Not Allowed to Be a Kid

Not Allowed to Be a Kid

As a Black youth, I’ve been surveilled and pushed around by police since elementary school.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published by Youth Communications and is reposted here with permission. YC is a nonprofit publisher of teen-written stories and curriculum to help educators strengthen the social and emotional skills of youth.

My first frightening interaction with cops happened when I was only 6 years old. I was heading to the park with my cousin to play basketball, but as soon as we started walking, two cops began slowly following us in their car. By this time, I had already been taught to act a certain way around the police. My father told me never to make any sudden movements, not to look them in the eye, and to speak clearly and respectfully. I was just a kid and I didn’t remember this. I waved at them, but they did not wave back.

My 16-year-old cousin grabbed my hand and led me into the park. Once we entered, the cops finally drove away. When my dad came to pick me up, my cousin told him what I’d done. He scolded me for acting so foolishly.

These negative encounters with the police, both minor and major, continued as I got older. In fourth grade, I was often watched by cops while I played in the schoolyard with my friends, who were all people of color. Only two teachers were responsible for watching all the students, and they didn’t seem to notice that my friends and I were being monitored by police. This surveillance made me feel uncomfortable, and also guilty. There were only a few white kids at that school, but I never saw cops watching them. In fifth grade, my sister and I moved to a neighborhood that was mostly Black, Hispanic, and Bengali. When we walked to school, we were often followed by cops—who were usually white—who would sometimes stop us and ask where we were going. In seventh grade, my friends and I were walking to my home when three different cop cars stopped us to see our IDs.

The police treated me as if I were a TV villain bent on destroying the world, rather than a little kid who wanted to play sports. The more it happened, the worse I felt about it. I started to wonder if I was really a criminal. I couldn’t stand it.

When I was an eighth-grader, I was walking along the bus line after school. I had made it about half a mile away when I noticed a cop car driving slowly behind me. Two blocks later, I heard a car door close. When I turned around, two police officers were approaching me. One was a short and chubby white guy, and the other was a taller, slender white guy with a fade.

I was 13, but looked a little older. I had broad shoulders and some muscle from playing football, and I was six foot tall while wearing my Timbs. I could have been confused for a high schooler—or even an adult.

“What are you doing, and what’s in your pocket?” asked one of the cops. I only had my phone and wallet, so it didn’t make sense why they would ask. I thought it was clear from their outline and shape what they could be. My father had told me that cops aren’t allowed to speak to minors without a legal guardian present, so in my confusion, I stood there silent.

They both stepped closer. “Let me see your ID,” said the short, chubby one. I inched my hand toward my left pocket to take out my wallet and they both reached for their waist and yelled, “Don’t move!”

The taller cop approached me, pinned me facedown on the sidewalk, and put me in handcuffs. At the same time the shorter one yelled, “Where is your ID?” I responded, “It’s in my left pocket.”

The taller one was still holding me so that I wouldn’t move and could barely breathe. The shorter one put his hand in my pocket and pulled out my wallet. After flipping through it for a few seconds, he pulled out my school ID and stared at it. He told the taller cop to get off and remove my handcuffs. Without saying another word, he dropped it to the ground and began to walk back to the cop car with the taller one following him. Then they just drove away.

Initially, I didn’t know what to do or think. Then a rush of emotions hit me all at once; a mix of anger, sadness, and even more confusion. I wanted answers, I wanted to know why, and what I did wrong. I calmed down and realized that there was nothing I could do. I was helpless.

At the time, I wasn’t getting along with my mom. I didn’t tell her what had happened or how I felt. I didn’t tell my dad either, even though as a kid he had been the main person telling me about cops. I didn’t want to hear him tell me to “man up,” something he often says when I express my feelings.

I had already been leery of cops, but this experience made me not trust them at all. I thought: Why did this happen to me? Why are cops who are supposed to protect me hurting me? Aren’t cops supposed to be good guys?

This frequent harassment makes me tense up whenever I’m around them. When something goes wrong, I’m more likely to try to deal with a situation myself than to call the cops. When someone stole my phone, I didn’t file a report. When I see people fighting, I try to break it up myself.

I realized I wanted to advocate for change after I heard about the death of Eric Garner in 2014, as it had taken place near my house. On social media, I posted cases involving police brutality and tips to reduce risk if you are in a bad situation with the police. Over the following years, I started going to protests for justice for George Floyd and for police reform in general, which I continue to do.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States. Over the course of a life, “about one in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by police.” Think about it like this: In 2019, there were 22 million Black men in the United States. That means 2,200 people can expect to be killed by police, unless we make drastic changes in their training and funding. By comparison, England and Wales together have about one-sixth the US population and the police there kill about two or three people a year.

In 2019, according to data of all police killings in the country compiled by Mapping Police Violence, Black Americans were nearly three times more likely to die from police violence than their white counterparts. Other statistics show that Black Americans killed by police are nearly one and a half times more likely to be unarmed.

After almost 10 years of this surveillance, I am tired of constantly being in fear that a situation with police could go wrong to the point where I might get killed. I can’t do things that white kids do: I can’t play-fight with my friends because it might be interpreted as my bullying or harassing someone. I can’t run down the street because it might be misinterpreted as my chasing someone or running from committing a crime.

Still, I am not down on all cops. I have family members who are current and retired police officers. I’m just down on the bad cops and the policies that allow them to continue to do whatever they want and feel confident that they won’t be punished for it.

My experiences have made me want to join the Senate or be president one day so that I could enact laws where Black kids growing up won’t deal with what I had to. Neighborhoods like mine feel more like a police state instead of a free country where everyone is equal. This has to change.

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