When Our Vulnerability Becomes Strength: Empowering Our Children In Police Encounters

“An officer fired at him when he moved his hands upward, as directed, but more quickly than expected.”

–Wichita (Kansas) Police Department explanation of shooting death of innocent victim by the police on 12.27.17, reported in the Huffington Post on 1.03.18

“Life can be running a daily gauntlet

If I can make it through the night

Wake up in the morning

And my son is still alive;

I have won.”

–Dr. Micheal Kane Psy.D

“A weak feature of someone or something that is otherwise strong, which makes them open to attack or failure.”

–Definition of “Achilles Heel”

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My Dear Readers,

In the work of clinical traumatology, my colleagues and I spend countless hours listening to the pain, suffering and wounds of the traumatized.  In most cases, the traumatized individuals tend to ask one specific question in one form or another: when will the trauma be over?

It is apparent that such individuals are seeking a time frame for relief from the trauma associated with the incident or experience that led them to psychological treatment.  No matter how the response is delivered, the reality is that traumatic experiences are permanent etchings on the psychological self.  It never, ever goes away.

However, there was life before the trauma, so the objective of trauma therapy is to learn how to balance the trauma within the psychological self, and in doing so, be able to “live the life you want, not the life you live.”

Many of my fellow clinicians lean heavily on theoretical frameworks that are typically Eurocentric focused in the field of clinical traumatology.  It is not unusual to see this norm used in the treatment of individuals who have had a single traumatic experience or who have had repeated episodes of the same traumatic abuse, such as  sexual abuse.

However, in many African-American communities across the country, individuals may experience a variety of traumas that are cumulative in nature and occur repetitively through a lifetime, and they often happen concurrently with traumas that are addressed by Eurocentric norms of treatment, exacerbating the impact on the patient.  Specifically, there are 13 distinctive traumas that an African-American person can experience daily.  As a result, the norm for many people may be to regress to a “survival mentality” and the use of destructive behaviors as a coping mechanism to either minimize or deflect the impact of the trauma.

Below is the story of a mother who fears for the safety of her teenage sons.  In seeking to protect her sons, they become her “Achilles Heel,” and intensify her trauma experience.

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Dear Visible Man,

I am a concerned single parent of two black teenagers residing here in Pierce County, WA.  Earlier last week, a Pierce County deputy was shot and killed while stopping a burglary. There was a state-wide intense search for the person who killed him.

Initially, the news media reported the person has been a dark-skinned black man, and then later, the news media stated the police were searching for a light-skinned black man.  As the night went on, it was announced that the person the police sought had been already been arrested and jailed for outstanding warrants on other matters.  It turns out that the man they arrested for killing the deputy was white!

I was relieved and in tears when I learned the man arrested was white.  I had been overwhelmed, worrying about my sons, fearful that they were going to be targeted by the police because of their race.  I made the decision to keep my sons home from school during the time they were conducting the search.

My sons attend a local high school.  Although they get excellent grades and have never been in any trouble, they have been constantly stopped and questioned by police.  I feel, as they do, that there is no apparent reason for stopping them.  It amounts to nothing other than racial profiling.

My decision to keep my sons home created tension between myself and them.  For several days, we had heated arguments.  They feel that either I am treating them like babies or that I have trust issues.

Damn right, I have trust issues!  They are and will ALWAYS BE my babies.  The lack of trust I have is not about them, but about what could happen if they interact with police.  It only takes one nervous or trigger-happy cop and one or both of my sons are dead!

Look at what happened recently in Wichita, Kansas!  I repeatedly saw that picture of that mother crying after the police accidentally shot and killed her son. He was white.  If they could do that to one of their own, what hope do I have regarding my children?

I was born and raised in the Deep South.  In my life, I have encountered racism and mistreatment from white police officers.  I WILL NOT BE ON THE FRONT PAGE GRIEVING THE DEATH OF MY CHILDREN.  I intend to and will protect my children.  They are all I have.

My eldest son suggested that I write to you. Both of my sons feel that my rules on curfew are too restrictive, but they are just kids– they do not understand the danger they are in.

I am a Christian woman with strong faith in God, and I believe in the power of prayer.  However, even as I write this letter, my mind is made up.  I will not be burying my sons. No! No! No!

On Guard, Spanaway, WA

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My Dear Woman,

I ask that you take a moment and simply breathe.  Just take a moment.  It is apparent that the unfortunate shooting death of the police officer within your community has understandably shaken you to your core.  In addition, you are being triggered by the death of an innocent person.

Though an interesting data point, the fact that the young man that was shot is white does nothing to minimize the tragedy or lessen the pain and suffering being endured by his family, or the fear that you hold for the safety of your own children.  The shooting by the SWAT team member was a tragedy.  It should not have happened.  I feel the pain and fear in the undertone….”it could have been my child.”

It is possible that you have unresolved historical or inter-generational trauma relating to memories of the mistreatment and racism encountered during your childhood in the South during those tumultuous years of open, state-sanctioned racial terror and oppression.  I can also see from your writing that two specific traumas: micro-aggression (indirect or covert) i.e., racial profiling of your sons and, macro-aggression (direct or overt) i.e., immediate fear of death by the police has impacted you.

Furthermore, you are also facing invisibility syndrome trauma, which refers to the realization that despite the excellent grades and good behavior, your sons’ achievements mean nothing in the face of assumptions about them based on their skin color, and therefore, they are placed at greater risk of either physical violence or psychological harm.

It is possible that your repetitive viewing of both police involved shootings may have created a foundation of vicarious trauma. Coupled with the aforementioned traumas, you may be responding to post-traumatic slave syndrome i.e., fear of survival in in a hostile world due to your sons’ gender and race

We live in difficult times.  The world and its technology are ever so changing.  We seek to raise our children under difficult circumstances.   As a parent of any race, socioeconomic group, gender or sexual orientation, there are many reasons to be afraid when it comes to the safety of what we hold so dear and precious and yet represents our most glaring vulnerability: our children.

Living In Fear …or With Fear

Rather than live in fear of the unknown, we can take deliberate actions by empowering our children and ourselves and in doing so, learn to live with our fear instead of in our fear.

Instead of restricting your adolescent sons as a means of protecting them, you can engage with them in frank meaningful discussions.  It would be best that they know and are prepared for the reality that, due to no fault of their own, are vulnerable to being viewed as a threat simply due to the color of their skin, and as a result, being targeted as such, and ensure that they are  empowered to deal with that reality in the way they design for themselves.

Sheltering/Protecting or Guiding/Teaching?

We cannot shelter or protect our children from ALL traumatic incidents.  However, we can guide and teach them how to respond to potentially traumatic incidents and by doing so, reduce the impact.  Regarding your fear of police interactions, who other than yourself is best suited to guide them and help them transform the way they interact with the police?

Empowerment Strategies

Whereas the police have power and authority, you can teach your sons that they are not helpless; that they can reduce their stress and future psychological trauma by implementing empowerment strategies.  One such strategy I recommend is the therapeutic model of Advocacy, Balance & Calmness.

Reinforce with your sons the following:

  • Advocacy: Know when to speak and what to say.
  • Balance: Remember that power lies within you and cannot be taken without your consent. Balance your anger with your wisdom.
  • Calmness: Use your balance and inner empowerment to project calmness in your external environment. Use this to defuse intense or hostile situations.

Have frank and specific discussions with your sons.  Prepare them for the fact that police encounters will continue to happen to them due to the color of their skin, and prepare them for each encounter:

  • Know that the police officer will ask for identification, and it is legal for the police officer to do so.
  • Know that one’s identity will be verified in a criminal database that is available to check for warrants and other information.
  • Understand that the police officer will be looking for suspicious behavior from them or from anyone they are accompanied with.
  • Be prepared for a possible stop and search of their personal space and belongings.

In a delicate and deliberate tone, instruct your sons to employ the following behaviors:

  • Keep your hands open and exposed. Immediately tell the police officer: I AM UNARMED.  I AM NOT A THREAT TO YOU.
  • Always comply and follow the police officer’s instructions. Treat all instructions as directions and commands.
  • If under the age of 18, inform the police officer of your age and immediately request that your parent, legal guardian, or legal representative be present.
  • If you choose not to speak, inform the police officer of your intent to remain silent until you have representation. After that, immediately stop talking.
  • Use your powers of observation. Document the incident and any concerns regarding any behavior during the encounter.
  • Remember to get the date, time, location, the license plate and vehicle number of the police officer and the name of the department the police officer works for.
  • If you deem it necessary, file a complaint with the local sheriff or police chief’s office.
  • Remember that the police officer is entitled to use deadly force if they feel physically threatened.
  • NEVER EVER RUN FROM THE POLICE.

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 Concluding Words

My heart goes out to “On Guard” as she seeks to protect her children.  However, in her quest to protect her children, she and other parents in similar circumstances should consider the following:

  • Will my anxiety and fear have a boomerang affect and negatively my children?
  • What skills, training and resources do I have available to prepare my children to respond to racial hostility?

The concern I have is that this parent and other parents likewise may be so focused on “not burying her sons” that she ironically buries their confidence in navigating the realities of their lives in this society.  In that case, the parenting strategy becomes centered on the parent’s prevention of anticipated suffering rather than preparing the child for adulthood in a hostile world.

Invisibility & Trauma

“Invisibility is an inner struggle with the feelings that one’s talents, abilities, personality, and worth are not valued or recognized because of prejudice and racism.”

-Dr. A.J. Franklin, Boston College

Sad and yet true…. to many whites, African-Americans are invisible.  When it comes to law enforcement, African-Americans have the opposite stressor.  We are very much visible, recognizable and observed by the police.   Our encounters start at an early age, and are often traumatic, never forgotten and held permanently within the psychological self.

Even police officers would agree that we live in difficult times.  African-Americans and the police share many common themes.  The police officer in any community is a minority in the community they seek to serve. Whereas people of color are often judged or stereotyped due to their skin, police officers are routinely judged not by their character as individuals, but by the legacy of institutionalized racism that comes along with the badge, weapon and uniform.  The loss of one police officer is a traumatizing impact on the law enforcement community.

It is truly traumatic that black skin is perceived so negatively to such an extreme that it would be normal to assume that black people want to kill police, which is an erroneous assumption usually attributed to peaceful civil rights activist groups like Black Lives Matter, and in this case, the attribution of the murder to a “light-skinned black man” could have led to more shedding of innocent blood.

It is also traumatizing to consider and reflect on the unknown numbers of black men who were stopped, questioned, perhaps with weapons drawn by police officers upset at the loss of one of their own.  I wonder how many black lives have been forever impacted during the search for the suspected shooter.  How many will endure sleepless and sweat full nights?  Or dramatic recalls in nonstop memories?

Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are gonna get.”

Forrest Gump (1994)

Police officers are constantly training for the unexpected.  On the street, they have to be prepared for anything.  Once again there are common themes shared with the African American community and the police.   When a black man interacts with the police on the street, at the workplace, at school or in his home, does not know whether he is going to receiving “Community Policing” or “Enforcing the Law.”

It appears that the police are learning skills, tactics and strategies in dealing with us.  Perhaps it is time that we focus on learning and teaching each other skills, tactics and strategies in dealing with the police.

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.”

–Martin Luther King Jr., August 28,  1963

 

Until we speak again,  I am … The Visible Man…

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