william and valerie bell will be mourning long after the news has stopped reporting
It is April 24, 2008, a seasonably warm Friday afternoon in Harlem. Schools are on break, so the energy is high on the streets for an early weekday afternoon. The Sean Bell verdict has just come in and my head is still reeling; convinced now that there is and never will be any justice for our young men accosted, murdered even, by NYPD. Sean Bell is anybody's son, anybody's brother, anybody's groom-to-be. It was only a day or so ago that I read an interview with Sean Bell's parents – both were silently tormented by the seven week trial but hopeful, optimistic even, that justice would prevail – my heart just bled. I can only imagine that there is no pain comparable to losing a child – a son, to this kind of senseless violence to which our young men are so prone. I want to reach out to her…
Hours later. Driving east on 120th street, near Marcus Garvey Park, four young ladies are skipping and singing up the street – one white and three black, all teenagers. They are gleeful, oblivious, completely carefree, even in their interracial-ness in Central Harlem daylight. I drive several more yards only to greet two police cars, recently abandoned, blocking traffic and facing the wrong way on a one-way street. Note that the cop car in front is undercover – it is a Yellow Taxi, only distinguishable as a police vehicle by its license plate number. Several cops are entering the park, apparently on a mission. They are approaching four young men from behind, who happen to be entering the park too, presumably for a game of B-Ball. The cops in front are in plain clothes, the cops in the rear are uniformed – much in line with the way their cars were situated. I cannot make out what they are saying but they rush the young men from behind. The boys, startled but not nervous, turn around. I am stalled in my car, as if watching a silent movie. I REFUSE to drive.
A couple of the boys put their hands up immediately. The cops frisk them all, with little or no explanation. Then they turn around and get back into their cars, from what I can tell, without even an apology. The boys continue into the park as if nothing has happened. This is everyday ish for a young man in Harlem, I surmise.
The abuses are such that our young men come to expect them; they are no longer even phased. It's like the contentment that may have settled in on many slave plantations; where everyday maltreatment became commonplace, and there was no need to even complain. It is the plantation all over again. Or, in consciousness and as a whole, have we ever left the plantation???
Regardless to what these cops might've been looking for, if they had found so much as a Sharpie, that would've been enough to get these boys in the system. A search is unlawful without probable cause. And, though these cops might've been looking for somebody, they had no probable cause to search these boys. People don't know their rights though and, again, young men like these are accustomed, conditioned even, to being terrorized by the cops. I was amazed, more than anything that, even after the cops left, they were not outraged. It was a nice day and they just wanted to play ball.
The girls that I saw a half block before, and these boys are living starkly different urban realities. As the mother of a teen-age girl and boy, both living in Harlem, I've noticed the profound contrasts in their interactions with this cityscape: My daughter could've easily been one of those skipping girls; my son is, and has been, any one of those boys entering the park. Their realities are very different, at this juncture and forevermore. And, as he's grown older (and a foot taller) in this environment, he's had to mind his attire, his vernacular, his swagger, for better and for worse, all so as not to stand out, not to become a target to some and, consequently, a target to others. My daughter, 16, is still skipping, however, She was skipping five years ago, the year after that, and she is still skipping. Her dangers are not prevalent; they do not threaten to prevent her from being who she is and who she might become. Nobody is scrutinizing, confronting, accosting, or arresting people like her. There is no force, from within or outside her community, that impinges upon her psyche on a constant and daily level. I used to think that it was the girl who had to be protected from society. I've learned, however, that is the boy who is in constant, pervasive danger. Who will protect him?
There is an assault on our young men within the public school system, within our own communities, within the larger community and, of course, the police forces and the judicial system. If they succumb to this cunning force, they are growing up with the idea that they are "less than," and "not privy to." They see their resources as limited (even if this is not the case), and their futures as bleak. And, this opens up the floodgate to a bevy of abuses – self-inflicted and other.
This is a long conversation that will continue, starting with a bit more about the NYPD and the Sean Bell case and delving out, no doubt, onto many different tangents. In the meantime, I urge the following:
1) Your rights won't help you much in a hailstorm of 50 bullets, but in the event that you have the good fortune of a little warning before fire, know your rights! I urge everyone, especially young people, to check out "BUSTED: The Citizens Guide to Surviving Police Encounters." You can visit FlexYourRights.org to see the video, or utilize this link to view it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqMjMPlXzdA
2) Our young people are OUR responsibility – all of us! Young men need men – simple as that. Truth be told, when my son was younger, I could not BUY him a positive role model! Now, at 15, he has found his own. Now, they aren't all bad – and I am truly thankful for that – but they aren't all good either. And, as a woman, I am completely out of the equation – as of at least one year ago – in terms of having the ability to shape his psyche. (This, too, is a conversation for a future entry) My message to Black men is simply this: If you haven't already, find some way to impact the lives of our young men. Everyone, in terms of time and commitment, is so worried about what they are going to lose. Think about what you – the community and the world – have to gain. Just being there for ONE young man could save his life. If not his own son/s, every man should have at least one young brother that can count on him – maybe it's a young cousin, the son of a friend, or a stranger off the street. Sometimes you shape a young man's life by the mere fact that they have you to look at, and pattern themselves after; by the mere fact that they know someone like you exists not only in the real world, but in their world. Sometimes it's as simple as that. I was ashamed when I went to Big Brothers a number of years ago, and they told me they had no volunteers. In a city of millions, how is that even possible???
As I navigate this obstacle course with my young man, NOTHING weighs more heavily on my mind than the future of his generation. I believe I have a lot more to say, and many questions that I hope you will help me answer. I'm inviting all the brothers out there to share in this conversation with me. I'd love to hear your perspectives as I continue to search for ways for us ALL to save OUR sons.
More to come.....