A few weeks ago this summer, on one of those perfectly sunny, sky blue early afternoons that amazingly isn’t too Atlanta hot yet, I’m driving in my car down a side street by our home towards the highway. My soon to be five year old son is in the backseat. The windows are down, and I’ve got the music up a notch. On my way to tuning to NPR or some other talkfest, my son hears a top-40 radio station playing one of those catchy overplayed songs that he digs, so I crank it up and he’s singing. "Why you gotta be so rude…I’m gonna marry her, marry her… "
Before we make it to the highway, I see it, two white police officers on the street side of a black and white cruiser handling a young Black man in a white-t-shirt and long dark shorts. He’s already cuffed. One White arm is pressed into his back. The young man’s arms jut awkwardly behind him, skinny elbows twisted into uneven angles. His body isn’t outwardly in all out war with the police, but his thin legs burrow into his high top tennis shoes with no socks, fighting to stay standing, and not forced to his knees. I cut the music and slow down to a crawl.
“Mommy!” My son protests, but his eyes follow mine to the scene outside the open window.
I don’t want him to see this, what he hasn’t seen before, what could happen. I want drive past and go about my business. Instead I’m at a crawl and I’m watching and not because I’m nosy that way. I am on guard, prepared to bear witness. To what? What is happening, what could. My heart plays tag in my chest. I turn into a parking lot across from the cruiser instead of keeping straight to the highway. I can’t hear but I can see.
“What the police doing, Mommy?” My son asks?
“Hold on, Baby, shhhh,” I beg. “Hold on.”
The two officers push into his back still, one with his stick lodged against the young man back. He’s pressed down flat on the ground, his jaw making an imprint in the dirty concrete. Another police officer, Black,pulls up, parks in front of the other, and gets out. Why? Other than trying to move his head, his body isn’t making much movement. Why does it take three officers to subdue one handcuffed, thin young man, already face down on the concrete? The Black cop joins and takes over for one while he goes to the first cruiser. I contemplate what to do if things really jump off and reach in my purse, grab my phone and swipe to the video camera. Then I sit and wonder. If things escalate, can I calmly tape while a young man, another mama’s son, gets beaten, maybe to death? Would the years of this rise up in me and send me rushing out of the car to protect that son and maybe end up beaten or killed myself in front of my own son?
“Mommy . . .” My son is confused. Why have we pulled over? Why is Mommy sitting there staring, not talking? Why do the police push the young man into the ground? Why is it the police and not the boy who look scary?
The officers lift and push him roughly until his thin body folds into the back of the cruiser, his head barely missing the hood of the car. I ease back into the street, and pass the cruiser, glimpsing the dark face in the back seat.
“Mommy, are the police bad?”
Several White police officers visited my son’s preschool a few months back. They smiled, shook his hand, and talked about safety, how and when to dial 911, how they should not play with guns, talk to or accept gifts from, or go off with strangers, how they could trust a police officer if they are lost. One child wondered if the officers were going to take them to jail.
“No, buddy, we only take bad people to jail.”
My son, the aspiring doctor-NBA player like Lebron went home and said he was going to be a police officer. His father, barely able to veil the flash of anger, of pain that crossed his face, reminded him about the doctor-athlete ambition.
Now my son was asking, “are the police bad?” I couldn’t say no, and I couldn’t say yes. When I knew I was having a son, I feared for him from an endless line of future threats. This was one of my top fears, so troubling in my spirit that I avoided talking about it aloud. I know I am haunted, haunted by the knowledge of the years and years of before I was born lynchings and the bloody hand of the law in a hundred Southern towns and Northern cities, by Emmett Till, Rodney King, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, by the woman beaten down on the side of a California highway by a trooper just this summer and the killing of young black boys, of girls too by police in my home state of Indiana and others across the country that didn’t get major news attention or justice, haunted by the tears of their mothers, fathers, grandparents . . . by the White campus and local police in the southern Indiana town where I started college, harassing us as we went to basketball games or parties or crossed into town to go to the store. I was an enraged forced witness on the edge of losing it myself when they threatened and goaded my boyfriend, friends, me.
I am haunted by all the years of comforting and commiserating with proud blood and friend brothers, cousins, uncles, and students sharing in anger, indignation, and pain their cold concrete police profiling experiences.
Police officers at parks, schools, and banks, had been smiling at my son for almost five years, shaking his hand, giving him play badges. “How you doing Buddy?” saying what other kindly White folk said ‘handsome little guy’ as they offered lollipops. Since he was in the womb, I’ve been trying to figure out what I’d say when it came time for his Dad and I to explain to his preteen and teen age self the whole history, the continuing realities of how he could be walking down the street in his own neighborhood, minding his business, or out buying candy not stealing, or hanging out at a game or driving with his fellow long legged black make friends and be instantly typed and tagged and in an instant quickly ‘mistakenly’ killed. How could I explain this to my smart little boy not too long out of toddlerhood and not terrify and confuse him yet not lie, but plant a tiny seed to the big truth I was being swept toward explaining in the not too distant future.
It pissed me off; I shouldn’t have to explain. Black parents should not still be explaining this to our sons. We should be making this kind of killing of our sons and daughters uncommon, exhibiting zero tolerance of the police criminalizing them on sight rather than being moved to try and save them first.
Mommy, Mommy, the police are bad?” My little boy persisted.
“Well, there are good police officers, Son, but there are bad ones too, just like other people…"
“What ones Mommy? You will tell me the bad ones?”
I merged onto the highway and sped up.
Stephane Dunn, PhD, is a writer who directs the Cinema, Television, & Emerging Media Studies program at Morehouse College. She teaches film, creative writing, and literature. She is the author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois Press). Her writings have appeared in Ms., The Chronicle of Higher Education, TheRoot.com, AJC, CNN.com, and Best African American Essays, among others. Her recent work includes a short film, Fight for Hope, and book chapters exploring representation in Tyler Perry's films.