A couple of years ago, Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, was arrested on the front porch of his Cambridge, Massachusetts home. At the time, I wrote a piece for Babble.com (which was also reprinted in Adoptive Families Magazine) about what the incident meant for parents of Black children -- especially, perhaps, white parents of Black children -- and what such children ought to be taught about the police.
I had two small Black daughters and was torn between how to represent the police to them. Should I tell them that Officer Friendly was there to help them? Or teach them to avoid uniforms whenever possible?
It was still a theoretical question until yesterday. Yesterday, my six year-old got a personalized lesson about who the police are when she met her very first police officer, face-to-face. Here’s how it went:
My daughter was sitting behind me in the car when I pulled into the street on my green light. Once I was in the middle of a very busy intersection (Route 1, in Lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania), an unmarked police car hit its lights and siren and came into the intersection, cutting me off.
I stopped to wait for it to pass, assuming it was going after some car in the cross-traffic. While I waited, however, several cars followed it, against the light.
The cars were not marked in any special way, and I suddenly became worried that the green light wasn’t my light after all. I was puzzling it out when a huge slam hit the window of my door. It was a police officer’s hand.
My daughter burst into terrified tears and began sobbing and begging me “what’s going on, Mama Shannon?”
I rolled down the window, wondering what was happening, and the cop who had hit my window, his partner just behind him, began shouting at me, calling me a [bleeping bleep], telling me to get my head out my [bleep] and didn’t I see this was a funeral procession?
(Honestly, no, I didn’t see that. As I said, neither the police car, nor the procession cars were marked in any way. I suppose their lights were on, but so were mine and everyone else’s because it was overcast and raining. The cop car only hit the siren and lights after I was in the intersection.)
The police officer and his partner continued to harangue me -- at the top of their lungs -- asking me what the [bleeping bleep] I thought I was doing.
My daughter continued wailing and began to hyperventilate, still begging me to tell her what was happening.
Throughout all this I was very calm. I realized now that I had made an honest, and fairly understandable mistake, rather than stupidly blundered into traffic against my signal. I vaguely wondered when the police would get to writing me a ticket but was mostly concerned that my daughter was hysterical and that if these men knew they were shouting curses not just at an adult, but a little girl, maybe they would take it down a notch and reassure her in some way.
I (stupidly, regrettably) rolled her window down and said, quite calmly, “Please don’t speak to me this way in front of my child.”
The second cop, at this point, waved his fist in my daughter’s general direction and shouted, “I don’t care!”
By now, the cars in the funeral procession had passed. The light changed and now I was sitting in the middle of a busy intersection in front of a red light. The cops looked at me and my daughter, shouted, “sit there in the intersection and I hope you get hit!” got back in their car and drove away.
Of course I didn’t snap a phone photo of the car. Of course I didn’t even notice what jurisdiction they were from. Of course I didn’t ask for their badges or names (not that I believe they would have given me that information, seeing as how they neither ticketed me, nor helped me cross the intersection safely and in fact, wished aloud for me -- with a child in my car -- to be hit.
It took about an hour for me to calm my daughter down. “But Mama Shannon, we didn’t take off our seat belts!” she wailed. (This is the most important traffic violation she knows of.) “That man looked at me very mean and said ‘I don’t care! I hope you get hit!’”
So much for Officer Friendly. My daughter now has her own opinion of the police and she has shared it with her little sister, aged four, who has been talking about it ever since.
I did try, today, to find out who the officers had been, to no avail. There are a half-dozen jurisdictions near here and it might have been Philadelphia, any nearby township or even cops from New Jersey driving through this area. The local police (Bensalem, PA) could only shake their heads in horror at my story and assure me it wasn’t them -- they had no funerals yesterday (27 December).
I can’t say that this incident had anything to do with race, since the officers didn’t see my daughter until they were already being belligerent. Nevertheless, the fact that my daughters will undoubtedly have different experiences with police in their lives than I have had (until now!) makes this experience that much more upsetting.
I find myself instinctively now wanting to find a way to restore my daughter’s trust in the police by taking her to a friendly station to meet some friendly officers, once we’re home again from our holiday travels. But is that the right response?
The young man who lives with our family confessed, “I hate to say it, but maybe it’s appropriate for her to think the police are the enemy.” But I chaff against the idea that things are so black and white. Of course there are good, honest, hard-working police officers. I don’t want to teach my children to stereotype any kind of person, any job, any race. Yet I want to give them the skills they need to be safe in the world and to navigate the racism and sexism they will face daily. I have always assumed those skills would include a healthy dose of skepticism and knowing their rights. But doesn’t my six year-old have a right to a cynicism-free childhood?
It’s times like these that I am reminded just how subtle, just how nuanced, just how ubiquitous white privilege is. Even if this particular incident with the police wasn’t racially instigated, my stunned response at being treated so badly smacks of race privilege. At nearly 42 years old, I have never been shouted at by the police, never cursed by them, never even had a rude word from one -- even when I was clearly in the wrong, getting a speeding ticket, for instance. Perhaps my desire to make this right or “clean it up” for my child is nothing but an extension of the assumption that people like us don’t deserve to be treated that way.
But whatever material and cultural gifts I can give them, however much I love them, the fact is that my race-based privilege can’t be handed down to my children like a family heirloom. At times like these, we have to rally our extended and chosen multi-race family to share stories and strategies and perhaps most importantly, hugs, while my children grow and learn that often, life isn’t fair, however much we all yearn to make it so.
And hopefully, they’ll manage to reach adulthood, happy, healthy and whole, committed to moving the world closer to the goal of justice—and a cynicism-free childhood—for all.
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