21 April 2021 First published in The Columbus Dispatch
Last summer, my 20 year old son met his baby nephew for the first time. He texted me a picture which quickly made me laugh at the uncomfortable look on his face as he was figuring out how to hold and care for the tiny life placed in his hands.
When news broke about the killing of another young Black man, I was startled by the image of Duante Wright holding his baby and the similarity of the two pictures. Two young men so alike in life it seemed, but one was already over.
Eight years ago this week, after the death of Trayvon Martin, President Obama emotionally said,“This could have been my son”. The fact that unarmed young men and boys of color continue to die at the hands of law enforcement, should compel all of us -but especially parents-to demand solutions to a pandemic of violence and brutality.
Men and boys of color are expected by now to know the rules their race demands of them in America: Remain calm during a police encounter. Don’t raise your voice or show anger, even if you’ve done nothing wrong or pose no threat. Keep your hands raised and your head down.
These are the rules for surviving encounters with peace officers Black parents teach their children to follow. The “talk” often begins at an early age. Many White parents may teach similar lessons, but with so much less urgency for their children are more likely to come home.
17 year old Kyle Rittenhouse-a White child-didn’t need those rules last summer when he crossed state lines with an illegal AR-15 style rifle and shot three people, killing two during protests from the earlier police shooting of Jacob Blake. After the shooting, Rittenhouse still fully armed walked unchallenged toward and through police, expecting to be arrested but instead was instructed to go home.
Since his later arrest and bail, he’s been photographed drinking beer in a bar, flashing the white supremacy sign while posing for pictures with men belonging to the Proud Boys-a far right neofascist organization that promotes white power and political violence. A fund set up for his defense has raised nearly $600,000 with a Florida state congressmen calling for the boy to run for Congress.
Daunte Wright and 13 year old Adam Toledo’s stories ended differently. Toledo was killed by police as he obediently raised his hands after police responded to gun shots in his neighborhood. Wright made the awful decision to flee police, and a veteran cop says she mistakenly used her gun instead of a taser to stop him. Both lives ended before they had really begun and for mistakes that shouldn’t have caused their violent deaths.
My teenage son made his share of dumb mistakes and some ended in run-ins with police. It could have gone differently but perhaps he was more protected by his skin color and the leafy suburban neighborhoods he roamed after dark.
He, too, received ‘the talk’ not only from me but also from officers who returned him safely home. He was given another chance to gain the wisdom that only comes with age and experience. We were fortunate. Unlike Adam, Duante, or Trayvon he still has more chances to learn from his mistakes and to grow up.
Kevin Kelly is the executive director of the Dayton Peace Museum.