I was “no angel” in high school. My friends and I bought and smoked a lot of pot. I was drunk in public on some occasions. One time, a bunch of us stole all of the realtor signs from an entire neighborhood, which we later learned amounted to a felony. On one New Year’s Eve we had a booze- and drug-fueled party at a house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and the cops showed up after a rival group of kids tipped them off. When the cops barged into the house I feared not that my life would end, nor that I would be physically harmed, but rather that I’d “get in trouble with my parents.” That was the scariest it got.
Despite my “no angel” status, which is the parlance that the media applies to children of color who inevitably find themselves at the receiving end of police violence, I never had any reason to fear for my safety at the hands of police. As an adult I now know that my lived experience with the criminal justice system is radically different from that of similar kids who just happen to be black or brown. That’s why I was horrified, though unfortunately not surprised, to see the news out of McKinney, Texas this weekend. When I saw a bunch of black children terrorized by a police officer, I literally screamed at my computer, “The kids are just trying to go to the damn pool!” It’s similar to the reaction I had while working in the DC Public Schools, and I learned that elementary school students sometimes got taken into police custody for minor in-school infractions. It’s impossible to watch that video from McKinney, or any of the other videos of unreasonable brutality, and not conclude that our black children are living in a constant set up. Adulthood begins the moment a black child can walk, or in Tamir Rice’s case, hold a toy gun.
Some of you have asked me why I’m writing about this so much these days. First, I’m mad. Not like a little mad, but suspicious of everything and everyone around me, unable to control my emotions mad. I am starting to understand what James Baldwin meant when he said that to be black and conscious in this country means “to be in a rage almost all the time.” I’m not black and never will be, but being just the conscious part of that equation takes a wild and necessary toll on the psyche.
Second, I want my friends and colleagues, particularly those who work in public education, to be mad like I am. If you follow me on twitter, facebook, or this blog, you get a near constant stream of ideas and images meant to render it impossible for you to remain willfully unconscious. When you see this kind of injustice, stand up and say something. If you’re present when it’s happening, intervene, because there is no school reform that would have stopped a cop from waving a gun at a couple of kids at a pool party. Yet that experience will shape not only those children’s relationship with authority, but also their own psychologies, for the rest of their lives. This is the context in which our schools exist. If we cannot bring ourselves to acknowledge, and deal with, the other issues facing our kids, I can promise you that we will never achieve the kind of just society to which we aspire. Just as importantly, if we fail to stand up, the families and children in communities of color will never fully trust the institutions that are meant to serve them, even the new schools designed to replace old systems. I so desperately want our kids to be allowed to be kids. I fear more and more each day that this may be too much to ask, but our schools are a damn good place to start delivering on that promise. Let’s continue to make sure that schools are places where we have crazy high expectations for kids, and also where we show them the love and respect that they still can’t expect from the rest of the world.