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Blacks speak out: Fear for sons’ lives

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

The victims are now household names: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald and most recently Kevin Matthews, a Detroit man who was shot and killed in December by a Dearborn police officer. Together they form a disturbing trend of unarmed black men dying at the hands of police officers.

While the FBI has announced it would overhaul its system for reporting deadly encounters with law enforcement, the British newspaper The Guardian has compiled statistics for a project named The Counted. In 2015, the project found that 1,134 Americans were killed by law enforcement officials. Of that number, about 25 percent of those were unarmed African Americans, compared with 17 percent of white unarmed victims.

According to the Guardian, African-American males between ages 15-34 comprised more than 15 percent of all deaths by police this year, despite making up only 2% of the total U.S. population. That rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age, the findings show.

The investigation revealed that along with official government mortality data, about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man is a killing by police.

Since 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in 2012, perhaps no collective group bears the burden of this alarming assault on families than that of mothers of black sons. It is no coincidence that Martin’s death motived three black women to organize the Black Lives Matter movement.

With the help of Yusef Shakur, a local social justice activist and author, The Detroit News was part of an informal discussion at the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion with four mothers of black sons. They talked about how their lives have changed since Martin’s death, their lack of trust with law enforcement, their fears every time their child walks out the door, and what they feel can be done to defuse the underlying issues of racism.

The Detroit News: As mothers of black sons, do you feel under siege? Do you fear for your sons’ safety?

Yodit Mesfin Johnson of Ypsilanti, who has a 6-year-old son, talks about young black males today and their encounters with law enforcement.

Yodit Mesfin Johnson: This is a very emotional topic for me. I remember after Trayvon died watching the news and the woman that was being interviewed was the mother of an 18-year-old and she was talking about the conversation that mothers have to have with their kids when they go out. It just took my breath away. My baby was only 3 then, and the reality of what was happening to our boys set in. The idea that my husband and I would have to have a conversation with him about what to do and not to do and how to act and how to dress and how to be was unreal to me.

And to have to do this to my son who was born when there was a black president? Seriously?

I remember a friend telling me not to make a big deal out of Obama with my son because that was his norm. It’s all he’s ever known and I shouldn’t take that away from him, that it won’t mean for him what it meant for us. But in this context, no longer can we tell our kids you can be anything you want to be. That is a lie.

I’m a powerful woman and yet when it comes to this, I feel powerless. I can no more explain to my son why some madmen kill people in Paris any more than I can explain to him why his life and the lives of all other black men in my life that I love — my husband, nephews, cousins, friends — are considered prey by the very people that are supposed to protect them.

Activist Akua Badu-Watkins worries about her two adult sons.

Akua Budu-Watkins: I have one son who’s a chef and another son who works in real estate and has his own business. They are 27 and 29 years old. These are grown men. But I tell them if I don’t hear from you in a few days, somebody call and let me know that you are all right. I never thought that I would have to do that.

I worry about it, not just for my own son, but anybody’s kid because these days you can be pulled over simply for driving black. Even raising your hands up doesn’t doing anything anymore. You still can get shot.

Jessica Care Moore

Jessica Care Moore: I went to Ferguson for the demonstrations. The police were like the KKK. They made us lie on the ground. It hurt my body. It hurt my heart.

It’s a scary time to be raising a beautiful boy. You just want your children to be safe, you know? I just don’t understand why young children are dying when police are supposed to be protecting us. My mother says it’s like 1965 all over again.

I was pulled over recently by Wayne State Police and my son was in the back seat and he said: ‘Momma, if they say the word get, meaning ‘get out of the car,’ I’m going to start screaming. He’s 9 years old.

I told him no, don’t worry. I’m trying to reinforce that the cops are the good guys. My brother was a cop in Detroit in the 12th Precinct, so I know what exists; I know what goes on. And I know we have a problem with cops policing areas they don’t care about.

It’s a terrible quandary, but I refuse to raise my son in fear. I refuse. And yet we can afford to think it can’t happen here.

Tamika Gaines said her 18-year-old son and friends were stopped, frisked and handcuffed by Detroit police for failing to signal a right-hand turn on Eight Mile.

Tamika Gaines: I have an 18-year-old son, and it’s a tremendous burden to be raising a teenager in the city of Detroit. He’s a community activist. He was the youngest member of Detroit 300 and constantly, every night, he was seeking out rapists and working with the police to combat crime, so he has this great sense of community and social justice.

But then this summer, he and his friends were pulled over by Detroit police. They were treated very aggressively and handcuffed. They had to get on the ground and be frisked. My son was roughed up and his lip got busted when they pushed his face up to the car. All because he asked: what are you stopping us for? (Gaines visited the precinct and was told her son was pulled over for failing to signal a right-hand turn on Eight Mile.)

These kids are not thugs. They all had just graduated from Benjamin Carson School of Science and Medicine. My son is attending Schoolcraft College now. They are young men with futures and promise. These kids were emasculated in front of each other. I mean, what kind of reputation do police expect to have with these young men after that?

I called the precinct and talked to the officers involved because that’s who I am. But every kid doesn’t have a mother like that. This should not be the norm. This is just creating a whole generation of angry black men who were not angry before, and all because they were handled inappropriately for reasons unbeknownst to them.

Mesfin Johnson: These are bad people, not bad departments. We don’t want to demonize the whole department. I think if any one of us were in the midst of a violent situation, our first inclination would be to dial 911.

Gaines: Not me. And not because I’m afraid of what’s coming to me, but because there is a question of will they be there.

Mesfin Johnson: I think we have to change the narrative. I want the same privilege that my white friends have with their children. I want to raise them to be free spirits, to feel as if they have limitless possibilities. But people can’t be what they can’t see. So it’s my job as a mother to my son and as a mother in my community to cast images and stories that refute what the media depicts are young black males.

And I just have to ask, because, frankly now, it’s become almost sexy to show our boys being killed. Just how long are you going to keep putting images out there of our boys dead in the street? Why do you keep pushing that narrative out to the rest of the world? Who does that really serve?

Budu-Watkins: That coverage invokes what I call a declaration of black inferiority; it’s like putting a seal of approval on it.

Detroit activist, businessman and author Yusef Shakur says it feels like “Emmett Till all over again.”

Yusef Shakur: I think it’s important to note here that we have a historical perspective of police brutality of black people. It started in slavery; it’s still that same relationship at work here. It all stems back to a system that doesn’t look at us in the same way it looks at white people. White people who get pulled over probably never feel what anyone of us do when we get pulled over, which is: will I make it home tonight? Even if we get pulled over by black officers, we get treated worse by black officers because they are trying to prove to their white officers that I’m not black like them.

Mesfin Johnson:I don’t put the responsibility for this burden so much on black men, not because I don’t respect them, but what I have found is when you educate a woman she will educate her community. When you transform her heart, you transform the heart of her family and of her community,

(South African Bishop) Desmond Tutu said we won’t have world peace until women are empowered. When fear and oppression and discrimination and racism intersect, the hearts of black mothers are broken, which I see so often.

It is often said that we pass our wounds through our wombs. The day after Mike Brown’s funeral, I tweeted that the collective womb of mothers was aching on that day. So my form of activism is for us to have a safe place to unpack years and decades of sexism and racism and hierarchy and supremacy and patriarchy and imperialism. That’s the way for healing to begin.

Budu-Watkins: I have an appreciation for you and support your activism, but I have to say it feels like we’re fighting the same battles again. If you look up history and the numbers of black men who were lynched, they are comparable to the same number that are being shot now. It’s like the white covers worn by the Ku Klux Klan now wear blue suits.

Shakur: I feel like it’s Emmett Till all over again.

Detroit News: Is there an implicit bias when statistics show that young black males commit more crimes than any other demographic?

Shakur: In terms of statistics, you have to ask how did that happen? When you have poor education, when you have no job opportunities, you create reasons for criminal behavior.

Budu-Watkins: I grew up at a time when police were your friends; they used to ride by in the neighborhood. There were truancy officers and if they saw you doing something wrong, they’d say: ‘Boy, you better get your ass home’ because they knew your mom and dad.

When they took away the residency requirement for police officers, they took away the officers who care about the communities they were protecting.

Gaines: My question is: how do you understand my struggle if you’re not in my atmosphere? You can’t come into a community and demonize the people instantaneously without ever understanding their struggle. You cannot serve me if you don’t even know me.

We’re not a bunch of angry black people sitting around being upset about what’s going on. We’re more saddened than we are angry. We don’t want this reality. We are willing to work to change this reality. All we need is to be treated equally.

Mesfin Johnson: I’ve noticed that white women who know me and know my son feel a deeper connection with us. We have become allies. Because of their personal connection to my son, we are joined in our efforts to call out inequity and call out police violence. That would be my call to action. I would want to challenge people to connect personally to each other. Only then can we begin to truly understand each other.

Budu-Watkins: I would like to emphasize that we love our community and we love our children no different than you love yours. All mothers love their children. A mother’s love is universal.

Roundtable participants

Yodit Mesfin Johnson of Ypsilanti: Executive with Nonprofit Enterprise at Work, and founder of an organic lip gloss line, Lips & Hips. Mother of 6-year-old Tyson Johnson.

Akua Budu-Watkins of Detroit: Internationally known activist dedicated to the advocacy of social justice, human rights and women’s empowerment. Mother of six, grandmother of nine.

Tamika Gaines of Detroit: Social justice activist, founder of “There’s Hope for Detroit.” Mother of an 18-year-old son.

Jessica Care Moore of Detroit: Poet, musician, executive producer of Black Women Rock! Mother of 9-year-old son. (Moore was unavailable at the time of the discussion; her comments are from a phone interview.

Yusef Shakur of Detroit: Social justice activist and author.