“I’m a mother of three children, two of which are black boys. I fear for the lives of my sons. My daughter, my youngest, is six years old. When she looks at a police officer, she’s afraid. She’s not looking at them as somebody who’s there to protect and serve her.”
That’s what a woman named Rodrice Vincent shared with a Democracy Now reporter in Times Square last week when she was asked why she was out in the streets, protesting the grand jury decision to not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, an African American father and grandfather from Staten Island.
The police’s confrontation with Garner was captured on cell phone cameras. In that footage, you can see him expressing — with outrage and hand gestures, but no violence or aggression — his frustration at what he termed police harassment before he is set on by three or four officers, who wrestle him to the ground after Pantaleo puts him in a choke hold. He died and the New York City medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
“I fear for the lives of my sons.”
That constant, bone deep, existential fear of harm or death at the hands of law enforcement is shared by so many mothers and fathers in this country — men and women of color who have never had a positive interaction with a person wearing a police officer’s uniform.
In the wake of the Ferguson and Staten Island killings, the failures of the justice system to hold officers accountable for murder, and the nationwide wave of almost entirely nonviolent protest that have ensued, a lot of police are talking now about how hard their jobs are, their own daily fears, and the blowback they face on the streets. I feel for them as people — but they can take off their uniforms at the end of the day; Rodrice Vincent’s sons can’t take off their skin.
Her fear struck me so deeply. I have a son too. But he is a tow-headed white toddler. He waves and smiles at police as we go about our days. And they wave back. I will not have to have “the talk” with Seamus that so many African American mothers have with their sons.
In essence, “the talk” is a harsh lesson in how to survive interactions with police. Marlowe Thomas-Tulloch, an early childhood educator, had the talk with her black son. She said: “The first time we had the talk, it was too hard. I had to be honest about the truth: If the police stop you, you need to be humble. You need to be prepared to be humiliated. Take your hands out your pockets. I would rather pick you up from the police department, than from the morgue.”
Seamus’ whiteness means that I don’t have to teach him how to prepare for humiliation. That is white privilege in a nutshell.
In an event organized by the Missouri History Museum and the YWCA, a panel of eight African American women shared their experiences of having “the talk” with their sons and grandsons. Riisa Renee Easley related this message to her son: “Life is not fair. Pull your pants up; tighten your belt. You will never speak like that to an adult.” She told the audience that her son is stopped all the time by the police in his own neighborhood. “He learned early about ‘the description’ that he constantly fit. I would see my young man come home with rage and pain and anger.”
That is what racism does. A mother watches the world hurt her son — even if he remains physically unscathed, unarrested, unbeaten, unharrassed — so far. A sigh of relief, a respite, until the next time he leaves the circle of protection inside her home. Every day she sees the weight of racism and hatred on her beloved son’s shoulders, in the crease between his eyebrows. She hears it in his sighs and feels it in his weariness.
I listened to these women’s stories with a breaking heart. I do not fear for my son in that way. At all. Ever. In fact, I revel in his exploration of the world, in his new boldness with people, in his willingness to push the boundaries, in his enthusiasm for interaction with everyone he encounters.
It is so marvelous! And it is so unjust that every mother’s son does not — and cannot — rollick and explore and be themselves out in the world.
I was afraid of police when I was a kid because they arrested my parents at anti-war actions and demonstrations. They came to our house sometimes looking for peace activists who hadn’t shown up for court. More than once, I saw my dad get roughed up by police after throwing blood or spray painting the pillars at the Pentagon. It was terrifying. But, he’d see me watching and blow me a kiss or give me a wink to let me know he was ok. I knew my dad would not be beaten, I knew he would be released, and I knew that he was doing what he thought needed to be done.
All these years later, the residue of fear is still there. I have seen police officers misuse their power. I have seen them act in ways that “protect and serve” power rather than people. I am grateful for these experiences. It puts me one small step closer to what Rodrice Vincent and Marlowe Thomas-Tulloch and Riisa Renee Easley fear. It is such a small step, but it means that I am not surprised by their fear in the way many white people in that Missouri audience were. And that is important.
Assata Henderson, another panelist, directed her comments at the white mothers in the audience and those (like me) who listened online: “While our talk with our sons is about surviving, what are you, the mothers of police officers, judges and CEOs talking about with your sons?”
That is the question for me. My son isn’t a police officer or a judge or a CEO — not yet. But I am the mother of a white boy — an effusive, dynamic, gentle, kind toddler, who was born with so much privilege.
He will need to hear a very different version of “the talk” than these women gave their sons. So, my husband and I will talk to our white son about structural inequity, racism, systematic disenfranchisement, state-sponsored and state-sanctioned violence. We will talk to him about whiteness. We will use lots of big words. But, most of our talk can’t be with words. It will have to be our actions, our example to teach lessons about empathy, solidarity and the work of putting our power and privilege as white people to use in the service of others.