This article was originally posted on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange February 29, 2016.
By Zerline Hughes
An African-American, 12-year-old boy is arrested and taken into custody for carrying a weapon in Washington, D.C., while waiting for the bus. The weapon, an empty glass beer bottle, would allegedly have been used to hurt city residents, but police are able to search his bag and find the weapon before a crime is committed. Had the offender been just a few years older, he would be eligible to be tried in adult court.
Yeah, it’s a scenario. Actually, as Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, put it during a recent appearance at Public Welfare Foundation in Washington, D.C., it’s an all-too-accepted “narrative.”
Let’s break down this narrative: First, one may think, oh, a weapon? Good thing cops caught the kid before something happened. One may also think, he must be a product of his environment. Too bad. And ultimately, you’d assume that since laws are there for residents’ protection, he clearly broke some law and he’d learn his lesson while serving time.
This is the narrative I fear. This is the scenario that happens more than we would like to think with our kids. But what’s missing is the real story: the details and true motivations of said 12-year old. What I want, and what we all need, is for regular old folk to understand this narrative because, as Stevenson said, if you don’t understand the narrative, helping to change it won’t work.
Let me explain …
My son, my sweet, sweet son (don’t all the mothers on the news say that?) is sometimes asked (by us) to take the Metro train from one part of town to the other. It’s a hike, but our Metro system is pretty easy, clean and you rarely hear about any safety issues.
Less often, he is asked to walk home from the Metro himself. Home is in Ward 7, located in northeast D.C. in a small, sometimes quiet neighborhood where folk oftentimes gather on the street corner to meet up, talk, hang out (all day and night) and do … whatever. Let’s just say, it could be safer.
So, let’s fast forward to earlier this month. While my son was washing his PE clothes, I happened to pass his near-empty workout bag and there lay an empty Budweiser bottle. Yeah, there was an empty beer bottle in the boy’s gym bag. Gasp. Sigh. Scream. Ack! Right?
I just knew it wasn’t what it looked like. I knew it. So, I decided not to worry and wait patiently for my son to wake from a nap to inquire. I knew there was gonna be a great explanation to clear it all up. And there was.
On Halloween, a few months ago, I asked my son to take a piece of mail to the mailbox about two blocks away. It was semi-light outside. He returned to the house visibly shaken but didn’t comment until nearly an hour later.
Some “big kids” were following him to and fro. One of them hit him from behind. My kid, who was a month from becoming a karate black belt and smart enough to not try to defend himself by taking on the group of four or five teens, speed-walked home.
Our hearts broke to know he was targeted by bullies in our own neighborhood — and even more so that he was so scared and too embarrassed to tell us immediately.
My son, however, decided he wouldn’t be the target anymore. On his scarce walks following this incident, apparently, he would make sure to pick up a stick before walking to or from our neighborhood. And on one occasion, likely as long as a month ago, he found this Budweiser beer bottle and stuffed it in his workout bag — just in case.
Just in case he was targeted again and had to defend himself. I hate “just in case.”
So when he explained this to me, yes, it all made sense. But this very explanation would fall on deaf ears to a police officer, prosecutor, judge. Instead, they’d see a 5-foot, 7-inch-tall black boy from the ‘hood who looks like a 15- to 17-year old, who was carrying a weapon to harm, retaliate, rob, even kill someone. And just in case, they’d likely apprehend him — or worse.
We all know how badly a situation like this can turn out, don’t we?
This is the story of so many of our incarcerated youth — and adults. Due to the circumstances of their surroundings or previous experiences, they’ve had to do things to combat trauma stress.
Some may actually join gangs to seek protection, while others may resort to carrying weapons. Others may choose not to leave the safety of their homes, sacrificing their education or ability to make money, thus exposing them to lifelong poverty with no degree or means to make a living.
As Stevenson put it, we have to change this narrative. The narrative of fear and anger. The narrative that kids are “superpredators.” Too many of our criminal and juvenile justice problems are sustained by the narratives that have been created around fear, anger, racial injustice — the list goes on, he said.
In our work as communicators, advocates, practitioners and scholars, we must change the narrative. In our roles as teachers, parents and family members, we must speak positivity, hope and change in our children. And we must do it early.
My son turned 13 last weekend. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking he is now eligible to be charged as an adult in the event he commits a stupid act that is deemed a felony offense, instead of celebrating a rite of passage. This is wrong. And white parents never have thoughts like this.
We cannot live in fear. I cannot live in fear. My son cannot live in fear. Because it is fear that will scare us into the wrong hands, the wrong state of mind, the wrong narrative.
Zerline Hughes is a Washington, D.C., communications consultant and blogger on social justice issues. Her blog Not These Two focuses on keeping her children out of the school-to-prison pipeline. Follow her on Twitter at @zerlinehughes.