While other kids heard fairy tales and nursery rhymes, I heard stories about racially-motivated police violence.
I sometimes heard my notoriously fearless mother screaming in her sleep when I was 10. My mother responded to my questions about her wails by informing me that she had been jailed more than a dozen times during the Civil Rights Movement. Mom described being hunted by dogs, hosed down, and kicked by police in South Carolina. I cringed as she talked about complicit cops looking on, as Klansmen and other vigilantes beat her and others.
Mom’s recollection of 1968’s Orangeburg Massacre on her college campus sent a shockwave of pain through me. My heart fell as she spoke about police firing upon her friends who were standing up against segregation. My head shook as she revealed every shocking account. I asked her if this was made up, or if she could at least tell me that this history of police violence was isolated. I had only heard positive things about police on Sesame Street and in my mostly white classrooms.
Mom spoke in her honeyed cadence: “No baby, this was as real as real can be. Ask Daddy, this happened where he’s from too. People sometimes still get hurt by police.”
When I asked my father, he shared that he was often racially-profiled as a PhD student. Dad was stopped by officers in Florida and Virginia. Both asked him about how he came to obtain such a “nice” car. Dad laughed as he recalled wondering why a black man owning a simple Volvo was such a conspiracy. Then he told me about our cousin Joan Little who used deadly force to defend herself when a white jailer attempted to sexually assault her. While Joan’s groundbreaking court case impacted the future of prisoner’s rights, it surfaces the challenges black prisoners still face when pursuing justice against police corruption.
It’s no surprise that a few years later, I was gripped with paralyzing fear during a police confrontation. I marched with 15,000 activists at the A16 anti-globalization protest in 2000. I witnessed excessive police aggression first hand. I viewed my camera as a weapon of protection as I began documenting mass arrests, tear-gassing, and baton hits. I sweated profusely as I backed away from cops in riot gear dragging people from the protest site. As I reached for film, a cop pushed me onto my knees and knocked over my camera.
Bewildered, I saw two others standing over the remnants of their cameras that were purposefully destroyed. It was in this moment, that I felt a deeper connection to my parents’ experiences.
A year later, another incident fueled my wariness about unethical police. A few months before graduation, I visited a bar that was busted by cops for serving minors. The officers interrogated me before approaching the multitude of other underage white kids in the bar. After I was harassed, called “crazy,” and pushed towards a paddy wagon, the police finally listened. Before they realized I wasn’t drinking, several white minors who were left the bar without accountability.
My family’s experiences are just one reason why the murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice inspire me to mobilize against excessive force from police and extrajudicial killings of black people by law enforcement.
Each day, I fear that I or my family may one day be one of the black men, women, and children who are murdered by police or vigilantes every 28 hours in our country. My Mama said, “it’s as real as real can be.” I don’t want to have to have this conversation with my kids, but unless we work to create a culture where black lives matter, I will have to.