Soon after police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, I wrote that the killing of black youth is a reproductive justice issue that should be taken up by progressives with the same intensity with which they advocate for access to abortion and contraception. Today, as news of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson settles in and as advocacy groups turn their attention to the ongoing Justice Department investigation, I am thinking again of reproductive justice advocates’ insistence that women have “the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments,” as explained by the organization SisterSong. I am also wondering whether this framework for organizing should be broadened to include the right of black children to be understood as children and treated as such.
Granted, Michael Brown was 18 years old when he was killed, an adult by the legal standard. But the language Wilson used in his testimony to the grand jury indicates that he understood the importance of making sure Brown was not remembered as a teenager, as someone barely past that porous line that separates childhood from the class of people we consider fully developed:
And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan… Hulk Hogan, that’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.… The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again with his hands up.… At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And then when it [the bullet] went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped.
By Wilson’s account, the 28-year-old officer of the law, holding the gun, was the child, and Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old, was somewhere between the devil and a professional wrestler. Making sense of Wilson’s words depends on our understanding that black life is often considered to be simultaneously subhuman and superhuman, impervious to pain and so requiring a level of force beyond what it would take to subdue a non-black person acting in a threatening manner.
When applied to young people, the impact of this potentially deadly delusion is especially difficult to stomach. Research has shown that black children cannot expect the same presumption of innocence that other youth can and so are often treated as adults, particularly in the criminal justice system. After 12-year-old Tamir Rice, a black child, was killed last week by police after brandishing a toy gun in a Cleveland park, a family friend asked police a legitimate question: “Why not taze him? You shot him twice, not once, and at the end of the day you all don’t shoot for the legs, you shoot for the upper body.” The police union representative’s response was telling, if unsurprising: “We’re not trained to shoot people in the leg. If we pull that trigger, we feel our lives are in danger.”
Which raises some questions. What does it take for an officer in such a situation to feel endangered, to feel threatened, to feel outside his comfort zone? How does that change depending on the race of the person in front of him? Well-meaning educators, intent on training students how to be respectable and nonthreatening, are also complicit in this preoccupation with telling black youth that their childish behaviors and natural inclinations are inherently wrong and deserving of harsh punishment. A recent Atlantic article about school discipline explains how this looks in a New Orleans school with a predominately black student body
From the moment Summer Duskin arrived at Carver Collegiate Academy in New Orleans last fall, she struggled to keep track of all the rules. There were rules governing how she talked. She had to say thank you constantly, including when she was given the “opportunity”—as the school handbook put it—to answer questions in class. And she had to communicate using “scholar talk,” which the school defined as complete, grammatical sentences with conventional vocabulary.… There were rules governing how Summer moved. Teachers issued demerits when students leaned against a wall, or placed their heads on their desks. (The penalty for falling asleep was 10 demerits, which triggered a detention; skipping detention could warrant a suspension.) Teachers praised students for shaking hands firmly, sitting up straight, and “tracking” the designated speaker with their eyes.… The rules did not ease up between classes: students had to walk single file between the wall and a line marked with orange tape.
In a letter demanding change, Duskin and sixty of her classmates wrote of the endless requirements narrowing the range of their behavior, “The teachers and administrators tell us this is because they are preparing us for college. If college is going to be like Carver, we don’t want to go to college.” I would take their brave declaration one step further to ask: Where do we want black young people to go? Based on some institutions’ actions—from police departments to prosecutors’ offices to schools, where black students are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled—it’s easy to draw the conclusion that we don’t want them on the streets, we don’t want them in public parks and we don’t want them in classrooms unless and until they learn how to act like perfect middle-class white adults.
Parents of black children continue to question a culture that tells them to clip their children’s wings before they have nerve enough to think they can spread them. Teaching black children that they need not be fearful, docile or mature beyond their years is a revolutionary and potentially dangerous act, but it shouldn’t be. Perhaps disappointment over events in Ferguson will help grow a movement advocating that black kids should be allowed to be kids, with the many messes and mistakes that entails.