Fifteen miles from Sanford, Florida, and twelve years before it’s made famous by the death of Trayvon Martin, a third-shift marble worker for a swanky Orlando hotel sits his 13-year-old son down and explains how to be brown in front of the police.
“When he asks for your name, give it to him in full, first and last,” he says. “When he asks where you live, who your parents are, where you go to school, answer him. Don’t look in his eyes unless he tells you to.”
The son sits on the edge of his twin bed, a Kurt Cobain poster on the wall, the one where he’s clutching the guitar that says Vandalism is beautiful, like a rock in a cop’s face.
“When he tells you to put your hands on your head, do it. When he says to get on your knees, do it. Don’t argue. Say, ‘yes, sir.’ And if he starts reading your rights, stay quiet.”
It’s the first time he uses if.
“And if he hits you, don’t fight back. He might be rough. He might use handcuffs or his gun or one of those sticks.”
English is his second language, but it’s also the one he uses to read the newspaper.
“If he arrests you, don’t tell them anything. We can hire a lawyer. We can take care of you. But it’ll be easier if you don’t tell them anything. And don’t fight back.”
The father repeats this speech every two years. When the son learns to drive, he adds a section on how to survive getting pulled over. When he begins dating white women, he explains how some people won’t like that, tells him to be careful in poor neighborhoods, but good ones as well. Every time, he reminds the son, don’t fight back.
In the wake of Ferguson, two hashtags circled around Twitter from families of color, telling their versions of this same story: #IGotTheTalk and #IGaveTheTalk. When I showed them to my politically progressive white girlfriend, she asked if they were about menstruation. She didn’t understand for years why I clenched at the sight of sirens, why I went silent during coffee dates whenever a cadre of officers strolled in for (usually free) evening cups.
At a recent panel discussion on Ferguson held at Rutgers-Camden, a senior Urban Studies major, Marcus Biddle, discussed a video in which a white man is sawing a bicycle chain in public, interrupted only once by a bystander who asked if it is his bike. The man says, “Yes”; the bystander leaves. Same circumstances, the saw, the bike, the action conducted this time by a black man, and a crowd gathers while police are called. Biddle referred to this as a “social experiment.” I politely call it “attempted suicide,” depending on the neighborhood.
Let me put it another way: A Brigadier General and historian named S.L.A. Marshall conducted a survey of 400 infantry companies during World War II and found that only 15-20 percent of soldiers were willing to actually shoot at the enemy during an engagement. Analysis of this and similar studies dating back to the 19th century has led psychologist and historian Lt. Col. Dave Grossman to one conclusion about the data: “the simple and demonstrable fact that there is, within most men and women, an intense resistance to killing other people. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.” How is this responded to then? How can soldiers and the countries they defend be rallied against another chunk of their own species and seek their deaths in the trenches and airfields? Easy: dehumanize them.
Take their titles and dignity. Rename them “gook” and “jap” and “sand-nigger,” all of which have their invisible homes in the margins of our history books. Even our entertainment, where zombies and Stormtroopers and Orcs are mowed down by the heroes. You must separate that which you kill from humanity. They are animals, beasts, something less. Because it’s so hard to actually kill someone you look at as human.
Trayvon Martin took a single shot to the chest. John Crawford was hit twice while carrying a BB gun in an open-carry state. Jordan Davis took bullets to the legs, lungs, and aorta when he wouldn’t turn down his music. Eric Garner was choked by an NYPD officer long enough to repeat on three occasions that he could not breathe. And of course, Michael Brown was shot six times, twice in the head, while running away.
It’s so hard to shoot someone you look at as human.[Headline image: The photograph shows a young black child wearing a red baseball cap, beige jacket, and blue pants. The child is standing in the road next to a yellow line. Behind the child is a police car with its lights flashing; people are visible behind and to the side of the car. The child is looking toward the police car and the people.]