Not Allowed to Be a Kid

As a tall, Black youth, I’ve been surveilled and pushed around by police since elementary school.

by Amaru Howard

Unsplash, Dave Adamson

My first frightening interaction with cops happened when I was 6 years old. I was headed with my cousin to the park around the corner from his house to play basketball. As soon as we started walking, two cops began slowly following us in their car.

I had already learned that I had to act a certain way around cops. My father told me never to make any sudden movements, not to look them in the eye, and to speak clearly and respectfully. But I was just a kid and I didn’t remember this, so I waved at them. They did not wave back. They just kept following us. My 16-year-old cousin grabbed my hand midwave and led me into the park; he told me never to do that again. Once we entered the park, the cops drove on.

When my dad came to pick me up later, my cousin told him what I’d done. He scolded me for acting so foolishly.

Often Watched by Cops in the Schoolyard

I had more negative encounters with the police throughout elementary and middle school, in minor and major ways. In 4th grade, I was often watched by cops when I was in the schoolyard with my friends, who were all of color. Only two teachers kept an eye on over 100 kids, so they didn’t seem to notice that we were being watched. This made me feel really uncomfortable—the surveillance made me feel guilty, like I had already done something wrong. There were only a few White kids at that school. I never saw cops watching them.

In 5th grade, my sister and I moved to a school and a neighborhood that was mostly Black, Hispanic, and Bengali. When we walked to school, we were often followed by different cops, usually White, sometimes stopping us and asking us where we were going.

On one day in 7th grade, my friends and I were walking to my home when three different cop cars stopped us to ask where we were headed and to see our IDs.

This frequent harassment made me feel like one of those TV villains bent on destroying the world, rather than just a little kid who wants to play basketball and football. The more it happened, the worse I felt about it. I started to wonder sometimes if I actually did something wrong, if I was really a criminal. I couldn’t stand it.

Amaru playing football on his 7th grade team.

Assaulted by Two Cops and Feeling Helpless

Then, three years ago, when I was in 8th grade, I was walking along the bus line after school while I was waiting for the bus. I had walked about half a mile when I noticed a cop car driving slowly behind me. Two blocks later, I heard a car door close. When I turned around, two cops were walking toward me. One was a short and chubby White guy, and the other was a taller, slender White guy with a fade.

Even though I was only 13, I was 5’11” with broad shoulders and some muscle from playing football. So, I looked older than I was and I had on my Timbs, so that gave me an extra inch of height. I could have been confused for an adult or a high schooler.

When the cops approached me, one said, “What are you doing and what’s in your pocket?” I only had my phone and wallet, so it made no sense that they asked this because I thought it was clear from their shapes what they were.

My father had told me that cops aren’t allowed to speak to minors without their legal guardian present. So having been told that, coupled with the fact that I was confused at what was happening, I stood there saying nothing.

They both stepped closer. “Let me see your ID,” said the short, chubby one. I moved my hand slowly towards my left pocket to take out my wallet and they both moved their hands towards their waist and yelled, “Don’t move!”

The taller cop then approached me and suddenly grabbed me and pinned me face down on the sidewalk and put me in handcuffs. At the same time the shorter one yelled, “Where is your ID?”

I responded, “It’s in my left pocket.”

The taller one was still pinning me down so that I couldn’t move and could barely breathe. Then the shorter one went in my pocket and pulled out my wallet. After flipping through it for a few seconds, he pulled out my school ID and stared at it. He then told the taller cop to get off of me and take off my handcuffs. Without saying another word, he dropped my wallet on the ground and began to walk back to the cop car with the taller one following him. Then they drove away.

Initially, I didn’t know what to do or think. Then a rush of emotions hit me all at once. A mix of anger, sadness, and even more confusion washed over me. I wanted answers, I wanted to know why, and what I did wrong. I didn’t know what to do.

Then I calmed down and realized that there was nothing I could do. I was helpless.

Cops Should Be Protecting Me, Not Hurting Me

At the time, I wasn’t getting along with my mom so I didn’t tell her what had happened or how I felt about the police harassment. I didn’t tell my dad either, even though he was the main person telling me about cops as a kid. Plus, I didn’t want to hear him tell me to “man up,” something he often says when I express my feelings.

I had already been leery of cops, but this experience made me not trust them at all. I thought: Why did this happen to me and why are cops who are supposed to protect me hurting me? Aren’t cops supposed to be good guys who protect us from the bad guys?”

This frequent harassment makes me tense up whenever I am around them. When something goes wrong, I’m more likely to try to deal with a situation myself than to call the cops. For instance, when someone stole my phone, I didn’t file a report. When I see people fighting, I try to break it up myself.

I Start Advocating for Police Reform

I realized I wanted to advocate for change in 2014, when I first heard about the death of Eric Garner in police custody. That particularly hit home since it took place near my house. On social media, I posted cases involving police brutality and things you could do if you were put in a bad situation with the police. Over the following years, I started going to protests for justice for George Floyd and for police reform in general, which I continue to do.  

I can’t do things that White kids do: I can’t play-fight with my friends because it might be interpreted as me bullying or harassing someone.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States. Over the course of a life, “about 1 in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by police,” the NAS reports. Think about it like this, in 2019, there were 22 million Black men in the U.S. That means 2,200 people can expect to be killed by police if we don’t make drastic changes in police training and funding.

By comparison, in England, which has about 1/6 the population of the U.S., the police kill about 5 or 6 people a year (which would be 30-36 in our population). So it’s possible to radically  reduce police killing. England is different from the U.S., but not that different socially. 

In 2019, data of all police killings in the country compiled by Mapping Police Violence, Black Americans were nearly three times more likely to die from police violence than their White counterparts. Other statistics showed that Black Americans killed by police were nearly 1.5 times more likely to be unarmed before their death.

After almost 10 years of this surveillance, I am tired of being constantly in fear of being approached and knowing that a situation with police could go wrong to the point where I might get killed. I can’t do things that White kids do: I can’t play-fight with my friends because it might be interpreted as me bullying or harassing someone. I can’t run down the street because it might be misinterpreted as me chasing someone or running from committing a crime.

Still, I am not down on all cops. I have family members who are current and retired cops. I’m just down on the bad cops and the policies that allow them to continue to do whatever they want to a person, and make them feel confident that they won’t be punished for it.

My experiences have made me want to join the Senate or be president one day, so I could enact laws where Black kids won’t have to deal with what I have had to deal with growing up. Neighborhoods like mine can feel more like a police state, not a free country where everyone is equal. This has to change.

Discussion Questions

1.  At a young age Amaru knew there was a certain way to act around police officers. Although police officers are supposed to make us feel safe, how does Amaru’s identity affect him and his community’s relationship with police?
2. In Elementary and Middle school Amaru continued to experience negative interactions with police. Amaru and his friends were constantly watched and harassed by officers. In 8th grade, two officers physically harassed him and gave no information as to why. As a Black young person, how has this experience impacted his feelings about himself? 
3. Racial profiling is the cause of many of the unjust murders of innocent Black people. Amaru learns this lesson at an early age from his own experiences, to hearing about the murder of George Floyd. He decides it’s time to take action, and speak out about these injustices. What can we do to learn and speak out about racial profiling within our own communities?

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