by Nekima Levy-Pounds
As a mother of two black sons, ages 10 and 12, I have been especially impacted by national news coverage of shootings of unarmed black men and boys by law enforcement officers. The series of high-profile shootings has caused me to grapple with the issue of whether my own sons could ever be victims in similar circumstances. It is a haunting, disturbing feeling to say the least.
The lawyer in me wants to rationalize away any thoughts that my sons could be killed, but the mother in me, the protector in me, knows that my own sons are just as much at risk as the black sons of any mother in the United States.
I came face to face with this painful realization just a few weeks ago when I attended the National March to End Police Brutality in Washington, D.C. At the March, I heard from the mothers of unarmed black men and boys who had been killed in recent months and years, such as Amadou Diallo, Mike Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin. There was so much pain and heartache conveyed through their messages.
I was also struck by the heartfelt words of the mother of Tamir Rice, a black boy just 12 years old who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ohio because he was holding an air gun. No questions were asked of Tamir. He was shot twice in the abdomen within two seconds of officers exiting their vehicle. It’s still hard to process how that could have happened and why a mother had to bury her young son.
Listening to Tamir’s mother reminded me of just how fragile life can be for black boys in America and how far we still have to go in order to reconcile race relations in this country.
Sadly, black boys are often perceived as being threatening and dangerous, and their innocence becomes lost in the process. This can make them targets in their interactions with police, and it impacts how they are treated within mainstream society and by institutions. Misperceptions and racial stereotyping of black boys may also impact whether we are able to have empathy for them when they experience harm, oppression or even death.
And yet, how many of us actually take time out from our daily schedules to critically reflect upon these issues and to check our hearts concerning these matters?
As women, we have an opportunity to begin to use our voices when we see racial injustices occurring and to demand the changes we desire to see in our world. We can start by empathizing with victims of police violence and their families and internalizing their stories.
Next, we can identify problems and patterns within systems by asking questions of internal and external stakeholders. We should be asking key questions such as: What type of cultural competency training do officers receive? What systems of accountability are in place to ensure equitable outcomes in officer-involved shootings? When excessive force complaints are brought forward, how are they handled and how is success measured? What steps are being taken to diversify our police forces?
As we gather information, we can then begin to use our influence to speak to lawmakers and policymakers about the concerns we have identified and the changes we believe are needed. This takes time, effort, patience and tenacity, and it most certainly will not be easy. But we must rise to the occasion if we desire to dismantle oppressive systems and policies for the betterment of all people, but particularly the most vulnerable.
Finally, we can work within our homes, churches, institutions and social clubs to educate others about these issues and to encourage those in our circles to take a vested interest in changing things for the better.
Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and director of the Community Justice Project. Follow her on Twitter: @nvlevy