Seeing a young girl, somewhere around 14 years old, thrown to the ground by a police officer this weekend makes me feel hopeless. I suppose because the last time I saw this happen was not on YouTube or over social media, it was with my own pair of eyes. I couldn’t do anything about it then, and I cant do anything about it now. Hopelessness is what I feel. (See videos of the incident below.)
It was 1997, Denver, Colorado, I was 23 years old. While helping the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity host a dance social for the local middle and high schoolers in the Denver area, I joined a group of adults looking after kids as they danced to Puff Daddy joints on heavy rotation. My greatest concern while watching them was breaking up a few couples here and there from dancing too provocatively. We adults debated whether these dances were innocent or if they invoked adult behavior before these kids were mature enough to make such decisions. Among the grown folk I was the baby of the bunch, but found it interesting that I had the most conservative of views.
The dance ended. In my mind it was just another successful community service driven event that I’d participated in. I checked in with the event coordinator before my departure and while walking through the front doors of Thomas Jefferson High School I was surrounded by red and blue flickering lights dancing through the air. Everything following still plays in slow motion across my mind. In the parking lot were crowds of emotionally aroused pre-teens and teens shouting and crying. As I came closer to the crowd there were three figures lying on the ground, handcuffs secured tightly behind them, surrounded by police. Two of them were African American boys that had just been inside the dance, neither were much passed age 14. In the center of them was a white man laying in the same position. I stood confused as I tried to gather what I was viewing. Several girls screamed at the top of their lungs, “I can’t believe they did that! I can’t believe this! They are so wrong!” All of these screams in the direction of the police. Tears, screams, then more tears, and screams. Another adult chaperone approached me and said “the cops are beating up our kids.” I stood in shock, frozen in place. I wanted to click my heels three times and be somewhere else.
All of the adults overseeing the event were instructed to get the kids into surrounding cars and off the premises as quickly as possible. The tension in the air put us into immediate action in accomplishing this. I went from emotional group to group, asking them to gather and leave. I looked into tear filled eyes of young girls who’d just witness horror. They shared how this person was pushed to the ground, and how that person was punched in the face, all by the police. I replied, ok I understand, but for now, please gather your friends and go home, let us handle it. I held several girls as they sobbed. Each group was respectful, each group complied. The crowds began to disperse and simmer down and then it happened.
Countless patrol cars quickly surrounded the school. Suddenly there were a dozen new cops on the campus. The atmosphere that had begun to calm, now quickly again raised to a boiling point as these cops swarmed upon the parking lot in swat team fashion. As they descended upon this high school parking lot like an attack field in Iraq a very large officer rushed me. Within an inch of my face he yelled, “go the f*ck home!!” I raised my hands against him and stated I was one of the adult chaperones who was trying to get the kids home safely. He replied, “well hurry up and get them the f*ck of of here now!!,” with baton held tightly in his hand. Although I was 23 I suppose this cop couldn’t tell the difference between a young adult and a middle schooler, or is it he couldn’t tell the difference between a young professional in brown skin and a random thug? Then as I turned to my left I saw one of the most horrific things I have every witnessed in my life. A different officer took his baton between both hands and plunged it into the back of a little girl’s neck. She collapse and fell knees first down a set of concrete stairs. I stood there paralyzed as she gathered herself holding her shoulder, blood pouring from her knees. That was my hopeless moment. It was then that I realized that no one was safe, myself included, but that these children were the most vulnerable. I’d been pretty composed prior to that point, but from then on I approached each child very differently. With a lump in my throat and fighting tears I held a few more young girls as they sobbed. I felt like I was in the twilight zone.
From across the parking lot I saw a young man standing outside of his car door swaying from side to side, visibly upset, with a his shirt off. He had the build of a grown man although I knew he was probably just barely old enough to drive. I thought to myself, Oh no!! and made a beeline for him. I asked that he please go home and to allow the adults to handle this incident. He stared into my eyes fighting back tears. I told him to please get into his car. I assured him that I knew that he’d done nothing wrong but he yet in still posed a threat to these officers. His heart broke through his eyes as mine did also for having to tell this young man that because of his skin, he was seen as a problem. He complied and got into his car and prepared to leave the parking lot. As I walked away from the young man that I later found out was named Quincy, he was rushed by police and pulled through the window of his parked car, handcuffed and pummeled by police. There was no crime committed.His crime, sitting in a parked car while Black. I went home that night shaken. Forever changed. Kids went to a dance, and then were attacked by police. Simple. Plain. My only experience with police brutality at that time was Rodney King, this now was raw, alive and in the flesh.
Later in meetings among chaperones and parents it was determined what had actually occurred that night. At the end of the dance as children peacefully got into their cars and hung out a bit in the parking lot, someone in this middle class predominately Caucasian neighborhood called the police and reported “a mob” in front of the school. Many of these teens attended this high school and lived in the area, but I suppose the only way this would have been seen for what it was, teens leaving a dance, would be under the circumstances that those teens were white. Somehow our teens were viewed as mob. The two black teens who were cuffed and lying on the ground were ones attempting to reason with the police to explain to them that a dance had taken place, and that they had reason to be there. (The having to explain oneself while innocently living still infuriates me.) As these young men attempted to calmly inform the officers, one was hit by an officer and pummeled to the ground. The white man that was cuffed on the ground that night just so happened to be the adoptive father to the young black man hit by the cop. As he attempted to defend his son he was also hit, thrown to the ground and cuffed. The arrests were all later dropped in court but not long after a fight to get the truth of this incident exposed.
One of the most shameful points of all this, (as if there could be more shame), was the parent’s and chaperone’s visit with then Mayor Wellington Webb, who happens to be a black man. After being kept waiting for an hour before meeting with him at this scheduled meeting, he opened the meeting with a room full of black adults and stated, “well you know our kids have a problem with the police.” Shock permeated that room with sharp precision. In actuality these children were likely not ones who had a history of being harassed by the police, most were suburban kids with good grades. The idea that our own mayor viewed them as a threat along with the police department might be the highest offense of all. Our children did not have a problem with the police, the police had a problem with our children. In my youth I couldn’t understand then what we were up against, a system that was stacked against our kids. Our mayor although he looked like us was as far from the reality of police brutality against black and brown people as the moon is from the sun. But no one in that meeting with the mayor summed up the realities and obstacles of raising a black children in this society better than Mr. Houston. He was a dear family friend who I’d known previous to this incident. He and his wife were professionals, highly respected in this community, and very active in this school where all four of their children attended. Mr Houston gave first hand accounts of teaching his boys to keep a bible in their cars at all times, to never blare their music, and when pulled over by police officers, to always keep their hands on the steering wheel, while making no sudden movements. As he spoke his voice began to crack, and then the tears. We all sat with those same tears and soon into Mr. Houston’s accounts the mayor joined us in the tear fest. We all sat, shared, gave account for the harm this had caused our children. The young girl’s mother who’d I witnessed being pushed down those concrete stairs held her heart as she explained that the pain of her daughter’s broken clavicle couldn’t compare to the state of her broken heart. One story after the other. We all sat hopeless.
The highlight of the weeks of public and private meetings and press conferences came from the Houston household yet again. One of Mr Houston’s sons grabbed a mic before the chief of police, the mayor and a congregation of angry neighbors, parents and friends to share some of the most profound words ever uttered. This young man at 15 stood and eloquently gave his account of the incidents that night. He attended a dance were he was treated like a criminal. He stated that during this incident the police didn’t care who he was and who the other teens were, but that today he would give an account of who he was and who the other teens were. He shared how this one was being accepted to this Ivy League school, and how that one served the elderly at the local senior center. Then he went down his own resume. In his tongue and cheek manner he articulated how he’d just returned from oversees with a study group, how he was active in many community organizations, how hard he’d worked for his high grade point average and what he’d planned to do with the rest of his yet young, highly accomplished life. I gushed in high pride as the the crowd exploded into grand applause and standing ovation.
Although this incident is 18 years in my rear view, all of the incidents of that day came crashing back in like a tsunami this weekend. With Texas cops pulling revolvers on pool partying teens and slamming young girls to the ground, this all hits a little too close to home for me. It all too closely parallels what I’ve seen for myself. I suppose it’s hard for some to believe that innocent children could be treated like this, that this could happen without those kids arousing these events. I guess if you don’t have a full level of empathy, compassion or reality, you can’t believe that this could happen without provocation, but it can, and it has. 1997, 2015, no big difference, it continues. And I just sit hopeless. What do we do with these incidents? What are they doing to the minds, spirits and hearts of those who suffer them? What does a young person do who has been taught to trust authority and turn to that authority as refuge in times of trouble, do when they themselves are seen as the trouble? What do we tell them? Seriously, that’s not a rhetorical question… I’ll wait.