Watching the news of the murder video that shows the Minneapolis police’s killing of George Floyd, I am heartbroken once again, and somehow not surprised. As I have spent another day grieving the death of another unarmed black man, I was reminded of a story from my own life, one that I feel moved to share with you now:
When my son was in kindergarten and 1st grade, we lived in Northeast Minneapolis and he was in the cub scouts. Because one of the cub scout moms was a dispatcher for the police department, the troop was able to take a field trip to the local police station. (Yes, this is the same police department that dispatched the cops who met George Floyd on Monday May 25.)
The troop of 12 boys toured the facilities, first seeing the room where video cameras were used to patrol street corners. Along side those videos were tv footage of suspects that scrolled through like slides. The cops explained, “these are the suspects… we keep them next to the videos just in case we see one of them in the street videos.” The boys were captivated.
My son (who happened to be the only black boy in the troop) asked a questioned: “Do you ever suspect someone white?” The cop coughed and asked for clarification as if he didn’t understand the question. Sam repeated himself: “All of your suspects are black, did you ever think to suspect someone who was white?”
This stunned and silenced the cops giving the tour; they stumbled with how to respond. Finally, they fumbled over this answer, “well, no white people live in this neighborhood, so that’s why their are no white suspects.”
With that awkward question, the scouts were ushered quickly out into the hallway, which was lined with framed photos of the police academy’s graduating classes. The cops started the speech about the bravery and dedication of all the men pictured on the wall. My son again (still the only black kid), spoke up: “Did you ever think about training a black man?” Again, the cops were bumbling and speechless.. My son again, clarified his question: “I mean, can’t a black man be a cop too?” I looked at the pictures, and he was right… there were a few women scattered in the mix, but not a person of color in any of the photos.
While the cops were shifting back and forth, trying to find and answer to yet another awkward question, my son had the MIC DROP finale. His third question was this: “If none of these guys live in this neighborhood, why do they get to police it?” You could hear crickets in the silence.
We were ushered quickly out of the hallway, and outside to the police cars. The cops turned on the sirens, and used their loud speakers, and opened up the back seat, and asked if my son wanted to “volunteer” to get inside. I didn’t wait for my son’s repsonse.
“No,” I said. “My son will never see the back of a cop car. No, you will not normalize that for him.” (I prayed it to be true, even as I said the words.) The cops shrugged, so I probably wasn’t as menacing as I felt inside. We left the tour quicker than the other cub scouts, who wanted to linger to see if there would be any action.
I tell this story today for this reason: because if a kindergartner can observe these kinds of questions from one visit to that police station, why can’t the adults… the people in power… the people who can make the world a better place… why can’t we have the courage to wrestle with these questions as well. Why can’t we see what is totally visible to a kindergartner’s eye?
Why are all the suspects black?
Why are all the police white?
And why do people who do not live in the neighborhood get to police it as if it is their own?
These are the questions that hit me in the chest — the simplicity and profoundness of them — and make it so I cannot breathe.
When we start to have the courage to address these questions directly, without stumbling over awkwardness, we be at the very beginning of a conversation that can change the outcomes of senseless police violence.
From the mouths of babes, the mic drop comes.
That cub scout tour was six years ago, my son is now twelve. He is not in scouts anymore, but he is still asking questions. He has to, because George Floyd’s death means that nothing has changed at that police station. And until it does, I can’t breathe, I can only pray.