(Today features a guest post from S. Lorén Trull. Trull is a native North Carolinian who holds a JD from the UNC School of Law and is a PhD Candidate in Public Policy at UNC Charlotte. Prior to entering a PhD program she was a criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia, PA and the surrounding areas. Currently her research is heavily based in education and immigration policy, with a focus on inequality and disparity.)
My whole day has been consumed by the gunning down of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, from personal feelings of anger and sadness, to practical questions of policy and how to combat police brutality. Because that’s what this is, police abuse. I’ve read the opinions of many, ranging from those who support the rioting to those who say Michael Brown should’ve just complied. Michael Brown should’ve stepped onto the sidewalk when commanded to do so by the police officer. Those who believe that abuse of authority is just part of the times and that in order to keep yourself safe you just must comply. As I read more and more opinions that are in line with this “blame the victim” mentality I begin wondering how I would handle this with my own child and I find myself at an impossible crossroads.
As a white woman it is very easy for me to say I wouldn’t comply. I would demand more information from the police; I would vehemently oppose and outright disobey unjustified commands from an officer. But that mentality has been fostered by the fact that I didn’t grow up with images of the police abusing people who looked like me. I didn’t experience police harassment of white women in my neighborhood, and I was never taught through experience, at least not in my childhood years, that the police were a source of threat rather than protection. So yes, it is easy for me to disobey because my life doesn’t stand in the balance every time an officer approaches me.
However, as one half of an interracial relationship with an African American man, my perspective must change. The reality is that if I have a son one day he will be another brown face to police. They won’t care or even consider that one parent is white, all they will see is another young brown man. He could be sent to the best prep schools, be the best behaved of children, but on the day that he is walking home from the store with his friend, he is just another Michael Brown to police. So what do I do? What do I tell my son?
As a parent I want to protect my child in any way possible. So as a parent my instructions will be the speech that many young black men have experienced. “Don’t cause trouble, obey the police, and just comply.” As a lawyer, I’ve even considered giving my teenage child a card that invokes all possible rights and telling them to comply, hand over the card to police and just wait for mom to get there. Unfortunately, I feel like this speech is necessary for the safety of my child because it becomes more and more obvious that every encounter that my brown child may have police could be a matter of life and death. So this speech, these instructions that further invoke fear and accept abuse feels necessary to protect the life of my son.
As a policy analyst, as an individual trying to assess the current state of affairs in the US I can’t agree to this speech so easily. I recognize that giving this speech, and spreading the “just comply” mentality is accepting a culture of police abuse that I’m not ok with. In this moment I remember Bernardine Dohrn’s words: “The aspects of patriotism that hush dissent, encourage going along, and sanction comfortable distancing and compliance with what is indecent and unacceptable… those aspects are too fundamental to ignore or gloss over.” I can’t gloss over what it means on a larger level when I encourage compliance and thus ingrain this culture of abuse in my child. There are greater consequences, cultural consequences, long standing endorsement of police abuse when I utter the words “just comply” to my young child.
I’ve gone over these thoughts multiple times before and over and over again today. I’ve yet to come to an answer because it seems that no matter the course of action I take, death could be imminent for my child and for the other black and brown children just trying to make it home from the store. Is the cause bigger than my child’s life? Of course not. But by attempting to save his life with “just comply” am I adopting a frame of mind that ensures he and his children and his grandchildren are in danger for decades and centuries to come?