As a girl, my mother sat me down and taught me how to speak to police. As an aunt, I have had this conversation with my 6-year-old niece more times than she can count. More times than I am proud to recite. However, each tired word feels like a protective cloth against the outside world’s fear of her body. Of her power. Of her existence. It’s not to say that simply saying those words promises that she will survive an exchange with the police. It has been proven time and again that the only way to survive an encounter with the police while Black is to read their minds and be everything that comforts them instead of anything thing that threatens them.
I’ve told my niece to smile and say, “Thank you for taking your time to help me today.” Some people, my sister included, have told me I am teaching her weakness. Honestly, though, what other choice do I have?
The Strong, Independent, Black Woman and Black Thug narratives have been played so often that strength in anyone African American is seen as something to be ridiculed, killed, or at the very least, beaten out as a lesson. A woman like Sandra Bland, who told police exactly how she felt about the unfairness of her arrest, ended life with a question mark looming over her dead body.
Genele Laird, the 18-year-old girl in Madison, WI, who two police officers body slammed, tasered, kicked, and sat on, screamed, “I AM ONLY ONE HUNDRED POUNDS!” Yet, she was considered a threat to two grown men, so much a threat that her human reaction in a terrifying situation was deemed an invitation to abuse.
Our children are denied the pleasure of innocence. The moment the hairs on their head reach past the height of average boyhood, like Tamir Rice, they’re deemed adult men. The second their laughter emits too freely, like the group of teens at a swimming pool in McKinney, TX, they’re delinquents. So, when I teach my niece to act without emotion in an inevitable police interaction, I say this in hopes that she will simply survive. Not that these warnings have protected many others.
Last week, Philando Castile’s girlfriend live-streamed onto Facebook as a police officer killed him during a traffic stop. Philando’s mother told reporters that she regularly warned him about how to interact with police. Despite following all the rules, despite his right to be a human confused and afraid, Philando is dead. Black parents’ instructions to comply, be quiet, and protect police officers’ feelings haven’t kept their children alive.
Thursday evening, on July 7, the Austin Justice Coalition and Sistas of Austin organized a vigil to mourn the stolen lives of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Two black men, five years apart in age, killed one day after the other. I was floored at the news of Philando Castile in a time when so many of my peers were emotionally exhausted by the news of Alton Sterling the day before.
I tried to avoid watching the video of Alton because I was tired of watching live executions, while knowing many will sit behind their screens and post a hashtag of his name and most likely do nothing else. I caved: I watched two police officers tackle him and sit on top of his body before shooting him point blank. I felt the sting in my chest when the shots rang into my headphones. I felt my mouth dry when I watched Alton’s son collapse into the arms of a family friend as his mother spoke out at a press conference. Then, the next day, Philando Castile’s girlfriend described watching her boyfriend getting shot to death while her young daughter watched in the backseat. This is the reality of the world we live in, the one we were born into.
The violence born of social injustice in the U.S. reaches beyond color lines. Four Latino victims, Tiffany Ventura, Anthony Nunez, Pedro Villanueva, and Raul Saavedra-Vargas were murdered in the same week. Next, Alva Braziel , a Black man, was shot 10 times by the Houston Police Department. Five Dallas police officers were killed during a peaceful gathering to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter.
But what do we do now?
United demands for justice
I am mourning the death of the five police officers. At the same time, I am forced to explain the reason that Blue Lives Matter does not hold the same weight as Black Lives Matter. I am told to push aside the anger I have over the deaths of people of color into the back of my gut. According to many, “now is not the time to talk about it.” Again people of color are being designated the responsibility of “being the better person” and waiting for the “right time” to fight for equity. How do we wait for the right time when the body count of this war for justice is climbing exponentially?
As I walked through the crowd of the Castile-Sterling vigil, I heard the recurrent question: “But what do we do now?” There is not a right answer, but there are steps to be taken, theories to be tested before we can call it quits. Having uncomfortable conversations are intrinsic to facilitating change. These conversations push beyond a child’s bedroom, they extend to courtrooms, newsrooms, panel discussions, protests, and city council meetings. But more importantly, we should understand that conversations are only the beginning. There has to be accountability for unity.
When each Black person feels accountable for the protection, education, and support of another, we can take communities by storm. Strength in numbers and unity is undeniable. While we mourn, let’s provide safe places for those of who mourn differently. While we protest, let’s ensure that we identify concrete, constructive actions. When we vote, let’s make sure that it’s for someone who looks like us and challenges the status quo. Above all, let’s take these emotions and churn them into change.