a story about not calling the police
Updated: Apr 28, 2021
**content warning: this entry includes the mention of police violence and the murder of a young person**
I was once, like many white or white presenting people,
In charge of a room I had no business being in charge of
Co-teaching an identity development discussion class in a high school
specifically for young Black women
I was under resourced in the program I worked for,
And in general had no real guidance to bestow on these young people in the realm of being a Black woman,
I did not share enough with them
To lead them well on this topic.
My fellow facilitators came only every once in a while
So what these girls had most consistently
So I gave them what I was able
My attention, my patience, my respect, my trust, and my care.
It was a disorganized semester on my end
But I always looked forward to seeing these young women
Each silly and brilliant and interesting and lovely and powerful in her own way.
Far into the semester
There was some conflict between members
That I didn’t have a full picture of, only seeing them two hours a week:
Between one member,
Who had recently lost her brother to suicide and was carrying her grief around, quiet and heavy, like a boulder in her backpack,
But covered it with studiousness and wit.
And another member,
Who wasn’t present in class often
And didn't really follow directions....ever
But always made me laugh and spoke up with conviction in discussions
Who also has dealt with things a teenager should never need to,
It felt to me like she kept her anger in a jar with a tight lid.
On this day in class
We had as a group chosen to have a facilitated conversation about what was in the way of everyone being able to work together.
They had been having trouble collaborating with each other as a group for a few weeks.
I was supposed to have another facilitator in class
But they couldn't make it,
All these girls had to hold the space for them
So we moved through the mud and muck together
Successfully at first
Until the conversation turned to these two young people
Who very clearly had a visceral conflict between them
Deep and complicated.
Their argument began to escalate beyond group dynamics
And I felt myself lose the ability to track where we were.
I watched the second girl I mentioned
Hold fast to her anger
And try not to lose it.
She did this with poise and diligence that most adults don’t have.
Bringing herself back to equilibrium multiple times
The other girl said something hurtful and baiting,
the final straw that lifted the lid.
Suddenly they both stood.
There was shouting
Ripping at hair
Not-so-helpful jeering and cell phone filming from other girls.
As I desperately tried to calm the two,
Splitting them up a few different times,
Asking them to lock into my eyes and bring themselves back down
Begging them to think before hurting each other or themselves,
But their individual grief and anger and pain and frustration and teenage-ness swirling between them
was too much for just me
And too much for just them.
I heard one of them mention a gun in her backpack
Before chasing the other out of the room.
And I, knowing I was no longer the adult here
The peacekeeper, the one who knew what to do
But just another bystander in the room,
Took out my cell phone and dialed 911.
I thought about this young girl
With so much anger -
Justified, important anger.
Who I knew had been arrested once before.
I thought of what could happen if the police did come.
And I thought of how these girls had been put in my care.
And I hit cancel.
And put the phone back in my pocket.
Also, because somewhere in my heart of hearts
Somehow I knew this girl
Did not actually have a gun
Or did not intend to use it on another person
I trusted her not to use it
As much as I think she wanted me to only see her toughness, her hardness
Her soft lingered in her eyes when she looked at me
And I knew that softness would translate to this moment.
Eventually, after losing sight of the girls as they ran through the school grounds, I found a staff member and the situation was passed from me to them, swiftly and immediately.
Just like that.
They told me to go home, so I did.
This is often what being a teaching artist is,
Always a visitor
Who has to leave when you’re told.
I heard through the school the girls calmed down without being severely injured.
And we talked about it briefly in the next class
The first girl apologized to me sheepishly
And we moved on quickly.
I did not see the second girl again in my time teaching the class, she did not come back.
I missed her, but I understood.
I have been thinking about that experience with these girls since Ma’Khia Bryant was killed by a police officer in Ohio last week.
A child who expected the adults around her to care for her.
And how much I wish that the police officer responding to her call
And looked at this girl
And seen her silliness, her brilliance, her loveliness, her softness,
And seen himself as her caregiver
Instead of her hunter.
I don’t know what will stop this vicious pattern of police murdering Black and Brown people, but I think it will take all of us relentlessly continuing to act where we can. In the streets, on the internet, in our workplaces, in our legal system, in our classrooms, in our homes. And I believe it will take all of us, when we pull out our phones to call the police, thinking about who we are really protecting or endangering when we do so.
Rest in peace and power Ma’Khia.
You deserved much much better than this country and this world could offer you.