Once a year, every year of my elementary school life, a police officer from the local precinct would be a special guest at our assembly. Clad in his starched uniform, the officer – always white and male, in those days – would tell an auditorium filled with fidgety kids about all the good things cops do to make our communities safe. They were, we were told, our guardians, our bulwark against those who would do us harm.
During the question-and-answer period, when some student inevitably would ask the officer whether he had ever used his gun to shoot someone, the cop would always say no. Then gently, but emphatically, he’d assert that the primary goal of the police department is to help people, not hurt them. Whether it was “Officer Mike” or “Officer Steve,” they were collectively known as “Officer Friendly,” and the overt message was always the same: a police officer is your buddy, your trusted ally in a time of need.
In America today, few African-American children likely view cops as their friends.
Not after the death last July of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old unarmed black man and father of six, whose dying words, “I can’t breathe,” were ignored by Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer who wrestled Garner to the ground in a maneuver banned more than two decades ago by the NYPD. The city’s medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused, in part, by the cop’s illegal chokehold. (A New York grand jury will soon decide whether to bring charges against Pantaleo.)
Not after the death less than a month later of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo., who was shot multiple times by a police officer and left facedown and uncovered on a sweltering street for hours. Not after the frightening militaristic response of local authorities who helped escalate a citizens’ protest into a siege of tanks and tear gas. Not after a St. Louis County grand jury, in a grimly predictable outcome, chose not to indict now-former Ferguson cop Darren Wilson in Brown’s death.
And certainly not after the recent death of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old Cleveland boy playing with a toy gun, who was shot last month by an officer only two seconds after he and his partner arrived on the scene. According to published reports, those cops also failed to administer any first aid to the gravely wounded child, who later died at the hospital.
Long troubled and tenuous, the relationship between police departments and African-American communities is now toxic, and its repercussions may be most visible in the wounded eyes of black children. Since Brown’s death in August, scores of parents have brought their kids, some barely out of kindergarten, to protests nationwide and sparking discussions with them about racial profiling, police brutality, and the sad, but necessary refrain that “Black Lives Matter.”
Heartbreak and despair is a society in which first-graders must learn to assert out loud that their existence has value.
Social media has been flooded with images of children holding signs with the rallying cry, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Some have accused black parents of exploiting their kids for media attention, while others believe it detrimental to expose youngsters to such upsetting realities. Yet that’s exactly why scores of adults have allowed their children to participate, realizing that, in this tumultuous climate, hard lessons can’t be learned too early.
At a Washington, D.C., protest after the Ferguson decision last month, Elizabeth Pace brought two of her kids, including her 4-year-old daughter. She told the Huffington Post, “It is important to have her here. I want to show her not only what we have gone through, but also what we will have to go through in the future.” For these parents, it’s a history lesson, a dose of current events, and essential preparation for the injustices, big and small, to come. These children aren’t pawns; they are witnesses.
Black children today don’t have the luxury I had growing up. Perhaps I never saw the officers at those school assemblies as friends, but they also weren’t a cause for alarm. Now, kids can no longer be shielded from the depressing fact that nothing more that their skin color can make them born suspects in the eyes of some police officers.
Renee Graham is a writer in Boston.