Why Are There Police?
Its Friday afternoon and I’m done with sessions for the day. With the gift of free time, I decided to put a dent in a little activity I’m creating from scratch. As a school-based therapist, I like to bring new things to the table to keep my students engaged—all I need is my laminator! I’m laminating strips of paper with short questions that prompt quick replies, and this is the first time I read many of the questions. I look down… I read…
Why are there police?
I paused. I felt vacant, yet full of emotions at the same time. I read it again, this time, through the eyes of my students.
Why are there police?
I leaned toward the trash with my hand to throw it away. I paused again. Who am I to shelter these children from exploring this question? The only thing being—I don’t think this question warrants a quick reply…
I don’t just work for any school. I work for an alternative school—a behavior center for children in grades K-6th grade. The children who come to attend our school are not here by choice. Our students are referred to our program after receiving a series of behavioral infractions, or to serve a long-term suspension to avoid expulsion. Not only is our population of students deemed at-risk, but several of our students have experienced some sort of traumatic event in their lives. Many of even our youngest students have had experiences with police officers, and their perceptions of them, skewed.
The majority of our students are black. On many occasions, students have sat across me and asked me point blank, “Why do the police hate us?” As a white woman, the first time I heard this question, I didn’t know how to respond. I’ve since learned how to deconstruct this question, but my black colleagues explained to me a more important topic in that conversation—how to stay safe.
This was the first time I ever really considered the fact that people would need to stay safe FROM the cops. My colleagues gave me specific pieces of advice and explained to me that it is actually very important for young black boys to understand what to do when they find themselves in the presence of a police officer. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it was THAT bad. Fast forward to George Floyd’s murder—it was like a bomb went off in our country.
Since the death of George Floyd, I’ve found myself on a rollercoaster. The twists and turns of emotions have been intertwined with questions about my identity, personal relationships, and most of all, previous interactions with my black colleagues, friends, and students. I wish I could go back in time and revisit moments to say the “right” things or be more supportive, but always land on the question—what would BE right? I’m not black, so I don’t think I’ll ever have a “right” answer, but I can always make choices to do the right thing. For me, the right thing is multilayered, made up of curiosity, respect, communication, empathy, and understanding.
In my first year working at the school, our faculty was selected to enroll in a pilot program on equity and diversity. It was called Courageous Conversations, and it was created to help people navigate difficult conversations about race. The course forced us out of our comfort zones, to confront their ideas and experiences about what it means to be white our black. With lots of processing, it was like a switch went off in my brain. I always had recognized white privilege, but my eyes had opened up to the layers upon layers of what this means and how it plays a role in my life every single day. Feeling most vulnerable, we all shared our experiences about how race has played a role in our lives, and I realized that being colorblind was part of my privilege.
The course most definitely helped me to understand concepts and issues surrounding race much more. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have pushed me to a limit I didn’t know that I had. Not only was I able to speak on these matters with more knowledge, but I found myself becoming vociferous than I have ever been. Where I used to bite my tongue, I speak out, sometimes with outrage warranted.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, I have yet to see my students face-to-face. Sessions with my students have been virtual, and primarily focused on survival. Traumatized children 12 and under simply have more to worry about than adding political anxiety to the mix. That being said, I have already seen a student wearing a shirt that says “I can’t breathe,” prompting a class discussion about his protest experience. His classmate asked why he was protesting, and this 11 year old simply stated, “Man, can’t you see that they’re killing us?” I was stunned to hear the level of thought in the conversation that followed.
Why are there police?
Protect and Serve doesn’t really seem to be the universal ideology it once was. Right now, it seems like the country is at a pivotal point where this answer may fundamentally change. The answer to this question simply depends on your life experiences. As of now, I can’t say I would be able to answer this question for myself, but I will probably be able to explore this question with my students—and I’ll probably learn a thing or two.