On one of these recent warm nights, Will and his friend decided to hang out at a public park in a nearby town. They were doing what teenagers do in their summer downtime: sitting on a bench and talking, enjoying the balmy night air.
The only trouble is that it was midnight. And there was a sign, hard to see in the dark, even harder to see if you’re a teenager blind to such things, but a sign, nonetheless, that informed the citizenry that the park closed at dusk.
Suddenly, recounts Will, a police car pulled into the parking lot, and a uniformed officer emerged, shining a flashlight in their eyes, barking to see identification. As Will complied, a second police car came screeching into the lot. “Guess it’s a slow night, officer,” my son says he noted, not to be disrespectful or confrontational, only to make an observation and defuse his nerves with his own special brand of teenage humor.
Needless to say, the officer didn’t find this humorous in any way. “You’re pretty funny for a 17-year-old,” aren’t you, snarled the cop, and wrote Will a ticket. Not his friend. Just Will. My son says both police officers watched warily from their respective cruisers as he and his friend moved slowly to his car and drove out of the park.
We scoured the ticket but couldn’t figure out what Will had been written up for, what the fine might be, and what the next step entailed. So we called the Municipal Court and a date for a court appearance was set. An hour later, we got a call from the clerk saying the charges (whatever they had been) had been dropped, and the court date no longer applied.
I tell this story as the mother of a 17-year-old boy who, by definition of his age and station in life, will not always exercise the best judgment. Case in point: hanging out in a public park after curfew. “What if someone wanted to mug you; that town does have gangs, believe it or not, so it can be dangerous after dark; why didn’t you come home to hang out; didn’t you see the sign saying the park was closed?”
We chose to use this experience as yet another teachable moment, to explain that no matter how rude and overbearing he felt the officers may have been, his only correct answers were: “Yes sir, no sir, sorry sir, and it won’t happen again, sir.”
Given the spasm of national violence this past week—the murders of black men in Baton Rouge and Minnesota by sworn officers of the law, and then the ostensible revenge killings of policemen in Dallas—I have to wonder how Will’s recent encounter with the police might have played out differently if he was not half-Asian, but black.
It’s frightening enough to think of the wide range of dangers that our children face out in the world, from international terrorism to the ramifications of texting while driving, from concussions playing sports to having their hearts mercilessly broken in love. But black parents do have that added other dimension of race to add to the worry equation. And so my heart breaks for our nation that has turned back the clock on progress in race relations.
How ironic that after eight years with our first black president in the White House, race relations should be more strained than they have been in years.
Race is central to the recent violence, but at the root of the matter is gun control. There are too many guns and not enough mental health services, too many disenchanted and disenfranchised and not enough community solutions, too many rabid politicians spouting hatred and vitriol and not enough architects of peace. We are a trigger-happy nation with too many weapons, too many gripes and not enough understanding.
Pundit Jon Stewart nailed our current events with this observation: “You can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.”
There’s no doubt that police encounters of the close kind are rarely pleasant: you call them when you need help or more commonly in my case, when you’re pulled over for a traffic violation. In fact, my most recent encounters have involved a broken taillight, neglecting to use a turn signal and driving home from the New Jersey Turnpike at 3 a.m. There was nothing wrong: it was just a late hour and the car smelled like the remains of the fried chicken dinner I had consumed earlier rather than the alcohol I think the officer was expecting.
My interactions have, for the most part, been pleasant if perfunctory, and I have the utmost respect for our men (and women) in blue who put their lives on the line every day with their sworn duty to protect the citizenry. But when the citizenry needs protection from our protectors, that’s when we have a problem. And when our protectors need protection from gun-happy vigilantes, the world has truly turned upside down.