At a youth workshop on the 2020 census, San Francisco high-schooler Nashae Mims drew a rendering of her life in the projects. In the artwork, the word trauma is spelled out in the background, signifying how it lurks behind, in wait, layering other experiences. A broken heart streams tears in the foreground. A caution tape spans the breadth of the scape, behind the two homes. Each of the homes has a window that’s broken or askew. A crumpled packet of Lay’s and a couple of beer or Coke cans lie on the street. And two large pots send a trail of smoke up.
In a text message, Mims explains her idea. “The drawing also includes my traumatic experience seen in my neighborhood, living in the projects since a baby, full of gunshots, caution tape, abuse, and the environment not being clean and my neighborhood surrounded with trash.”
Mims’ artwork frames this moment of disrepair in the country.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in the last few weeks have opened up a deep untreated wound of racial animus and inequality. And the deviousness of Amy Cooper, a privileged white woman who targeted a black man for defying her, has thrown salt in it. We must now contest the very legitimacy of a society that permits these killings unchecked.
Alice Goffman, in her book “On the Run,” an ethnographic study of one neighborhood in Philadelphia, reaches deeper into this very trauma that Mims illustrates. Through careful observations she describes how police involvement in black neighborhoods can transform sidewalks into war zones, with residents becoming inured to the sounds of young men desperately running, being choked, beaten or strangled, bullets ricocheting and the shrill pitch of sirens sounding off at all times of the day and night. These are also the same places where families are rearing children and teaching them the best ways to avoid the dangers that are particular to their neighborhoods, race, history and the color of their skins.
“The first week I spent on Sixth street, I saw two boys, 5 and 7 years old, play a game of chase in which one boy assumed the role of the cop who must run after the other. When the ‘cop’ caught up to the other child, he pushed him down and cuffed him with imaginary handcuffs,” writes Goffman.
What is deeply disturbing in Goffman’s account is how young children are internalizing street survival techniques while children their age, of other races and classes, are playing in sandboxes, being read to, taken to planetariums and having playdates that are not more complicated than waving Luke Skywalker’s green lightsaber.
The primary asset of youth is innocence. How did we come to bankrupt the innocence of black children?
In a study conducted by Phillip Atiba Goff of the University of California, Los Angeles, black boys as young as 10 were seen as being “responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” Goff was quoted as saying in the American Psychological Association’s “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.”
In the study, researchers surveyed 176 police officers in large urban areas to determine “their prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people …” A direct correlation was found between those who dehumanized blacks and those who were “more likely to have used force against a black child in custody.” The kinds of force against black children were described as “takedown or wrist lock; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt object; using a police dog, restraints or hobbling; or using tear gas, electric shock or killing.”
Goffman documents a conversation that takes place between Chuck and his younger brother. “On quiet afternoons, Chuck would sometimes pass the time by teaching his 12-year-old brother, Tim, how to run from the police.”
“What you going to do when you hear the sirens?’ Chuck asked.
‘I’m out,’ his little brother replied.
‘Where you running to?’
‘You can’t run here—they know you live here.’”
Street school in session. Lessons being taught. Techniques learned. Pitfalls explained. Trauma.
As we mourn the loss of black lives at the hands of people in positions of power and privilege, let’s also take a moment to recognize that incidents involving black lives, including that of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, have made it to us, many through the simple means of pressing record on phones. There are many others that have been unrecorded, unwitnessed, therefore suppressed or untold. And yet others that are told are forgotten.
Here’s one murder witnessed by Goff. “That summer was punctuated by more severe police action. On a hot afternoon in July, Aisha and I stood on a crowded corner of a major commercial street and watched four officers chase down her older sister’s boyfriend and strangle him. He was unarmed and did not fight back. The newspapers reported his death as heart failure.”
While a whole host of reforms are needed to correct and repay this institutional loss to a community in distress, I believe perhaps the immediately implementable step would be to test the prejudice and bias of each police officer, before hiring that person to safeguard our neighborhoods. A police force that propagates and institutes racial tension and compels households with young black boys to live in fear is failing its mandate.
In Goffman’s book, I go back again and again to the mention of Aisha’s sister’s boyfriend’s murder. It’s a reminder that that this is an unaccounted murder. Did he as a child play the game of escaping the police?
Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.