What Do I Tell Young Men of Color About the Police?

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As a child growing up in New York City, I often got conflicting messages about the police. On the one hand, I was told by my teachers that they were here to keep me safe, on the other, hip-hop groups that I looked up to such as Public Enemy and NWA told me “911 is a joke” and “F@$k The Police.”

My experiences also contributed to this paradoxical understanding of the police. I witnessed them working to keep our family safe when my aunt was a victim of an attempted robbery. But I was also scared by the police detaining me as an 8-year-old for allegedly stealing candy that I hadn’t.

Today, I’m a social worker. I work with young men of color traumatized by violence. Many of them have contentious relationships with the police. I normally speak with them about best practices in communicating with law enforcement. I’ve done this with the belief that if you do the right thing, the police will be a force for good.

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A recent incident is making me question that view.

In mid-February, my brother Kevin and I were spending a typical Saturday night together when he decided to go visit a friend in the South Bronx.  He put on his black Cornell University hoodie (Kevin is an MBA student and will be graduating in May) and his black do-rag.  My brother ordered an Uber cab, we said goodbye, and he headed uptown.

Suddenly, an unmarked car turned its siren lights on and pulled the car over. While he sat in the backseat, three white police officers stepped out of their car and approached the cab. One officer told my brother they pulled the car over for a traffic violation. Kevin continued to sit in the back to let the police do their job, because that was one of the lessons we were given as children. Let the police do their job, because they are here to help us.

One of the officers asked my brother where the cab was taking him. My brother cooperated with the officers. At this time they had still not identified themselves, keeping their shields concealed. The cops then told Kevin to step out of the car. As he did so, he was viciously grabbed by his collar and slammed onto the side of the car.

“Do you have any guns or knives on you?” the officer said to my brother. The officers, threatening to lock him up still did not identify themselves.  Despite Kevin’s immense fear, he managed to memorize the license plate of the police car. When they figured out what he was doing, one officer slapped him hard, to divert his attention. The thought that these officers would hurt my brother this way hurts my heart in ways many wouldn’t understand.

At some point during their questioning, the officers’ tone shifted. Suddenly, as Kevin lay with his head against the hood of the car, the officers began to discuss what a “good guy” he was. Their level of respect hadn’t increased; but the officers realized Kevin was an Educated Black Man armed not with a gun, but with an Ivy League education, which changed their narrative of him.

Are all unarmed black men “good guys” when their faces are pushed up against the hood of a car? Do they become suddenly “good” when they present with a formal education?

Here, I would add that Kevin asked again for their badge numbers and the cops agreed and sped off. Thankfully, my brother came away physically unscathed from this encounter, but the emotional scars and the trauma will remain with him.

Kevin and I grew up poor with intimate contact with many bureaucratic systems in New York designed to deal with low-income families. That I, a social worker, and Kevin, who has spent over 10 years working in finance, have led successful lives despite the odds is irrelevant. When my brother stepped out of his apartment and into that Uber, he was just a thug.

Saddened and angered by the treatment my brother received at the hands of law enforcement, my first thoughts were about the many black men who were not as lucky as my brother. Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford and Tamir Rice. They, too, were unarmed men of color treated by default as threats to society. Each situation is slightly different, but the common theme was excessive force tied to prejudice, an implicit statement that black lives matter less.

And I began to think more about what I tell the young men I work with. My brother managed to maintain his composure throughout this incident. Kevin has never been arrested and does not have a contentious relationship with law enforcement, unlike the young men I work with. He has access to resources that my clients lack.

How do I prepare my young men to navigate a world where they can be harassed and abused by the same people who are supposed to protect them? I could put together a “know your rights “ training, but knowing your rights and having your rights respected are two separate issues. I have to figure out a way to give my clients tools that will increase the likelihood they will be safe, since unfortunately there is no guarantee what can happen in these police interactions.

How can I trust a system that I have to work with to improve relations between law enforcement and the community?

Thankfully, my brother has not been added to the list of dead unarmed black men shot dead by police. We can continue to have our Saturday nights together. But these days I’m less conflicted than I used to be — those old Public Enemy lyrics speak loud and clear.

Kenton Kirby has a Master’s in Social Work from New York University. He provides individual and group therapy to young men of color who have been directly and indirectly impacted by community violence.

8 thoughts on “What Do I Tell Young Men of Color About the Police?

  1. What pains we live with in society. Only by speaking the truth can we overcome injustices. Great article Kenton. I am sure you and your brother wil leave a legacy for others.
    Erica Sandoval, LMSW

  2. Hum, good read. Like everything else in America each of us (persons-of-color) have a large various of ‘how we deal with the police’. What I told my son and tell my grand-son’s is this………………….DO THE RIGHT THING. While I realize this is a ‘loaded’ comment what I mean by it (in part) is this, don’t tell your parents your going to the library when your going to hang out with friend(s). Be honest and be a persons of your word. This is just one of many things I stress to my people-of-color. Honesty really is the best policy. If your aware that your driving (say) 10 miles over a speed limit, if you get stopped just admit it. If you have no money to ride a bus, don’t get on the bus and act as if you forgot or lost your transfer, just be for-real and state the case for what it is. In doing so, I have found over the years that MOST people, even the ‘police’ will respect that honesty (not to say there are not ‘aholes’ on the police force. Another bit of advice I want to encourage people-of-color to start doing is this, 99.5% of white people will pay an attorney to defend them in with any Court appearance, 99.5% of people-of-color look for a Court appointed attorney (public Defender) to defend them in ANY Court appearance or have no representation at all. STOP this please folks. I worked as a Defense paralegal and can tell you first hand IT’S WORTH THE MONEY TO HAVE PRIVATE DEFENSE IN COURT. If you have an encounter with police, be very polite to that policy and then make them write you a ticket for something to appear in Court, then get that police to attend the hearing (and in most States they most appear for ID purposes if nothing else) then tell the Judge (in a professional manner) about that encounter with the police. Also, don’t have any ‘warrants’ out here. People-of-color really need to know their ‘rights’ under the law (and yes we do have rights), fyi most law is written in ‘plan’ English today folks so READ, WRITE and stop rolling over and allowing crookit/corrupt police from taking those rights from you. Young persons-of-color when your in school stop PLAYING GAMES and learn what is taught to you (public education is still FREE in America). Stop thinking your going to get over, get by, get away with, etc. DO THE RIGHT THING because if you don’t we can thank Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton for that JAIL cell they have with your name on it. But most important, we can never blame either of them if you step inside the jail cell.

  3. A strong article from a (unhappily) well-informed perspective. This does not mean that all police officers are likely to behave poorly; it reminds us that carrying a badge brings with it a heightened responsibility to protect the constitution which ought to protect us all. It’s not easy to write an article like this, and I am proud to know you, Kenton Kirby.

  4. Thank you for sharing this story. While stories like this are disturbing to hear, they need to be shared each and every time they happen. They need to constantly be brought to light so that all people will understand how minorities are being marginalized. Keep sharing Kenton.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story Kenton. Unfortunately, this happens all to often in our communities. My brother experienced the same thing while on his way to work several years ago. However, the police officer who choked my brother failed to identify himself of provide his badge number, but made it at point to tell my brother that he “does not protect and serve people like him.” After my brother told me the story I immediately filed a report with the CRB, the officer was located and a mediation session between he and my brother took place. The officer was written up for the incident. It’s unfortunate that men of color are marginalized in our society and the very people entrusted to protect and serve do not even fulfill their basic responsibilities, yet we continue to say that All Lives Matter.

  6. Kenton, thank you for this powerful accounting of your brothers experience and how this informs your work. I can’t imagine how things would have progressed if he had, despite being wronged, shown any aggression or anger. That maturity and composure definitely saved him. Our young men who are in their late teens and early 20’s and meet injustice daily, may not be able to muster up the same composure. That, factor shouldn’t be tested as frequently as it is by the people who are meant to protect and serve.

  7. sad to think its 2016….. and we as a society still cannot seem to grasp the concept that we need to treat everyone with equal respect and kindness ……..

  8. I’m so proud of you Kenton and Kevin. We need more young African American men like you! Keep up the good work and God bless you both! It’s a disgrace what the cops are doin. Keep the faith.
    Mrs. Perez