The Story Behind The Picture

“Mommy, why are the police being so mean?"
11/10/2016 12:25 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2016
© Kena Betancur / AFP | A woman argues with NYPD officers as she takes part in a protest against President-elect Donald Trump in New York City on November 9, 2016.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes the words we attach aren’t accurate. A picture showed up in the news this morning and I want to add the words that better tell the story.

The weather matched the mood in New York yesterday: grey and weepy. As we made our way towards home on our M34 bus, inching across the streets in NYC, I assumed it was the weather that was slowing our journey. When the bus driver came to a halt a few blocks from where we were supposed to get off, the passengers groaned: we were going to have to walk in the rain. We had no idea what was waiting outside, we just thought the traffic was keeping us from the entrance to our subway stop.

We soon learned it was the Day After the Election Mess causing our halt. Thousands of individuals were coming towards us. The air was filled with shouts of: “Not our president!” “Our bodies, our rights!” “Black lives matter!” Chant. Wave your sign. Repeat: “Not our president…”

Had I been alone, I might have joined the crowd, but I had my son, and we were coming off a long and emotional day that started with my child asking questions such as: Mommy, how can people want someone who is such a bully as president? Mommy, he doesn’t say nice things about black people and immigrants! Does this mean that most of the people in the US believe what he has to say about me? I spent the previous night tossing and turning, sorting out how I would talk with my son about the election. My Facebook post from the morning shares my tactic:

I’ve heard over and over again: What do we say to our children???That very question had me up most of the night. Here’s what I’ve arrived at:

We don’t let this change our course, we let it be the fuel to our fire. We rise up stronger, because our voices will have to be louder, our character stronger. We need to be clear about our values and principled in how we live into them. We need to show up in the world powerfully with courage and determination.

Trump may have won this election, but he hasn’t won our spirit. He cannot define who we are, only we can do that. Now let’s get to work and continue to define America as a place where humanity matters. Where we stand up for one another. Where equality is a goal.

Don’t put down your sword of conviction: raise it higher.

Roll your sleeves up. We have some work to do.

That’s what I said to my son. And then we turned off the news and turned on some songs to energize us. We’re celebrating our stance in the world. Will you join us?

After the long day of dealing with students’ emotional responses, we just needed the comfort of our home, so we tried to cross the street before the crowds blocked them off. We weren’t alone in our rush, a bit of a crowd was rushing across with us. When one man jostled into me, and yelled, I turned to see that the man who was walking alongside us had been grabbed by the police. He yelled that he was just crossing the street, and they threw him to the ground. When he tried to get up, they started hitting him with their batons.

I didn’t think things through at that moment, I just followed my instinct and started screaming: “He was just crossing the street! He was being peaceful! Stop hitting him!” And it seemed that they hit harder. So I screamed louder. Two officers stepped between me and the scene of the man on the ground, and I screamed one more time: “He was being peaceful! Stop hitting him!’

A crowd was gathering, my son was pulling my arm, and the woman police officer kindly said: “Ma’am, I’ll let them know. Just walk away with your son.”

We pushed our way through the crowd, I urged people to record what was happening, and relief washed over me when I turned to see that a crowd had gathered with their cameras raised high. Others had captured what we just saw. Little did I know that someone else in the crowd captured me.

KENA BETANCUR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES: A woman argues with NYPD officers at a protest against President-elect Donald Trump in New York City on Wednesday night.

Both my son and I were pretty shaken up as we walked down the subway stairs, and we stood and hugged one another for a few moments.

“Mommy, why are the police being so mean? What’s happening up there?”

“Baby, the police are trying to do their job to keep the streets safe, and sometimes, misunderstandings happen, and that’s when we have to raise our voices to help protect one another.”

“Mommy, what’s happening? Is this allowed?”

My third grade son, who spent the first half of his life in Africa and Asia, is eagerly learning about the rights we have as Americans. I explained that in America, we have the right to peacefully assemble and raise our voices to be heard, and that these were the people who don’t agree with Trump’s behavior and the things he says, and they don’t want him as president.

A teacher by trade, I know that a child learns best when they have an experience, so I asked my child if he wanted to stand by the side and see what was happening. He was solid in his choice.

We made our way back up the stairs, and by the time we reached the top, the police had formed a barricade, attempting to redirect the protest down 34th street. Holding hands safely on the sidewalk away from the fray, we read the signs that people were carrying, and watched as thousands of New Yorkers raised their voice. My son had an answer to the question he asked in the morning. He now knew that many people didn’t believe what Trump had to say about women, black people, Mexicans, immigrants, disabled.

I asked my son what stood out to him, and he started to direct me in picture taking. We caught signs that said “Hope” and those that encouraged love. My son commented on some of the language he was hearing, and agreed that love trumps hate.

There was still a question unanswered: Are the police helping or hurting the process? I decided to let him ask his own questions. We approached two officers who were guarding the sidewalk, and I began a dialogue that allowed my son to inquire.

“My child has a few questions. Would you mind answering?” A nod let me know to proceed. “Do people have to have a permit to gather?”

“No ma’am.” And the officer and my son shared a smile.

My son took over from there: Did you know they were coming? How many people will come? Do you feel safe? Are they safe?

We ended the dialogue by thanking the officer for his time, and wishing him well. “Please stay safe tonight. We appreciate you making it possible for people to express their thoughts safely. Please take it easy on them…”

Feeling that the lesson was complete, we made our way home. I thought the moment was behind us, and then I woke to about 20 messages from people asking what happened, sharing an image of me that was captured and now shared in The Globe, People, NPR, and many other publications. The picture didn’t tell the story, and comments were flying in about the kind of mother people assumed me to be. I might have shared some of those judgements, had I not known first hand what really happened, and now, you do too.

As we move forward in the days after the election, I hope we can find ways to hear one another, stand up for one another, and consider the stories we have to share. Our voices need to be heard, and we need to find ways to reach out and support one another on our journeys. The ballots have been counted, and our future leader is determined. What that looks like, and what our part will be in making that determination, is not yet clear.

What I know for certain is that we have to find a way to be able to say: #ImWithUs

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