As a sixth grade teacher in 1993, I was caught off guard by one of my young black male students, Corey. He came in one morning, all excited, because he had made 10 dollars for a round-up. I had no idea what that meant and assumed this was a Bronx colloquialism that I did not know since I was new to New York. What Corey actually meant was a LINE-UP. He didn’t even know the terminology. He and his friends were playing streetball (the norm when there is no grass or safe playground nearby where parents can be in viewing range). The police came by and asked all of the boys who looked like Corey (dark-brown-skinned, skinny as a rail, and 5’4 tall) if they wanted to make an easy 10 dollars. All they had to do was come to the station and stand on a line. I. WAS. HORRIFIED. I think it took me a minute to even say anything. For starters, I couldn’t imagine any person feeling threatened and needing to file a criminal charge against someone as frail as Corey. All you had to do was sit on him and my man would be DONE. More importantly, he seemed to have no idea that this 10 dollars was not a gift (but DID have enough sense not to tell his mama). On the one hand, the naiveté of feeling safe with the precinct and police reminded me that Corey was just a child. However, I was terrified of what would and could happen to him if anyone pointed him out as their “perpetrator.” It was a tough conversation to have with sixth graders that morning, but I dived right in… and called Corey’s mother that night, a woman who worked two jobs, kept Corey locked inside the apartment with the exception of streetball downstairs. Her sniffles on the phone suggested both fear and anger, all at once.
Two years after meeting Corey, I started teaching high school: ninth graders. They were not as naive as Corey, suggesting to me that, in the 90s at least, these lessons about racial profiling, violence, and surveillance came a little later in Black and Latin@ youth’s lives. I have distinct memories of field trips where I always asked the one older white male in the building, an administrator, to join us. All you needed was one cop to get a call about a Black or Latino male or female in a dark goose-down coat! That was my WHOLE class. That was ME! And, at 24 years old, most people thought I was a high school student so I was never granted the status of TEACHER of the class. If the police yoked up me or one of my students, it was straight to the precinct; I could not even be an “alibi.” Like I have already said before on this blog, I was always criminalized alongside my students.
I was taken back to these memories today, with a mixture of rage and deep sadness, after hearing Denene Millner talk about Omari Grant, an 11-year old from Henry County, Georgia. Apparently, he and his friends were trying to build a tree house from sticks, mud, and bark in the woods behind his house. A woman in the NEXT subdivision saw them from her window and called 911. Two police officers came to the scene and approached the boys, one with gun drawn and forced the boys to lay down on the ground. Omari did as the officers asked him to, because, in his words: “”I was thinking that I don’t want to be shot today.”
In a strange and ironic twist of fate, Omari represents a kind of progress from Corey’s naiveté. Omari knew to be scared and knew the dangers ahead of him, unlike Corey. Today, an 11 year old knows he will be shot and demonized by police, law enforcement, and racial power. I will go to bed tonight imagining this as the “progress” America has made.