Like many parents, I have been following the Trayvon Martin story with outrage and with deep grief for his family. And also like, I am sure, many parents of teenage boys, I am guiltily aware of feelings of relief and fear in the mix — relief that it wasn't my kid, and fear that next time it might be.
As described here, two summers ago my son was horsing around with some friends in a city park when two police officers, believing the kids were menacing them, advanced with guns drawn and shouted at them to hit the ground. Ben had walked away from the group to throw something in a trash can. He thought he was meant to return to the group before dropping, so he started walking back toward his friends. One of the policemen interpreted this as an aggressive act against himself (the officer was standing over the group of kids and so he thought Ben was advancing on him) and pointed his gun right at Ben, screaming expletives at him. Ben dropped, and it was all straightened out eventually, but it could so easily have gone the other way.
Every time I think about that episode, I have trouble catching my breath. And I have been thinking about it a lot this week.
Jesse Taylor offers a powerful reminder that the fact that this has only happened to us once is an indicator of privilege. Young men of color often grow up being menaced for "offenses" such as driving, running to make a dentist appointment, or walking back from the candy store with a bag of Skittles.
When I last wrote about this incident, it was to illustrate the tension between appropriate parental protectiveness and teenagers' need for autonomy. I didn't want to politicize the story, so I didn't say some things that I want to say now.
This was Ben's first, and I hope only, brush with the law (unless you count our family, along with other Quakers, being menaced by mounted police during an antiwar demonstration, which for this purpose I don't). I know there are reasons for that besides the fact that he is a good kid.
He looks like a WASP. (His classmates voted him the kid who most resembles Tom Cruise. I think he is better looking, of course.) His best friend is a fair-skinned redhead who looks 105% Irish. They are in two bands together and travel to and from practice and gigs at all hours and have never been stopped for any reason. This is not the case with other band members who are POC and who travel at roughly the same times, from the same locations. And the group that got into trouble in the park was racially diverse, and it was dark out.
During the incident, when the officers were collecting ID from the kids, one of them said to one of the girls, "I bet you're used to this drill, huh?" That was a pretty safe bet, not because she is a lawbreaker—she is an honor student at an all-girls Catholic high school, who has never been in trouble—but because she has dark skin.
Later that night, the officer who nearly shot Ben confided in the father of the main instigator of the nonsense—the father is a white attorney—that he was deeply shaken by the thought that he could have killed a "nice kid."
Ben and his friends were not blameless. They were teenagers acting like idiots, something most adults can remember doing. We expect consequences for foolish behavior—but not fatal ones.
Several years ago, my Quaker Meeting sponsored a joint talk by representatives of the NYPD and the NYCLU on racial profiling. At one point, the police speaker started to list items of clothing that teenage boys should never wear, because the police associate certain dress styles with gang membership.
The NYCLU speaker interrupted him. This was out of line, she said. The burden is not on the children to conform to the state's notion of acceptable dress, but on the police to treat all citizens with respect.
But the parents of color in the audience shouted her down. They wanted to hear the list. They needed to hear it. Because, although we we all there to question and examine injustice, their primary need was to keep their sons alive.
We all have that primary need. But some of us can take its fulfillment for granted, while others have to struggle with it every day.
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