A son’s premature death robs his family and all of us
The vicious cycle of racism and violence must not stand
Perhaps my favorite excerpt of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me is on pages 81 and 82. It’s after he details how his friend, Prince Jones, was killed by a police officer years ago and it describes just some of what is lost after a black life is claimed by law enforcement:
Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the day care and the reference checks on babysitters. Think of checks written for family photos. Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into each of them, was sent flowing back to the earth.
As if death itself wasn’t enough to do the trick, Coates lays out the components of living to bring fuller meaning to the loss. When someone is killed, layers upon layers of a lifetime of living are simply erased by unnecessary situations.
As a black man, it’s hard not to feel compassion and fear over the video footage of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, who were both killed by police last week. It’s hard not to put yourself in their shoes and contemplate yourself being next. Unfortunately, it’s not inconceivable that I could end up in a situation with a police officer who doesn’t value my life or overestimates my threat level. We as African-Americans bear the burden of having to keep that in mind at all times.
Prematurely losing my life would mean I wouldn’t get a chance to reach my dreams. It would mean I could no longer enjoy doing the things that I love.
But what scares me the most about losing my life in such a situation is what it would do to my parents.
I love my parents more than I am capable of expressing through typed words on a screen, and I find myself overwhelmed every day by how much they love me back. As I grow older, their love continues to affect me in different ways. I find myself developing a soft spot when I hear other people talking about the loving relationship they have with their parents or kids.
Their love has caused me to worry about them in the same way I remember them worrying about me during my youth. I get what they felt now. I understand the magnitude of their love.
Which is why I shudder to imagine them learning that I’ve ended up on the wrong side of a worst-case-scenario police encounter. It’s painful to think of their hypothetical heartbreak. The magnitude of their grief would hurt me more than any of the physical harm that could be done to me.
Coates’ words allow me to reflect on all my parents have done for me.
I think of the struggle it took my mom to give birth. The around-the-clock attention it required by the both of them to take care of me during my infancy. The trips to the hospital when I wouldn’t eat, or when I had the chicken pox. Each taking the time to make sure I was strapped into my car seat securely. The hours it took to teach me how to speak and walk. The consistency it took to teach me how to ride a bike. All the rides to and from school during the day. All the rides to my basketball games in the evening. All of the long nights helping me with homework. The endless meals prepared for my consumption. The stress they endured from me just being a naturally annoying kid from time to time.
I think of them, along with my aunt, leaving town by car at 4 a.m. in order to make it to my college graduation in time. Spotting her and my parents in the stands and making eye contact after crossing the stage. Seeing my dad fist pump with a look of joy in his face I don’t think I had ever seen before. Giving my mom the most memorable hug we’ve ever shared moments later.
I think of the stories my dad tells me about the imperfect relationship he had with his father. How he took the flaws from that to make sure our bond would be stronger. How my mom took the time to emulate her parents’ parenting skills.
They’ve been happy when I’m happy, sad when I’m sad and they’ve laughed when I laughed.
I look back on each individual effort they put in. The focus and energy it required. How they’ve poured it all into me for 23 years to make me the man I am today.
Because I have these things in mind, I already live with internal pressure of making sure their work is validated as I strive to advance toward professional success.
But the metaphorical bull’s-eye that the color of my skin represents threatens all their efforts. The blood, sweat and tears put in over more than two decades would be reduced to mere memories — snatched away in a microfraction of the time it took to be built.
I wish all of that could flash through the eyes of police officers right before they are about to end someone’s life. I wish they could see more than just the historically distorted image of the black being, and see all the little things that collectively went into this existence as they are about to end it. Would an officer still be so quick to pull the trigger after getting a glimpse of the agony of Sterling’s grieving 15-year-old son?
Deaths from things like cancer or car accidents are often chalked up to God’s plan. Some peace can be made with those things. But it is infinitely harder for relatives and friends to face up to a heartache because of practices enabled by our society. It’s sickening that families continue to be torn apart due to a system of structuralized racism, designed by this country and derived from hatred, that still remains intact after centuries.
And it is this flawed and outdated system that not only puts African-Americans in danger, it intensifies the hazard for police officers as well.
The situation in Dallas that left seven officers injured and five of them dead just after a peaceful protest in Dallas is an outcome of fatigue from generations of this faulty system. (Detailed beautifully by New York Daily News social justice columnist Shaun King here.)
The actions of the shooter, Micah Johnson, were completely irrational and heinous. Mental illness may have played a role, as his parents noted his unusual behavior since his discharge from the military.
But it’s important to also understand that his horrible actions may also have been part of the growing intolerance of unfair law enforcement.
People are fed up across the nation. The continued protests provide evidence of that. The original intentions of said protests generally are to peacefully express opposition to unjust police tactics.
Some people seeking justice are seeking it bearing the pain of having lost a loved one to brutality. Many are seeking it with the fear that they may lose a loved one to it one day. It’s not safe to assume all people bearing such pain and fear will stay peaceful. Afflicting people with such emotions is how one can create a person who reacts by developing violent intentions against the police.
The families of five slain Dallas officers are now grieving. They, too, have spent years putting in and getting love, happiness and support from the lives lost. Much like families devastated by faulty policing, these families now feel a similar sense of rage at the loss.
I can’t think of a vicious cycle more wide-ranging than this one. The distrust of one side causes distrust of the other. Pain begets pain, the fear begets more fear. That’s the depressing reality that we’ve been unable to escape.
Until that changes, we should just continue to show our parents and kids that we love them. It could be the first step in sparking the changes that are needed in this country. Perhaps more people will experience the empathy that I feel when seeing families who have lost more than merely the presence of a loved one. And maybe more people will fight to avoid seeing their own efforts go to waste.