Just writing this title makes me weary and sad. Yet again we must figure out how to talk to our sons and our daughters about the acquittal of a police officer who stopped and killed a Black man for no justifiable reason. As you undoubtably know, yesterday the jury in the manslaughter trial of Officer Jeronimo Yanez acquitted him in the killing of Philando Castile. This Castile killing–which was shown on video in real time by his girlfriend Diamond Taylor and witnessed by her four year old daughter –was one of the most devastating examples of a police officer shooting an innocent man that we have seen in recent memory. During a “routine” traffic stop, Castile tells the police officer that he has a gun, which he is licensed to carry, and when he reaches for his ID the officer shoots at him seven times, killing him. This acquittal comes a month after the acquittal of Officer Betty Shelby in the killing of Terrance Crutcher in Tulsa, OK. As you will recall, Officer Shelby shot and killed Crutcher, who was unarmed and in distress in the middle of the road with his hands up, because she believed him to be dangerous.
Before we get to what we say to our sons, a moment to acknowledge the strength and fortitude of Philando Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, who seared us to the core with her condemnation of the verdict. “I am so disappointed in the state of Minnesota”, she said in a news conference immediately following the verdict. “My son loved this city and this city killed my son. And the murderer gets away.” She warned that everyone should share her outrage about this verdict: “The system continues to fail black people, and it will continue to fail you all. Like I said, because this happened with Philando, when they get done with us, they coming for you, for you, for you and all your interracial children. “Y’all are next, and you will be standing up here fighting for justice just as well as I am.” Indeed.
So what do we tell our children, especially our sons about these verdicts? If they are too young to understand the details of the cases, but are focused on the outrage, the protests and the stories of police killing Black men, we must first tell them that they are safe, and we as parents will do everything in our power to make sure they stay safe. (Say this convincingly–they need to hear this.) If your younger ones are not talking about this, try not to unnecessarily scare them by expressing your outrage about this around them. If they are old enough, have a conversation about it with them by first listening to their thoughts before sharing your own. Explain that people are protesting because they believe justice has not been served, and that we live in a country where injustice has been overcome through protest movements. Remind them of Dr. King’s words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, and those of Elie Wiesel: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest it”.
Talk with your older sons about the jury system, and how a jury of our peers is influenced by all sorts of things in addition to the facts of any case. Talk about the ways in which our society is influenced to view Black men as inherently dangerous, and how the officers in the Castile and Crutcher deaths described their perceptions of the victims. Discuss racial profiling and how it can impact those perceptions. Talk about how we all have biases, but how dangerous it can be when we rely on those biases instead of looking for factual evidence, especially when lives are at stake. Remember that these are conversations, not lectures, and your sons may not share all of your points of view, but be sure to respectfully listen to them. These are not easy issues to discuss, and there are certainly no easy resolutions to them. But these are conversations which are critical for us to have with our children.
Most importantly, remind your older children, especially your sons, that while the majority of the nation’s police officers work to protect and serve us all, there are some who abuse their authority with tragic consequences. While we parents know there are no magic words or instructions to give our sons to protect them from potential police abuse (as the Philando Castile case clearly demonstrates), we can talk to them about the importance of being alert and aware and very careful in any police encounter.
Stay tuned for more details of a GCP book project which focuses on this and other key issues re: parenting kids of color. We need all the help we can get!