2016 has been a gut-wrenching year. As of July, the number of African-Americans killed by police officers, this year alone, is a staggering 137. Craven, J. (2016). Here’s How Many Black People Have Been Killed By Police This Year. Retrieved August 25, 2016 from https://www.google.com/?ion=1&espv=2#q=how%20many%20african%20americans%20have%20been%20killed%20by%20the%20police%20in%202016
The death of black people at the hands of the police is nothing new. It is a bloody wound that has been left to fester throughout our history. And because these deadly encounters are now captured on cell phones and then disseminated on social media, unlike decades past, our own eyes now tell the story. Not one-sided police reports or carefully crafted media statements, but our own eyes. And there is no denying the horror we have seen–that America is still wrought with racism and classism; that the urban areas in which many black people live remain occupied territory by the police; and, perhaps most striking, that the perceived image of black men in America remains a negative one.
It is the image of them being aggressive, suspicious, life-threatening criminals that has been the undercurrent of the majority of the cases in which unarmed black men have lost their lives as a result of police shootings. And while this perception has largely been dissected along the longstanding racial division between black and white people, the problem is deeper. It is the historical and systematic oppression, misrepresentation, and defiling of black men that continues to plague our society and places them at constant risk.
In this ‘Feature Friday,’ I talk with my mother, Linda Linton, about the longstanding contentious relationship between the African-American community and the police; coming of age during the Civil Rights era; her journey as a divorced single-mother; her thoughts about having an African-American grandson; and our own family tragedies involving the police.
Thank you for doing this mom.
You’re welcome Terri.
We have had conversation after conversation about the many shootings of African-Americans by the police. For people like me (who grew up in the 70s to today’s Millennials), this astronomical number of police involved shootings is something that we have never known. As someone who was in college during the Civil Rights era, what does this time feel like to you?
Police aggression and excessive force, sadly, are not new. In my day, the Nation of Islam, for example, was very vocal about these issues in their publication Muhammed Speaks. What is different now is that social media has been instrumental in bringing these occurrences to the forefront of our consciousness. Perhaps these incidents went on with the same level of frequency years past, but we were unaware because we did not see it as we can now. Nonetheless, the incidents are disturbing to say the least. And they are even more unsettling to me as an African-American woman who came of age during the Civil Rights movement.
What do you think of the activism of Black Lives Matter? Do you think such activism is an effective mechanism to bring about change?
I think Black Lives Matter and activism as a whole is incredibly important. As long as inequality, injustice, and police brutality exists, we need to keep our society conscious. I also think that many different people are and can be involved in what we know as activism today. In many of the protests that we have seen this year in response to the police shootings, there were young people of different races involved. I’m glad to see young people in particular picking up and carrying the torch. This reminded me of when I was in the 7th grade and went to the March on Washington. My teacher, who was a Jewish woman, took our class. She is the one who actually sparked my awareness of racial discrimination and injustice. Unfortunately, these things weren’t really discussed in my home.
Why do you think your parents did not discuss matters of racial discrimination and injustice?
That’s something that has always puzzled me. They were both from humble beginnings in the south. Neither were socio-politically savvy. The only time that they discussed discrimination or injustice was when they were passed over for employment opportunities because of their race. But beyond that, their lives in the south was just something that neither ever discussed. Maybe their experiences there were too painful. The only thing my mother repeatedly said of it was that she never wanted to return to the south even in death. My grandparents also never discussed their lives there.
Our own family has experienced loss at the hands of the police. Please talk about that.
My brother, who was 28 years old at the time, was a new recruit still on probationary status with the New York City Police Department (NYPD). He was working out of the 32 Precinct in Harlem. He had gotten off duty, was in plain clothes, and was at an ‘after-hours spot’ when he saw a man and woman involved in an altercation. He interceded and came to the aid of the woman. He had the man ‘spread eagle’ while detaining him at gun point as he was preparing to arrest him. An off-duty New York City Housing police officer, who was also black, was riding by and saw my brother detaining this man at gun point. He, in turn, got out of his vehicle with his gun drawn. As my brother turned around, he shot my brother dead. My brother left behind a wife and two small children.
So this is not the common scenario of a white police officer shooting a black man. How did this experience, of a black officer mistaking the identity of another black police officer, inform your opinion of how black men are perceived in this country?
People have been brainwashed to fear black men over hundreds of years. I think black men are viewed as being dangerous and criminal. And, unfortunately, some of us black people have also bought into this negative imagery. When you couple all of this with excessive force used by the police and the pervasive gun violence that exists in many of our communities, it really does make black men an endangered species.
Also remember that my first cousin’s grandson, Christopher Ridley, was killed similarly in White Plains in 2008. He too was young (23 years old), off-duty, interceding in a physical altercation and, while having his weapon drawn, was shot and killed by the Westchester County police. So clearly, how black men are perceived in this country is at the core of this problem.
How did the killing of your brother affect you and our family?
My parents were completely heartbroken. When my brother was accepted onto the NYPD, they were so proud. My father had aspirations to become a police officer, but never did despite taking the exam. He maintained that he was not hired because he was black. What I always found interesting is that despite the loss of their son, I never heard them verbalize any disdain for law enforcement. I believe they felt they had to acquiesce in so much of their lives. This was yet another situation in which they had to get through and carry on. As for me, I had an emotional breakdown and post-traumatic stress. For years, I suffered from a sleep disorder and could not attend funerals.
Did your parents pursue legal action for the killing of their son?
No. They were told by higher-ups within the precinct that if they pursued legal action, they would report that my brother was still on probationary status, while at an ‘after-hours spot,’ and that his death would then not be classified as a ‘killed in the line of duty.’ If they did that, his widow would not have received his small pension which was needed. So for the sake of his wife and children, my parents did not pursue anything. That is why when I see #BlueLivesMatter my feelings run so deeply. While the lives of police officers certainly matter, I also know firsthand how impenetrable that ‘blue wall of silence’ can be.
Do you have any concerns about your grandson growing up in this country as an African-American man?
Absolutely. I have immense concern about his safety and wellbeing. The fact that he is African-American and male make him automatically suspect in the eyes of the world.
What are your hopes for him?
I would hope that by the time he is a young man, he will truly have the same opportunities as a young men of any other race. That he will not be presumed unintelligent, incapable, or unqualified to do whatever it is he wants to do because of his race. I hope that much of the racist attitudes about black males, and black people as a whole, will dissipate although I don’t think it will ever fully go away. I also want him to be a man with a good value system, who has respect for himself, others, and especially women.
Let’s shift gears. You and my father divorced when I was three years old, and you raised me as a single-mom. What was that like for you?
Very difficult. I did not have the financial and emotional support of your father. I wanted you to have the best possible educational experience and I wanted you to be happy and safe. Meeting the strict demands of my employer, those of motherhood, and attending graduate school at night, all simultaneously, made the time a very difficult one.
Looking back, what do you wish you had or had not done in your parenting of me?
I would have given you the freedom to just be. I would have allowed you to be exploratory and free to make more of your own choices in your life. I would not have been as strict with you so that you would not have grown up feeling that you had to be what I wanted you to be in life.
What best piece of advice would you give me in the parenting of my son?
Let him feel that he can be free to make choices that he believes are best for him. Give him the latitude to explore so that hopefully he can and will make positive decisions in his life. Instill in him that he has to be a contributor in making our society a better place, and to remember the lesson taught to me by my dad–a good name is worth more than money.
And I saved the biggest question for last. Are you ready?
And your absolute favorite blog is?
SheIsTerriLinton.com. It’s the only one I follow.
Thank and love you mom.
You’re welcome and I love you too.