I did not get ‘the talk’—at least not directly—given to so many young Black people about the dangers of the police.
I grew up middle class, half-white, and very light skinned in suburban Massachusetts. Some of my family members were police officers. Police violence, though not unheard of, seemed removed from my world.
It wasn’t until the summer I turned 18 and was staying with friends in the Bronx, New York that I had my first violent interaction with law enforcement, when four officers threw me on the hood of a car and handcuffed me while I was out for a walk. Like innumerable Black young people before me, this moment was treated by my Black family members not as a travesty, but a coming-of-age, a rude welcoming into Black adulthood and the harsh realities I’d been largely shielded from.
A new book called “Mama, Did You Hear the News?” by former social worker Sanya Gragg and illustrated by Kim Holt has me revisiting these points from my own youth. The children’s book is designed to give voice to the confusion and fear the visibility of police violence often plants in Black youth, and to provide parents with tools for making ‘the talk’ easier. The book ends with a five step plan to keep Black kids safer in police interactions, set to the acronym ALIVE:
A – Always mind your manners
L – Listen and comply
I – In control of your emotions
V – Visible hands always
E – Explain everything
Like ‘the talk’ itself, these five steps display how heartbreakingly difficult—and, perhaps, impossible—it is to prepare young Black people for their own terrifying reality. On the one hand, adults listing steps like these want to provide Black kids with concrete advice for how to avoid police violence. On the other, the child reviewing these steps can only conclude that their ability to survive an interaction with the cops rests entirely on their own good (read: obedient) behavior.
The most glaring problem with this approach is that it obscures the core injustice of police violence: There is absolutely nothing one can do to avoid it. We know that in many—if not most—of the recent high-profile police murders, the targets had their hands up, were asleep, were already handcuffed, were walking away, driving away, assumed calm, nonthreatening tones, and were killed anyway. The sad reality, yet the one we are charged with preparing young Black people for, is that their conduct has almost nothing to do with how they will be treated by police. And while Gragg acknowledges this, there are still important edits we need to make to these instructions.
Returning to the book, I am disturbed by the directive that young Black people should “mind their manners” and “control their emotions” when interacting with police—not because this is bad advice per se, but because it hides from them the true nature of police violence. Did Aiyana Stanley-Jones die because she was disrespectful? Did Alton Sterling die because he was too angry or outspoken? The world already teaches young Black people their emotions are invalid, and are in fact alienating and hostile to the individuals and structures that control their lives and determine their survival. It is cruel to compound those teachings around police violence, particularly given that there is precisely no evidence that, when Black, one’s polite demeanor does anything to make one less of a target.
Yet, we should be even more alarmed by the notion that Black kids should “listen and comply” in any interaction with police. This advice is not merely unfair, but irresponsible. Police take advantage of naiveté, intimidate and manipulate their targets, and lie. They strike up friendly conversations to elicit responses that can be used against those giving them. Doing what police tell you to do, answering their questions, without a clear understanding of your own rights and of the mortal dangers police pose, is exactly how Black kids get locked up and killed. “Explaining everything” is not an effective strategy when police are actively seeking information with which to criminalize Black youth, not define their innocence.
The larger problem with this approach is that it gives young Black people no opportunity to question, and ultimately resist, the police system. While, again, there is nothing inherently wrong with presenting young people with the harsh reality of police violence, if we are teaching them only docile interaction with it, we are setting them up for more violence, and removing their agency to demand a different reality for themselves.
We need to take on an abolitionist approach to transform ‘the talk’ into strategies that teach Black youth not mere obedience to power, but resistance. If police are indiscriminate in their distribution of anti-Black violence, if there is no pretense of justice, then we must conclude that policing itself is brutality. The only solution to keeping Black youth safe is to get rid of the police, and replace them with alternative, community-determined structures that provide Black communities with the real support they need. This, too, has to be a conversation we are initiating Black kids into early on, and the tools we provide must help them actively imagine a world without police as much as support them in surviving the current one.
Chicago emcee and activist Ethos (as quoted by Mariame Kaba) speaks powerfully about the police interactions he endured as a young person in his North Side neighborhood. Contrary to the dominant wisdom that police violence can be alleviated by young people building stronger relationships with cops, Ethos asserts that it was precisely because the police in his neighborhood knew him so well that he was harassed. The more police knew about him, the more effectively they could surveil and target him. The more interactions he had with them, the more likely he was to be questioned, searched, detained, and the more present the threat of violence became. Relationship building and increased interactions with law enforcement are the exact opposite of what Black youth need to be safe.
My intent in revising our approach to teaching Black kids about police is not to put down the authors of “Momma, Did You Hear the News?” nor any Black parents, family, or community members that have had ‘the talk’ in this way. ‘The talk’ represents, in so many regards, the ultimate conundrum of caring for Black youth: One must make a Black child feel affirmed and loved, all while bracing them for a world which will do everything to them except affirm and love them. One must do this while living in that world. One must support Black children while battling the reality that no one is supporting you.
We come up with steps, with concrete strategies to share with Black kids, because we want to keep them safe. It is as terrifying to admit to them as it is to admit to ourselves that safety is not something we can ever guarantee. But I would argue that this is the exact reality for which we must prepare Black youth, and must ultimately come to terms with ourselves.
We are not safe, and never will be as long as there is a police and prison system. The sooner we can name this, the sooner we can take an active role in dismantling the structures dependent on anti-Black violence.
Acknowledging that some steps to reduce the danger of police violence may need to be taught to young folks at different times throughout their lives, here are teachings I propose we start sharing with Black young people—of all genders—to keep them safer. Please feel free to share your own in the comment section:
- Do not talk to the police – ANY interaction with police results in heightened danger. Do not talk to, strike up conversations with, or go to police for help. Come up with safety plans and community members you can go to when you are feeling unsafe. The goal is to reduce contact with police as much as possible.
- Do not give the police any information – If police stop you and ask you for any information, you are only required to tell them your name and birthdate, nothing else. Do not show them identification. Give the police as little information about yourself as possible.
- Film the interaction – If police are bothering you, or you see them targeting someone else, it is legal to film the interaction. Film out of arms length of the officers, and say out loud what is happening, badge numbers, patrol car numbers, and any other useful information so that the video can record it. You should have trusted friends with you while you are filming to support you if you become a target.
- Do not open the door for police – If law enforcement knocks on your door and demands to come inside, do not open the door. If they say they have a warrant, ask an adult for help, and if you are alone, tell police you cannot open the door without an adult present.
- Do not consent to a search – Police cannot search you or your belongings without your permission. If they violate this, be sure to say, “I do not consent to this search.”
- Ask if you are free to go – If police stop you and try to talk to you, or press you for information, ask them, “Am I free to go?” If they say yes, walk away immediately. If they say no, then you are technically under arrest, and should not say anything else.
- Memorize a number – Have a phone number of a family member or close friend memorized in case police ever do detain you. Ask to call this number, and tell the family member or friend where you are being held, and for what reason.
- Practice for a world without police – Police exist to protect property at the expense of our people. No matter how friendly they may seem, this is their job. We avoid interactions with police because we are practicing for the coming of a world in which they no longer exist. We find solutions to community problems which exclude them because they are a barrier to our safety, not a promoter of it.
Each of these teachings are about limiting or totally avoiding police interactions, and getting out as quickly as possible when forced into them. They are applicable to law enforcement on a large scale—ICE, DHS, FBI, etc.—and can be practiced by Black communities in solidarity with undocumented, Native, Latinx, disabled, Arab, Muslim, Desi, and other targeted populations.
I recall in the latter 2000s when corporate media caught wind of the Black adage “stop snitching” and had a field day. Propaganda masquerading as journalism accused poor, Black communities of contributing to their own demise by not reporting crime, and refusing to work with law enforcement. Even as a young person, these reports enraged me, because I knew Black communities’ reluctance to work with law enforcement had everything to do with law enforcement’s total opposition to justice and security for Black people, and the knowledge that a police presence often increases the likelihood of violence in situations that are already dangerous. What the white mainstream maligned as foolishness I knew to be Black wisdom—and a tactic which corporate media seem much more reluctant to call out when it is practiced by the police themselves.
The definition of anti-Blackness is living in a world where any problem, no matter how large or small, can be blamed on Black people, and no one questions it—often not even Black people ourselves. This travesty is present in the erroneous narratives that teach Black youth that respectability can in any way curb the threat of state violence. An ethic of suspicion, of questioning, and of resistance must be at the center of the lessons we teach young Black people about navigating their relationship to the police.
The notion that obedience will lessen police violence is false, and is, moreover, anti-Black. When we continue to spread this message, we put Black kids at greater risk of violence. Strategies for avoiding contact with police as much as possible, and for active participation in resistance of policing itself, is what Black youth need to stay alive.
Further resources on exercising your rights in law enforcement interactions are available at the People’s Response Team.
Special thanks to Mariame Kaba
Republished on Huffington Post