About a year ago, my wife and I were headed to an evening event at our daughter’s daycare in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. It was about 5:45 p.m., the sun was out, and the neighborhood was bustling. For those unfamiliar, the daycare sits on the corner of a really large city park. There are usually dozens of people in the park on a nice day, and this day was no exception.
As we arrived, I noticed there was a larger group of black teens in the corner of the park nearest the school. Boys and girls both, I’d guess from 13-16 years old. Perfectly normal.
But on second look, there was something different.
One of the boys in the group had a gun.
(Let me pause to say I grew up around guns. From learning how to use them safely in the Scouts, to shooting them with my grandfather and my uncles, to playing with BB guns with the neighborhood kids in our small town, they were always around. I know how to handle them. I know when to use them. I know what they look like. And they don’t scare me.)
I did a double-take of how he was holding it and what it looked like and how the other kids were reacting.
It was a BB gun. They were just standing there talking and shooting at trees and such. But it was a BB gun. It looked dangerous at first glance, but it was a BB gun.
Whew. Deep breath.
But this was only a few years after the Tamir Rice shooting just a few miles from where we were standing. He was killed for holding a toy gun in a park. Were a police officer to roll by this park right now, it could be the same result.
I had to get involved. But how?
I could have walked over to the teens and confronted them. But there’s a chance that could escalate in an unintended way and a police officer could come by and see a black teen with a gun in an argument with a white man, and it could be the same result.
If I called 911, even if I told the dispatcher that it was a BB gun, that could get garbled and the responding officer could just hear “black teen with a gun” (which is exactly what happened with Tamir Rice).
Were the wrong officer to reply, it could be the same result.
Thankfully, I’m well connected enough in our community to have another plan that I could try to make work in a hurry.
I stood just inside the door where I could see the teens so I could run out if a police officer arrived before they were expected.
I called our city councilman.
I asked him to call the second district police commander.
The councilman asked him to call dispatch and request a community resource officer.
The councilman and I both asked repeatedly that the resource officer be told that there was no danger, that it was a BB gun, and that someone had to protect the teens around it from someone else hurting them.
And thankfully, that phone tree worked perfectly.
About 15 minutes after I called the councilman, a black community resource officer arrived, calmly interacted with the teens, took the BB gun into his possession, and sent the teens on their way. He later returned it to the boy that owned it and had a long talk with the teen and his mother about the risks involved.
That’s how the system is supposed to work.
Or is it?
Because think about how crazy that story is.
I couldn’t confront the teens for the safety of the teens.
I couldn’t call the police directly for the safety of the teens.
I couldn’t walk away for the safety of the teens.
I had to call a powerful person who happens to know me well enough to both take my call and do what I was asking him to do immediately for the safety of the teens.
We had to get the district commander and the right officer involved for the safety of the teens.
He had to take a toy away from them for their own safety.
He had to tell the boy and his mother to never do that again for his own safety.
Me, a private citizen, had to spend 30 minutes in a frantic phone tree to reduce the risk that another police officer would shoot another black man that was no threat to him.
And that’s not practical for most people who don’t happen to have a close relationship with their councilman or enough leverage to get something done as quickly as needed.
And it shouldn’t be something people should need to do to save a life.
What I told you before was that I grew up around BB guns. What I didn’t tell you is that we carried them down the streets when I was growing up without a second thought. Of course we took off the safety markings because who cares. We shot at paint cans and beer bottles and small critters and (too often) each other because that’s just what kids did because we were dumb and bored.
And never once was I afraid of getting shot by a police officer because I had a toy.
And never once did an adult have to take an incredible set of precautions to protect me.
And never once did a police officer have to tell my mother to keep me inside so another officer didn’t accidentally kill me.
Why am I telling you this?
Why am I telling you this tonight?
Because this country is facing two epidemics at once.
One is Covid-19, which has a disparate impact on people of color.
One is police violence against people of color at a rate that is 3-5x higher than their white neighbors.
Both leave black and brown Americans dead while their white friends and family live.
Because our institutions are systematically and undeniably racist and systematically and undeniably broken.
As another black family prays over the body of their son, father, brother, and friend, I call on you for help.
We must be aware. We must be committed. We must be better.
My heart breaks for minority families around this nation as you stand for your very basic human rights.
But as for me and my family, we will always stand with you.