As a child, I did not wave gleefully at the police. In fact, the mere sight of the police has always brought grown men in my community, non-guilty fathers like my own, to call under their breath upon God for protection. Growing up in community housing, I did not enjoy the delight of greeting officers who may have been strolling through the neighbourhood for a non-emergency issue, as did many of the kids I went to school with. I did not stare at them with excitement when I would see them around the city. They never tickled my fancy. Instead, every time I saw the police in my neighbourhood, there was yelling, screaming, crying, anger, confusion, violence and humiliation.
One of my earliest memories of the police is of one morning I was getting ready for school, when I heard one of our neighbours, a quiet, private, Persian woman, crying and frantic at our door. Blood trickled down her head as she asked my mother for help. She explained that her teenaged son, who had serious substance abuse issues, had struck her in the head with an iron in a state of anger after she told him that his uncle would be coming to see him. Our neighbour begged my mother not to call the police. My mother, like the brave woman she is, held the woman, whose name she hadn’t learned after living near one another. My mother spoke to her like her sister. She held her face in her hands and said, “I can’t let you bleed to death, you are hurt, we have to go to the hospital.” My mother assured her that she would not give any details to the emergency dispatcher. My mother told the woman that she would speak to her son, that she would calm him down. We knew her son better than we knew her, because he was often in the street. His mother, who sought us out that day for help, was only ever seen walking to and from her car, always dressed for work, always looking kind but exhausted.
About ten minutes after my mother had called the ambulance, the issue had escalated so far that our entire half of the townhouse complex was filled with SWAT officers, police officers, firefighters and the local news department. As the boy’s mother walked into the ambulance van, her head still bleeding. All she could say was “Why did you call them? Why?”
I remember my mom yelling at the police, telling them that he was just a boy, that she could go in and get him, that there was no need for all of this. She was told to get back in the house and comply. I didn’t go to school that day. I watched from my window as the SWAT men shot something into the top window of my neighbour’s house. I watched my neighbour, a thin, dark, and ill young man, jump out of the window and scream upon landing. I watched him get hosed down with water before being tackled by armed officers. I watched this kid who, who often sat high in the park, never bothering anyone, and I cried and screamed at my window sill. He was my neighbour, and someone’s son. After that day, I never saw him again.
Since then, I can honestly say that to date, with the exception of insignificant traffic non-issues, my experiences with the police have continued to be experiences of aggression, power trips, humiliation, and fear. I have been witness to family members being treated unjustly by the police. I have been taunted, harassed, threatened, disrespected in front of my children, sized up, cat called and intimidated by the police. And along with the world, I have watched my brothers and sisters be murdered by the police.
As a mother of black children, I also know that no matter how prepared I try to make my kids, police brutality has no immunization."
As a grown woman, I know the obvious: they’re not all bad, and with the way things are set up today, we can’t yet be rid of them. I know that because we lack true community, there are times when as much as we do not want to, we have to call on the police. As a mother of black children, I also know that no matter how prepared I try to make my kids, police brutality has no immunization. I have told my husband countless times that if we are ever in a situation with the police, I should talk. I know that his voice, his body language and his mere existence can trigger unwarranted force and I have played out in my mind too many times all that could go wrong. We have had practice sessions of what to say should we be pulled over, how to say it, how to appear as docile as possible. But these are not things I can or will practice with my children. I feel sick thinking that they will probably have to learn too early what police brutality is. And it hurts that there is truly no armour I can give to protect them. Not knowledge, not self-defense. Not minding your business. Not being right. Not being good. Nothing can prevent the threat of the police in the times we are living.
This is the reality we are still faced with as parents of black children. As James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” And to be a parent on top of that is to be in a perpetual state of helplessness. But we have always been warriors, and to shrivel and die before death itself comes is not in our future. I salute every woman and man who is fighting with all that is in them to resist and destroy this racist system, and to hold accountable those who have shattered homes and robbed mothers like me of the best that they had.
My children cannot play with police toys. They do not own police dress-up hats. We do not accept police-themed gifts. We will not visit their float at the fair. We will not pet their horses on the street. We have made it clear to our young children that they can be whatever they like when they grow up, but we will not accept even the earliest and most well-meaning ambitions of becoming a police officer. We will not glorify a role that creates ways for hate and prejudice to be armed with weapons. We will not make exceptions for the good ones. We will not mirror the violence and hate of the worst ones. We will not teach our children that this is a normal job. We will not allow them to accept the injustices of the police towards our people as normal. I want our children to see this system for what it is. I want them to look at this system of policing so clearly and critically that they feel obliged to build a better system. I want them to see the need for safety and protection through community service and neighbourhood cooperation. I want the entire system to be called out so loudly for what it is, that no child wishes to be a police officer as the position stands today. I want every officer who feels in their heart that they can do better for themselves, to do better. I want the young, blue-eyed police officer I met years ago at traffic court, who looked at me and knew precisely where in Sudan my family is from, who studied culture-historical archeology, who said he had a passion for culture and people, and who literally lowered his head sheepishly to say he is not sure how he ended up as a police officer ― I want him to be brave enough to let go of the fallacy of policing. I want him and all of us to think bigger and be better.
I imagine for our kids a society where they, too, can feel that people who are paid to help protect them are mentally and physically unequipped to brutalize them. I want communities to have officers who are so educated, so well-read and so culturally knowledgable that the blue-eyed officer would have felt no need to doubt his career choice; he would know that to be able to protect and serve the people, you must know where they’re from and you must love them. We have to know that anyone paid to serve and protect our kids should be brave enough to not carry a gun while walking through our neighbourhoods and trained enough to not need one strapped to their side. They should represent utmost humility and kindness ― to kill a worm unnecessarily should cause them malaise. I need for our children to be able to wave spiritedly at members of the community who exist to serve them and feel pride at their sight.
Until then, there will be no games of cops and robbers. There will be prayers, strategies, conversations and resistance.