Sunday, August 24, 2014

Black mothers, "the talk" and grief

On many levels, I identify with the anguish, frustration, and grief now being experienced by the family of Michael Brown, the unarmed teen who was recently gunned down by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  I saw the images of Michael as he lay dead for several hours in the middle of the street.  His family and friends saw him, too.

Over the years, I have gotten to know many good police officers.  Some became friends.  When I worked in community relations for a previous employer, part of my job was to work with police officers on a regular basis.  I even sat on a board made up of mostly law enforcement.  My parents and grandparents taught me to respect the police, and I instructed my own children to do the same.

At the same time, I'm a mother who sat each of her children down for "the talk."  As each of my sons received his driver's license, I sat him down and let him know that they might be pulled over fairly or unfairly -- that the officer might treat him justly or unjustly.  Here are some of the things I advised my kids in the event that they were pulled over:

  • Keep your hands on the steering wheel.
  • Be aware of your surroundings.
  • Let down your window when instructed by the officer.
  • When the officer asks you questions, give him or her only the information requested.
  • Make sure your tone is respectful.  Say "Yes, Officer" or "No, Officer."
  • The police might speak to you in a disrespectful tone.  Don't respond in a like manner.
  • If you believe the stop was unfair, talk to me about it when you get home. Let me deal with it as an adult, if necessary.
  • Do not pull off until the officer tells you that you may do so.

By the time my daughter, my youngest, received her driver's license, I felt compelled to give her the same talk her brothers received.  Call it mother's intuition.  As life would have it, my daughter has been profiled as she has driven to and from college campuses in white neighborhoods -- or to her job in an affluent municipality.

When I was a little girl, police officers stopped my father and my brothers multiple times.  Not because they did anything wrong but because they looked "suspicious."  In those days, officers would ask who you are and where you're going.  They often would insist on searching  the cars and patting down my family members.  It's called DWB -- driving while black.  

My dad spent the last 20 years of his career working as a housing and health inspector for St. Louis County.  His job required him to travel throughout the county to perform the inspections.  My dad wore a shirt and tie every day, and he was a safe driver.  Nevertheless, whenever Dad had to go into predominantly white and/or affluent communities, he would often be stopped.  What's your business here?  Who are you?  License and registration, please.  Dad would comply.  He'd also pull out his St. Louis County photo identification.  Eventually, he'd be permitted to be on his way -- to inspect a home, check on an asbestos case, or work as part of the team dealing with dioxin contamination in Times Beach. 

I've been following the case of Michael Brown and the protests since day one.  For me, the element of grief is multiplied. My oldest son died several years ago at the age of 20.  The circumstances surrounding his death are different than those involving Michael Brown.  Nevertheless, the grief is still there.  I know how it feels to lose a son.  So many memories rushed back as I saw Michael's body lying uncovered in the middle of the street -- as I saw his mother and grandmother crying -- as I saw frightened children and adults looking on.

As a teen and young man, son #1 was pulled over countless times.  It deeply disturbed me, but my oldest never wanted me to worry. Neither of my sons did. 

Recently, I learned that son #2, now an IT professional and writer, has been pulled over by police more than 50 times since receiving his driver's license.  I am certain my oldest son was stopped by officers even more frequently.  I remember begging him to stay out of certain neighborhoods unless he was going to school.  His school was located in one of the areas in question. For those familiar with North St. Louis County, son #1 attended middle school in Ferguson and high school at McCluer North, located in a neighboring community.  Sadly, my oldest didn't live long enough to see his siblings graduate from high school and college.

I now live nearly 2,000 miles from my kids.  Because of busy schedules, it may be a while before I see them again face-to-face.  But when that time comes, I know I'm going to give them the biggest hugs a mother could ever give.

                                                                           My sons

                                                             My daughter, son and I
                                                             at high school graduation

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