Monday, November 24, 2014

Kid Shot While Playing on a Playground, or Raising Black Boys in 2014 America

What make me saddest about the story of Tamar Rice is the same thing that made me sad about the recent stories of John Crawford out of BeaverCreek Ohio, and  Levar Jones, and hell, it goes back to Amadou Diallo and beyond. There is this assumption of criminality when it comes to black youth, which, thanks to media portrayals of “Black on Black crime” and long held racial fears people believe as fact. Well, there is the fact that all crime is segregated. 85% of whites are killed by other whites, so yeah you are more likely to be victimized by a person with your own skin color no matter what it is.

Then there is the blatant disregard for the humanity of these individuals, John Crawford is seen on video wandering the store with an item he purchased. He is on the phone with his girlfriend and before he can even register what is happening cops run up to him, shout demands and shoot him. I have gotten flustered in a long line at the Starbucks counter when I can’t remember my order, I could not imagine having to process a situation where cops run up to me guns drawn shouting and then shoot before I have a chance to even consider the “best course of action,” In the video of Levar Jones the guy has pulled up to the gas station fully expecting to go into the store. In later news stories he said he didn't even realize the cop was following him. I have had that experience before when I assume the cop is going right by me and, nope, he is waving me over.

Imagine the situation: you pull up to a gas station, cop pulls up to and starts telling you what to do. He asks for your license, and although somewhat disgruntled you reach for your license and bang bang bang you get shot. People can say that hey, you shouldn't make any sudden moves when dealing with cops, and I agree you shouldn't, but if you think about your everyday interactions with normal people who treat you like a normal person: how often do you absentmindedly reach for things in your vicinity without fear of being shot before you can blink. That is in many ways asking for these individuals to not just be human, but super human, aware of not only their intentions and movements and whatnot but how they will be perceived and automatically assume that they will be perceived as dangerous, and don’t for a second thing that you can forget that you are under the barrel of a gun, even if the officer hasn’t drawn their weapon yet.

But whatever, let’s go back to just Tamar Rice. This kid goes to a playground and fake shoots a bunch of kids with a toy gun. Cops show up, shoot him, probably within seconds. They don’t mention any sort of standoff, there is a kid, the assumption that he is armed, and he is shot dead. The 911 caller even says repeatedly that they thought it was a kid and the gun was probably fake, but the cops show up and do what cops do when they fear black men. They didn’t even see a kid. 

Full disclosure for a second. My parents NEVER bought us toy guns, for this very reason. They were very aware of how unfair the world was and although they would never refer to the “criminalization of black bodies” they knew that some toys could not be held in black hands. Three shots into Darrien Hunt’s back proved that toy swords can be added to that list as well.

Even though my parents never bought us toy guns, we were kids. We acquired them through various the means that kids acquire things and we would play a variation of hide and seek where if you were found and didn’t shoot first you were out. We were adolescents running around, often in the dark, having the time of our lives. I have some of the fondest memories about me, Addison, Joey, and Herbie sneaking around in bushes and tall grass playing commando and terrifying each other for giggles. We were fighting wars together, and vanquishing bad guys, and rescuing damsels in distress. We once jumped off my uncles roof in tandem because that is what you do in action movies, and if you ask Joseph Murray the story today he will tell it to you in a way that will make you bust a stitch.

Even with my vast imagination of alternate realities and dragons and demons I couldn't have imagined then that cops could have been called on us preteen black kids running around on a summer night with toy guns. That cops could have shown up real guns drawn, and yelling. I know I would probably have done any number of wrong things in that moment, the least of which would have been cry or wee myself. I am not sure I wouldn't have tried to drop the gun, which according to the stories I have seen Tamar Rice had in his waistband. I can’t say that I would not have made some random move that would have made the cop think I was going for the gun to end his life. Timothy Thomas was running away from traffic tickets and caught a hot one.

Basically what I am saying is it sounds like there really is no position a black male can be in when the cops show up that will guarantee their safety. Victor White was handcuffed in the car when he somehow “shot himself. ” Where am I getting all these names from? These are real people who were kids or had kids and weren't always involved in criminal activity. Akai Gurley was just “taking the stairs” and now his 2 year old daughter won’t ever hear his voice again.

Tamar Rice was a 12 year old kid who was doing stupid 12 year old kid things. He was sitting on a swing set with a fake gun. We can all say that in hindsight his parents should have done more, or not let him out the house with the toy or taught him how to react when the cops show up. These are incredibly callous things to say to a parent. Anyone who is full time parent knows the palpable fear we have 24/7 when we send our kids into the world and how we only rely on faith that they will return safe and sound. Anyone who thinks they know the exact formula for a healthy and safe 12 year old is nuts. Anyone who thinks for a moment that they completely understood the magnitude of consequences for their actions at 12 is lying to themselves or the world. We can say all those things in hindsight because it helps our ego to feel like there is something we could do to avoid these tragic circumstances. It helps us to feel some measure of control, it is how our brains work. It is also what allows us to overlook very horrendous act. The part that gets me is that Police are human beings too and the inability of that system to admit mistakes and accept the consequences is astonishing.

I am not saying that being a cop isn't hard. I really do value the work they do every day and I understand it now in a way I never did as a youth. It is tough to police people who don’t always want your help or respect it. I have two sons. They are beautiful fun loving kids who I want to see live long after me. I have to tell them these stories, not today, but one day. I have to inform them about a world that doesn't just see them as human, but as super human killing machines intent on destruction. They live in a world that will only give them milliseconds to make the right choice and then judge them harshly in hindsight through a lens of stereotypes and bias.

I spent the better part of a decade learning how the human brain works. I can tell you for a fact that we are not objective beings. The whole reason we established science is because we are not objective beings. Everything we see goes through the emotion center of our brain before we even process it. The benefit and flaws of a system like that are that bias is hardwired in. We can try any number of methods and training to circumvent this system but it is a part of us. We can tell ourselves that we don’t see color and that racism is the specific purview of folks like the KKK, but that is not true to who we are as a species. To our brain discrimination, prejudice, and bias are essential components of our survival. We need to, as a human race confront and deal with these issues, and to do that we need to first accept that when the rubber hits the road we will ingroup/outgroup everyone where we see fit.

I am not really trying to save the world here. I am trying to raise sons. I wish I could believe that some authority could give me the right script for them to follow on a day by day basis for them to thrive in the world. I don’t want to raise superheroes. I want to raise my boys into smart and capable men. I want them to live in a world that treats them fairly and doesn't immediately assume their criminality. As much as people tell me racism is over I know better. I know the world is still unfair, and continues to be so for little black boys like my sons. We have to navigate that world and I have to help them with that, knowing they will make mistakes and praying that those mistakes won’t be fatal.