Some boys hear more than others about our threatening world

This essay was originally published in our sister publication Second Wave Southwest Michigan.

I told them it’s going to hurt.

Even if you lie on the ground before they put you there, one of them is going to put his knee in the small of your back. And that will make you want to holler. But try not to.

Another will come down on your calves, probably with both knees. And the same guy who’s on your back is very likely to push your head down and grind your face into the sidewalk. All the while they’ll be telling you – “Stop struggling!” and “Don’t resist!”

I’ve told my boys they’ll have to take it. Their job is to survive. Find a way.

Al JonesWe’ll yell and scream and confront the police later. Their job is to temporarily suppress the confusion, anger, and outrage that erupts in young men when they know they’re right and the other guy is wrong. As an innocent bystander, they have to be prepared to be treated like a hardened criminal.

It occurs to me that I’ve told them to ignore pretty much everything that a man should never accept from another man. But I need for them to survive. And I’ve been preparing them for years.

“Where are your hands?” is a question I ask. But the conversation has changed as four of my five boys have gotten older.

From ages 5 to 10, the “Where are your hands” conversation ended with, “Keep them out of your pockets when you’re in the store. People will think you’re trying to steal something.” At age 15, it ended with, “Keep both of them at the top of the steering wheel unless you ask the cop if you can move them. Then, tell him what you are about to do before you do it -- even when he asks for your registration and proof of insurance.”

In their 20s, the conversation assumes one of them is being questioned or confronted. It ends with me saying, “Not holding a cellphone, anything shiny or anything smaller than a Domino’s pizza box.”

A cop might confuse it with a gun or decide it’s a weapon.

A couple of weeks ago, I actually told my 23-year-old that his pants pockets were too full. He was heading out on a bicycle and I knew he would end up at a Black Lives Matter rally downtown. I asked him to leave his few things at home. I told him to leave the rally if the cops put on their Call-of-Duty gear.

Most parents who look like me have had these talks with their kids. I was getting mine ready well before police shootings involving unarmed black men rose to the level that required a calculator to count. And when Colin Kaepernick took a knee, we knew why. We want our kids – no matter how old -- to be able to go to the store and come back in one piece.

We laughed when people who’ve never had to have these conversations with their kids ridiculously started talking about disrespect for the military. Kaepernick’s protest, as well as Black Lives Matter, is primarily about surviving a trip to the movies with friends, or getting lost in the wrong neighborhood, or being a few blocks from a place that got robbed by a dark man of average height with facial hair.

I get nervous thinking about our 32-year-old and his girlfriend raising his daughter from a previous relationship and her son from a previous relationship. My son is black. His girlfriend isn’t. Will someone call the police if they squabble at a bowling alley?

My second son’s job requires him to travel to outlying areas and make home visits. He tells me about the confederate flags he sees and the conversations he’s had with people who tell him they’ve “never really talked to a black guy before.”

I get nervous when my middle son goes for a run. He’s back home, saving for graduate school. I tell him to keep his shirt on when he runs and to wear some of his college track gear. “Why?” he asks. “Because you’re muscular,” I have to tell him. “And because it might stop some middle-aged woman two blocks over from calling the police, thinking you’re suspicious or that you just stole something.”

When he and his brothers were 8, 9, and 11 and delivered newspapers, everyone thought they were cute, racing each other from door to door.

I worry when his younger brother, the college student, heads out to parties at Western Michigan University, K-College, and other places. He is determined and ambitious. He respects the police, keeps up with the news, and speaks well. But I don’t know how well he’d handle a confrontation with a police officer who feels threatened. Or whether he’d willingly get on the ground when ordered to do so. I picture him and the cop on a dark county road; him coming back from visiting friends in East Lansing.

So I want him to be ready.

I don’t hate the police. I know some great cops. And we need them. But the good guys can’t be everywhere. And they don’t seem to be around enough when Jamal, Diontre, and Javier reach for a cell phone and other cops begin to fear for their lives.

I need for them to see my children -- and other black and brown people -- the same as they see people they know. I need them to do that for only about two seconds – the time it takes to determine that this young man or woman is not a threat. And realize that he’s hyper after his school won the big game; or is anxious because he’s with a girl and trying to make a good impression; or he’s never driven in this neighborhood so he’s having trouble telling you where he’s going.

I haven’t done enough to prepare any of them for the psychological trauma. But I don’t know that there’s any way to do that. I don’t say “I love you” enough because that seems kind of soft at a time when they need to be able to brace themselves for something hard. And if I started saying it a lot, they would get alarmed.

But I want them to be ready.

Our 13-year-old is doing well. He has a diverse group of friends and he’s quick with “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir.” But as he clears my nose in height, people won’t see him as the curious, funny, likable baby boy that his mother and I see. Some people will see him walking home from school and see a threat.

Like his older brothers, I have to get him ready.

But it’s going to hurt.
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