most of his friends never had to think about – namely, what to do in the event that he was stopped by a cop. He was always taught to respect laws and those who enforce them. Yet, I knew he needed another lesson as he was on the portal to adolescence and eventually manhood….that lesson, a black mother of a son knows well.
The lesson he was taught and that was reinforced many times during the following years was: If you are stopped by a cop for whatever reason – whether you are in the wrong, or if you are innocent….the goal of that encounter is to stay alive! We practiced how to speak – the tone, the lack of smart answers, the lack of anger, and no arguing. Most of all, when asked for ID: not to reach for it…tell the officer where it is and wait to be told what to do and how to access it.
I remember that afternoon when my son was skateboarding on the steps of the library on the campus where I worked. The campus security officer told him to stop and he immediately called me to tell me what happened, saying several times that he did exactly what I taught him. He was polite; he stopped; he apologized; but more than anything, this young boy wanted me to know that he had handled himself in the manner which I prescribed.
Sunday, he called to tell me about an incident on Saturday afternoon outside an event in Brooklyn, in which he, his father and Godfather found themselves. They were just standing on the street in front of the building and white cops jumped out of an unmarked vehicle approaching his Godfather over an opened beer in a brown bag. My son described a situation in which the cop’s approach to them was marked by hatred with cursing, denigration and disrespectful tone. I held my breath bracing for the worst. He said that the three of them tried to be polite to the cops; yet, they were belittled, yelled at, and cursed. This was being done to two men with gray hair in their mid 60s. The infraction could warrant a fine (written summons) but the cops decided to take his Godfather to the station to write the summons. In dread, I listened further, while images of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn police station flashed in my head.
They went down to the station to wait for his Godfather only to continue to be treated poorly. When the computer indicated that his Godfather had an outstanding unpaid fine, the officer cursed at him when he saw it on the screen. They kept his Godfather and responded sarcastically to questions by my son. They would not allow them to have the Godfather’s car keys so that they could move the vehicle from the event location.
My son, remembering what I taught him, was beside himself, because he saw first-hand how black civilians can be treated despite all efforts to be polite. He said they answered all questions politely, never argued with the cops, and never showed disrespect. Yet, he witnessed his Godfather, father and himself being cursed at and disrespected for what, he says, was a matter of writing a summons on the spot if the officers wanted to do that.
My son saw white men of authority abusing their power and on the phone he heard me remind him of Amadou Diallo, unarmed, reaching for his wallet for ID, pumped with 41 shots. I told him about the 76 year old Eleanor Bumpurs shot dead in her apartment in the Bronx. I reminded him that when he was a baby we had the Rodney King incident. It is bittersweet to hear my son say that he realized why I kept trying to teach him that the goal is to STAY ALIVE when confronted. It is bittersweet because my newly graduated ivy leaguer saw, first hand, the common denominator.
He told me on Sunday that he had already emailed his professor about the incident. This is the professor of his prison studies class. My son said, “Mom, I read about all of this, but I could not believe what I experienced.” His Godfather was released on Monday, three days later.
My son’s ultimate goal has been law school to assist him with a position in Public Policy. Now, this. God works in mysterious ways and time will tell the out-picturing of his career. However, I know beyond a doubt that what he experienced were defining moments with an indelible imprint.
© Dr. Drayton-Craig, 2011