This story is republished from The Establishment, a publication that believes conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice.
My family patriarch was keen to wave around a pistol whenever someone threatened his inner-city neighborhood corner store. I have a clear memory of running inside and dropping to the floor of my aunt’s Baltimore rowhouse during a suspected drive by. Like most, I have spent many snack-filled nights watching crime-based TV dramas, pretending I wasn’t scared while I switched on all of the house lights. This is the extent of my firearm exposure.
In my adult life I have never seen an actual handgun that wasn’t holstered to the belt of a police officer. So when I found myself alone at the local art park watching a pre-teen pass me by, boasting to his friends that he had a gun and was about to use it to shoot someone, I was quite literally unprepared for what came next.
As the boy and his friends walked past, I wanted to assume his claims were false — that there was no gun. I was quickly proven wrong when they were about a hundred feet away and his intended target arrived with some friends, the firearm came into sight, voices were raised, and curse words flew. Through the uproar, it was clear his friends hadn’t believed he had a gun either.
I was standing in a wide open space near a large tent under which an oblivious white man ignored his toddler in favor of his smartphone, also tuning out the confrontation that was happening just yards away. I was very aware of how not bulletproof I am and of how intensely my family needed me to make it back home. I was also aware that this man and his daughter probably had a family member like me awaiting their safe return.
I listened intently to the heated conversation of the teens. Seconds dragged like hours as I tried to decipher between the back and forth of typical youthful aggression and the very real potential for danger. More than once, I looked in my camera bag for my phone, my internal dialogue wavering. Should I call the police? Of course, there’s a group of teens with a gun in broad daylight in a public place! What if one of them gets hurt? What if they shoot someone else accidentally? What if they shoot me accidentally? What if someone dies? What if we all die? If there was ever a time to dial 911, this was it, right?
Yet, each time I reached for my phone, I faced the same overwhelming thoughts. These teens were Black — and I couldn’t stop remembering the murder of Tamir Rice.
The grainy surveillance footage of 12-year-old Tamir being shot almost on sight, because he had a toy gun, played over and over in my mind. I would not be the person who put another young boy at risk of murder in the hands of police.
Sure, I could emphasize that I wasn’t sure if this gun was real, and that these were just teens — but in the case of Rice, the person who called the police used the additional descriptors of “toy gun,” “not real,” and “juvenile,” and that was not enough to spare a life. How could I possibly guarantee compassion from the cops, or even a basic confirmation of wrongdoing before the discharging of weapons?
The second thought that slowed my instinct to act was that of my two sons. I can’t fathom the thought of someone’s rush to judgment transforming me into the mother of a dead boy. Because of that, I engaged in this reach and retract pattern with my phone during the entire ordeal, never actually calling for help, but never giving up the idea that help was needed.
The altercation was intense but short, as many of the teens were working to calm their friend and have the gun put away. I learned their intent by stopping to listen to what they were saying, by responding with humanity instead of fear. Yes, there was one angry kid fired up at the sight of his enemy, but the others were talking him down, pleading for him to use the good sense with which he was born.
While walking further away in a futile attempt to provide my own protection, I strained against the bombardment of expletives and mayhem to find the voices of reason in the fray. Even if I were to call the cops, the teens seemed to be self-regulating and dispersing in peace. After a few minutes, they all walked away unharmed, as did everyone else at the park that day.
I did make it home safely, but not unbothered. A number of uncertainties circled in my head. I will never know if that gun was real; I gathered from the way the disagreement fizzled out that it wasn’t, but I could be wrong. I will never know if that angry, immature young boy with a gun, maybe even only 10 or 11 years old, went elsewhere and shot someone. Or, if his actions had invited someone to shoot him in retaliation. I will never know if any of their parents had a clue what happened that evening, if their mothers were up that night dishing out consequences, if their fathers were worried sick about the path on which they were headed. Nearly two months later, I continue to question if the kids would be safe or if this was just one chapter in a novel of potentially negative life-altering choices.
However, what I do know is valuable.
I know that none of those boys and girls were turned into an R.I.P. hashtag that day. Each one of them went home to someone, somewhere, and had the normalcy of sleeping in their own homes, hearts beating, lungs inhaling and exhaling.
None of them were threatened or intimidated or roughed up by an under-trained overzealous officer intent on taking his bad day out on some poor young “thugs.” None of them were subjected to the brutality of a police force that is statistically proven to disproportionately condemn the black children who have the misfortune to cross their path.
In recent years, the biggest disparity in arrests of white versus black juveniles in the city where I live, Charlottesville, Virginia, occurred in 2011. Although the small city is overwhelmingly white, records indicate 71 percent of teens arrested were black. In the past five years, black kids accounted for 75 percent of stop and frisk incidents. And these racial disparities don’t just exist within the city limits; Charlottesville resides in Albermarle County, where African-Americans make up ten percent of the population but 30 percent of the arrests. Just weeks ago, the city, county, and state police forces provided security for a KKK rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville. The end result: The police used tear gas on protesters of the KKK, while the white knights remained unscathed.
Choosing to check the privilege of my suburban, mostly middle-class upbringing, assessing my own media-fueled prejudices, and stopping to think about the potential consequences to these young people was the right thing to do, even if it was the wrong thing to do.
How did we, as a nation, get here, to this state of unrest in which one needs to stop and pause when faced with the seemingly mandatory task of calling the police when there is high probability of a violent crime? Or have we always been here?
As a kid, one of my white friend’s moms had to hide my sister and I in the back of her car so their town’s racist police wouldn’t see us at a checkpoint. As a young 20-something, after being pulled over because of my lapsed registration, I inched my car up just a bit to make sure I’d left the officer space to park behind me — and he responded with a commanding yell and a hand on his holster, threatening me to stop my vehicle or else. I have my own ignorant optimism to blame for not sooner equating the threat of racist cops to the theft of black lives. There are millions of stories to tell me otherwise, but my moral barometer was still inherently leaning toward police interference as a first line of defense — until it came time to literally make the call.
If my son were to find himself an angry pre-teen in this same scenario, would I want a passerby to make the fast assumption that he was carrying a real weapon? Would I want her to believe he and his friends weren’t as capable of resolving the situation as local law enforcement would be? Maybe. But, probably not. What I saw that day at the art park among a brilliant blue sky and the warmth of spring’s end shook me — causing me to question the cloudy landscape of my own values.
I don’t agree with teenagers having access to firearms and waving them around in public, and I don’t believe it was safe for them to be there navigating a very mature situation on their own. I even think I made the wrong choice by not calling the police. Yet, somehow, I’m still glad I made it.