11/26/2014 11:00 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

A Son's Photograph


"I want to tell you something," a woman waiting for her coffee at the bar next to our window seat at Starbucks said.

I popped in to say hi to two friends who were sitting by the widow. From a friendly morning hello, an impassioned and outraged conversation grew about the lack of indictment in Ferguson. The woman at the bar was listening.

Her latte arrived and she walked over to us. "I live in this neighborhood and I have a son. When I moved to my home, I walked over to the local police station with a photo of my son for them to keep. I said to them: 'This is my son. He's a good kid. Please don't shoot him.'"

The woman left Starbucks and as she passed the window on the street outside, we saw her wipe a tear from her eye.

I wanted to explain to her that we felt outrage about Michael Brown. From the process of grand jury selection to the lack of a trial, the handling of this crime was wrong. The mere perception of danger by an officer (with a gun and training, no less) cannot justify so many lethal shots. We were disgusted by the prosecution's lack of commitment. We were critiquing the coverage by certain news channels (Fox, CNN) for manipulating images of "dangerous" black people looting. When my family was awakened by the protester marching outside our window last night, my kids were proud of the peaceful protesters. I wanted to tell her all of that.

But her tears said more than my words could express. As much as we were full of indignation, we were three white moms who had never considered bringing a photo of our sons to the local police station to say, "please don't shoot my child." Our kids live in the same neighborhood and may even go to the same school, but her son and our kids do not grow up facing the same dangers. In giving the police her son's photo, she was asking them to see him as her son, as an individual, as a good boy with a life to live.

I had been declaring that New York was better than St. Louis, because our mayor was especially sympathetic to the plight of young black men. I was aware of recent killings of Eric Garner, killed in a police choke hold, and Akai Gurley, shot by a rookie officer in a darkened stairwell in his housing project, but I wanted to believe that our diverse New York City offers more promise for equality and safety.

Her tears undercut my confidence.

I've been teaching the book Beloved in my class and discussing the legacy of slavery, the continuation of racism and the transmission of trauma. But I hadn't ever thought of what it means to think to take a photo of your child to the local police station to say "please, do not shoot." Please see every child's face.