Skip to main content

Ferguson for parents

I'm old enough to remember the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. (LA had two NFL teams back then!) Rodney King was beaten by police after a high speed chase and the incident was videotaped. The police involved went to trial, were acquitted (yes, even with the video evidence), and it set off riots that caused $1 billion in damage, killed 53, injured 2,000, 12,000 arrests, and only stopped when the California National Guard stepped in. King eventually won his federal civil rights case which resulted in prison time for some of the officers who beat him.

So let's just say there's a long history of this sort of thing in the United States.

My kids are currently in the stage where they're just learning the rules of the grownup world and we're trying to send home the message that police are a trusted adult you can turn to when you're in trouble or need help. When they ask why we have to wear seat belts in the car, we explain that there are some rules even mommies and daddies have to follow. We didn't make them and can get in trouble if we break them. So I don't think it's entirely confusing when those two issues meet. Police are, generally, your friend. But nobody is immune from the rules. Even them.

That's largely been the conversation we're having right now as a nation, if you think about it. At the most basic level my 3-4 year olds understand that a police officer hurt someone. And people are very upset about (not only) that but that the policeman who was bad didn't get punished. Even a preschooler sees the fundamental error and unfairness in that.

Now, as grownups, we can color that with all sorts of other things. Race and politics and motivations...but as I've written before, sometimes seeing through preschooler eyes makes it more clear. At the micro level where two individuals met on the streets of Ferguson, there are all sorts of issues about behavior and consequences. What constitutes a threat? How do whites and blacks see each other? How much does past behavior influence future behavior? Should it? To many whites, Michael Brown was a suspected criminal who failed to follow instructions from a law enforcement officer, assaulted him, then was shot in self-defense. To many blacks, Darren Wilson saw a threat where he wanted to see one, acted out of line with his sworn duty to protect and serve, and was off the hook for his bad behavior because of the color of his skin. While an unarmed teenager is dead because of the color of his.

The truth? Let's talk about the macro level.

Leaving behind the two people involved in the case, a few things tilt this national debate and flavor the way, for instance, Ferguson is being taught in schools (see the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus). And, I'd argue, this flavors my advice for the way parents talk about the importance of Ferguson with their kids. Mostly these are institutional issues. They go beyond the individual facts of the case to a broader discussion about incarceration rates, community policing tactics, flaws in the justice system, class and economic issues. To be blunt, I think that's why this topic has gotten so contentious is that it's become a moment to go on the offensive/defensive about the current (unbalanced) structure of things. Kids love to talk about fairness.

Above all, law enforcement should not get to shoot first and ask questions later. Especially when we're talking about deadly force and an unarmed victim, the bar should be extraordinarily high for using a weapon. Yes, even for an officer who fears for his life. To go further, even a criminal waving a gun at the police still has a Constitutional right to a fair trial. We're not a nation of letting the police be judge, jury, and executioner. The police need to be in the business of apprehending suspects. If you are a police officer who has to use your gun, you're bad at your job. Even the police acknowledge that departments around the nation have only done a half-hearted job of teaching non-lethal force. Darren Wilson, for instance, did not take a Taser because there are not enough to go around in the Ferguson PD and he felt it was too bulky and difficult to use. How might this situation be different if he'd been properly trained and had access to something besides his gun to enforce law and order?

Even more than that is the widespread--not incorrect--assumption that there is a bias towards police in the courts and government. Even while there is bias against blacks from the police and bias against the police by blacks. Not to mention:  who among us has not met an unprofessional, arrogant, or non-compassionate police officer. (Hello to the local police who wrote us a ticket while we were parked on our own private property last year!)

Obviously, discussions about Ferguson should be age appropriate. But, in my book as a parent, it's never too early to begin talking with your kids about not harming others, making your community fair and open to all, treating everyone the same regardless of background, giving everyone opportunities to get ahead, enforcing laws fairly, etc..

Ferguson was a horrible, tragic episode in our history...one we seem to repeat over and over, never learning. But the road to a just and equitable society is no easy path or we'd already be there. Maybe the next generation we're growing will be different? I'd like to think that I see progress in my generation from the previous ones. But let's not let the progress we've made on race and inequality make us complacent about the difficult work still to be done. We still live in a country where the color of your skin predicts much. Let's work to change that and let's start by not making darker skin mean you're more likely to get shot by police.



Comments