Student Voices on Law Enforcement
Rising T4s Respond to George Floyd’s Murder: A Pattern of Systematic Racism
June 19, 2020
Prompted by the murder of George Floyd, I asked rising T4 students a series of three questions about their and their family’s experiences with law enforcement in New York City.
“What has your experience with law enforcement been?”
“What have you been told about law enforcement by your family?”
“How do you feel around law enforcement yourself?”
While the stories speak for themselves, it is critical that we have more open discussions and advocacy for education and political change regarding the systematic racism in our country, starting at UNIS.
Please read these and take a moment to internalize these experiences from within our own community and see how you can make a change (whether it be listening, learning, protesting, signing petitions, donating, or voting). There are so many things we can do.
I’ve never had any personal experiences from law enforcement. I usually try to avoid them to the best of my ability. My dad used to get pulled over on the highway when I was smaller, although it wasn’t anything serious. He had to have “the talk” with me which is something many black children and parents have to go through. He taught me the best way to diffuse a cop who’s hostile when questioning: which is to talk about your personal life. He talked about Ghana and Africa. He talks about always having to respect police officers. Don’t talk back to them, answer their questions at all times. Tell them what you’re gonna do before you do that action, never hide your hands, no sudden movements, and in my case, don’t have my hood up in public. To be honest, I’m afraid of law enforcement. There’s a certain uneasy tension whenever I’m near them. I try to avoid them or walk the other way when they’re present. I feel like I’m always the suspect and that I’m guilty of something even if I haven’t done anything wrong. Apparently they’re here to protect and serve but from what I have witnessed on the news and in person, I don’t think they’re all that interested in upholding that code of protecting and serving all people.
I haven’t had direct experiences with law enforcement in my lifetime and I realize it’s because of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in and because of my experiences as a white, adolescent girl. In the same way, my family and I haven’t discussed law enforcement as a threat to us because it just really hasn’t been. We discuss police brutality towards others and the terror that they bring towards black communities predominantly. It’s hard to understand the pain and suffering that these communities feel when their safety is compromised, by the people that are supposed to protect them. But if I’m in a sketchy neighborhood, whatever that means, and there’s a police officer there I do feel safer and I do realize, unfortunately, that’s not the case for all people. Even though I still do feel a sense of safety from them, I realize they target innocent lives and so that definitely has changed my opinion over the years.”
Many black people are born into areas and environments where there is more police presence, so they’re more likely to have encounters with police. But I’m privileged enough to live in an area in Queens where there isn’t a big police presence. My dad has told me a couple of stories from his experiences growing up. He grew up in both Brooklyn and Long Island. One time he was walking home and two police officers came up to him and started questioning him, saying, “Where are you going, what are you doing here? Why are you walking around here?” and he explained to them that he lived just down the block. They didn’t believe him and detained him in their police car and asked him questions for about an hour until they finally let him go. I find that interesting because it brings me back to my point about living in a suburban area. I always assumed that I’m safe here, but there could be an instance where police come up to me because they assume I’m not here for any good reason. I don’t trust that the police are actually there to protect and support the community.
Due to my white privilege there’s been no significant event that has happened with law enforcement. I have never been told to be cautious of them and I have always been told I couldn’t trust them. I feel safe in front of law enforcement because I’m white and I can trust that they will protect me. I think despite me having known about the racial biases and the significant problems with the policing systems and officers I never had any idea how it felt.
I grew up in a pretty privileged neighborhood and I was lucky when I was younger as I wasn’t exposed to the violence and the institutional problems that exist within the department of justice and law enforcement in this country. Still, since I was 10 I’ve been seeing videos of innocent black people being beat, shot, and killed by cops and it’s traumatizing to be that young and having to see that. I remember when Michael Brown was killed – it was a couple of days after my 11th birthday. That was the first time my parents had that conversation with me about what I am supposed to do if I get stopped by a cop. I think that was maybe one of the first times I started to wake up to these issues and I had to look out for myself.
One time I was hanging out with some friends in upstate New York and we were by these train tracks. We noticed there was a train coming so we got our stuff off the tracks and we moved out of the way. After a few minutes, these cops drove up in this car and came up to us and said, “We got a call from a train conductor that there are three blacks and one Latina playing chicken with the train.” I said we weren’t, and the cop said, “Stop talking back.” I noticed that the cop behind him had his hand on his gun the whole time. We were all terrified because we all know how this stuff goes down. Tamir Rice was 12 years old when he was killed, and after a certain point it doesn’t really matter how old you are. After they took down our names and numbers and our addresses, my friend was crying. We were so young and scared, and they continued to make an issue out of it. My family has always talked to me about race and racism because we are black people and it’s a very relevant issue in our lives, it affects the way we are all seen. My Dad is one of the only black guys in his office and he has a good job, and his whole life he’s had to deal with the pressure of trying to figure out how to navigate through spaces where he’s not always welcome. It’s hard to speak up about race as a person of color in a predominantly white space because you know there are so many people that are going to question you and question your experiences. Now, the amount of trust I have for law enforcement at this point is so low. I used to think it was a couple of bad apples, but it’s an entire institution in a country that has allowed this to continue. Even if a cop isn’t actively killing people, they are allowing this system to go on, to abuse and oppress people. We have to figure out a way to improve the way we communicate these issues to younger generations without people getting defensive and not caring.
I haven’t had many experiences with law enforcement because of my white privilege. I remember one time a couple of my friends went to a park late at night which was closed, and two cops came over, looked at us, and let us go. I didn’t expect that to happen. I thought they were gonna yell at us or tell us to get out as the park was closed but they didn’t and that was probably one of the first moments that I realized how much privilege I have being a girl and being white. That allowed me to have the security to not get kicked out or yelled at.
As an Asian-American woman I do not experience police brutality. I think that although there has been a substantial increase of violence towards Asian-Americans with the Coronavirus it is not nearly at the same level as other groups. If you look at the statistics, Asians aren’t even listed on police attacks and police murders, and that just shows how little this actually happens. I think this whole movement just illustrates how important our voices are.”
There was a time when my mom was driving back home. She was driving around and the cops pulled her over and instead of saying anything to her they put a gun to her head and she had to walk them through what she was doing so they wouldn’t shoot her. My Dad told me that one time before I was born, a guy in a white t-shirt stole something in the Bronx, and the cops surrounded [my dad] thinking he was the thief because he fit the description, and they were very aggressive with him. For me, it’s usually just the looks I get when I go to a store and people think I’m going to steal their stuff. They hold stuff closer or they move away from me.
My family has told me to be very careful of law enforcement. If someone pulls you over, put your hands on the dashboard, make sure you walk them through what you’re doing, don’t make sudden movements, don’t make too much noise. Tone it down when you’re walking on the streets or driving your car. It’s just really typical things.
I don’t hate law enforcement because I do think they provide protection, but at the same time, it can be very, very violent if you’re African American. Police officers need to stop being so violent against African Americans because we want their protection as much as anybody else. There shouldn’t be mistrust between us but that’s the way it is. I can’t speak for every African American, but I know the feeling of watching someone die violently, so cruelly, and you have to watch it because that could be you. I always think “what if that will be me?” when I see the news.
I often hear people compare UNIS to a bubble. It’s only a bubble for someone who is either very privileged, delusional, or blissfully unaware, because for some of us that bubble has been popped a long time ago. In one class, a student made a monkey joke and no one stood up for me. It was so humiliating to go back to my parents and tell them that a kid called me that. I’ve been told by a student that police brutality against African Americans is exaggerated after a presentation on it at UNIS. I’ve been told I don’t know what I’m talking about – but I do know what I’m talking about because I have experienced it. When people refuse to listen and subjugate a race or a group of people, without listening to what they have to say, you will get something like George Floyd. In one class, we were discussing privilege. Everyone said “we all have privilege here. We don’t have a lot of African Americans to talk to” – but I’m right here and no one asked me about my opinion.
I try my best to make everyone comfortable at UNIS. I try to be respectful and say hello and talk to people, but it seems like people aren’t trying to do the same for me. No one wants to say, “I’ll never understand you, but I’m willing to have this difficult conversation.” You can protest and riot, but you also have to listen. If you pretend racism doesn’t exist, like the U.S. pretended police brutality didn’t exist, then you’re gonna get more violence and chaos. I understand conversations about race are uncomfortable, but it’s uncomfortable to see police brutality and think it’s typical. After seeing police brutality again, and again, and again, I don’t have hope anymore – it’s great there’s progress and change – but that change should have been implemented a long time ago. Caring is not a Twitter post, it’s not a picture of the protest, it’s not even an assembly which addresses racism. You have to sit down and truly try to listen and care about what someone is saying. Racism is a conversation we need to have because that’s the world we live in. People complain about the George Floyd movement, that it’s violent, it’s chaotic, but it’s the result of not listening.