Hard questions from black children over police killings
Hard questions from black children over police killings
Markel Lee gets a "Haircut for Justice" at the Triple S Food Mart at an impromptu memorial for Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S., July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
Elizabeth Unaeze, 27, holds her son Xavier, 2, while her daughter Autumn, 4, watches cartoons in her office, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
Cleve Dunn Jr. takes a moment to reflect at an impromptu memorial for Alton Sterling at the Triple S Food Mart, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
Rev. Latrice Mallard (Centre R) and Molly Fairchild Philips (Centre L) hold hands in unity at a community forum Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
Walter McLaughlin listens to a community meeting at the Main Branch Library in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
Teacher Rashaun Davis takes a moment to reflect at an impromptu memorial for Alton Sterling at the Triple S Food Mart, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
Sharon Weston Broome, a Democratic former member of the Louisiana State Senate for District 15 and a candidate for Mayor-President for Baton Rouge 2016, speaks at a community meeting at the Main Branch Library in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
Terrance Anderson holds a placard outside the Triple S Food Mart where Alton Sterling was shot dead by police, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
A protester holds a sign at the Triple S Food Mart where Alton Sterling was shot dead by police, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
Sandra Sterling speaks with Cleve Dunn Jr. outside the Triple S Food Mart, where her nephew Alton Sterling was shot dead by police, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 12, 2016. Picture taken July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
Community members hold discussions at a community forum organised by Together Baton Rouge, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
Wajeedah Jones spends time with her children JaKairick Young, 13, Jamel Jones, 6 and Jaleah Jones, 2, at home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
Against All Odds member Burnell Williams holds a phone during a meeting, to enable an imprisoned man to describe over the phone how he was arrested, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
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BATON ROUGE, La., July 19 (Reuters) - In the eyes of four-year-old Autumn Unaeze, her grandfather in his blue police uniform is a superhero protecting people.
Yet, there are troubling realities about police that her mother knows she must begin sharing with her: first, how other officers could harm her black family, and then how law enforcement officers can be targets themselves, after three were killed in an attack near her Baton Rouge home on Sunday.
Across the United States, African-American parents, teachers and other adults face a difficult decision - how and at what age to talk to children about a racially charged debate over policing and tensions over the shooting deaths of black men by officers in a country that struggles to end racism.
"They don't trust the world."
Jerry Dunn, Psychologist and executive director, Children's Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis
That conversation has grown more urgent in recent weeks. In the tumult of social media, ever-younger children have been exposed to grainy videos of black men dying at the hands of law enforcement or to blanket news coverage of black-led protests over use of police force. Then they've seen the shock in communities whose officers are gunned down in the line of duty.
Families that may have once discussed racial disparities in policing with older teens now face questions from preschoolers such as Autumn, who want to know why people are being so mean. Others ask why people are protesting or why police now face ambushes as in Baton Rouge and Dallas, where five officers were killed earlier this month.
"She's already seen enough," said mother Elizabeth Unaeze, 27, who finally just turned off the television news on Sunday, after learning that her father was safe. "I don't want to create an atmosphere of fear, even though we as parents are so afraid."
Her daughter and two-year-old son already had picked up on sadness and grief at the grocery store, after the fatal police shooting on July 5 of Alton Sterling, 37, at a local convenience store ignited nationwide protests.
Like other African-American parents here, Unaeze wants to reinforce their trust in authorities, but also knows caution could become an essential survival skill.
"There's no pamphlet. There's no guide. I am sure there are no coloring sheets," she said.
Families in Baton Rouge are the latest to experience first-hand the aftermath of police killings of black men that have convulsed the nation in the past two years, following communities from New York and Baltimore to Ferguson, Missouri, where riots erupted after police fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014.
A day after the death of Sterling, many children watched or caught glimpses of footage on Facebook from inside a car in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, where Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, lay bleeding in another fatal police shooting.
Child psychologists say exposure to killings can shatter a sense of security for many African-American children: younger children may become fearful for parents and caretakers, while older youth can start to see themselves as the next target.
"I don't want to create an atmosphere of fear, even though we as parents are so afraid."
Elizabeth Unaeze, Baton Rouge mother
When headlines explode with the next police-involved killing, some feel traumatized all over again.
"They don't trust the world," said Jerry Dunn, a psychologist and executive director of the Children's Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis, near Ferguson. "It really sets up an unfortunate risk for a cycle that is difficult to break."
Eleven-year-old Terrance Anderson last week held up a handwritten sign outside the store where Sterling was killed. "We are the children of the future," it read. "Protect us."
"It's not fair that they are only killing black people," said the slender sixth-grader.
His grandmother said she had wanted him to experience the peaceful crowds gathering nightly near a makeshift memorial of flowers, balloons and stuffed animals at the spot where Sterling died.
"I had to help him understand that all the world is not mean," said Denise Matthews, 60. "I hope he learns that life goes on."
Walter McLaughlin said he knew it was time to talk when his 10-year-old daughter asked him during a drive home: are police racist?
The 36-year-old father of three uses content filters to block inappropriate websites and television in his Baton Rouge home but was surprised at how much his daughter still absorbed recent events.
He said he sat down with his 14-year-old son and offered advice on how to act around police and white people to make them comfortable: stand tall, make eye contact, avoid sullen facial expressions.
"These are things that are unfair, but this is the world that we live in," he explained. "Some of these are the right things to do. Some of them are the wise things to do. And some of them we are fighting, so we don't have to do anymore."
See the most iconic photos from the Black Lives Matter movement:
Most iconic photos of Black Lives Matter movement since Ferguson
Most iconic photos of Black Lives Matter movement since Ferguson
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 17: Tear gas rains down on a woman kneeling in the street with her hands in the air after a demonstration over the killing of teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Despite the Brown family's continued call for peaceful demonstrations, violent protests have erupted nearly every night in Ferguson since his August 9, death. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 11: Police force protestors from the business district into nearby neighborhoods on August 11, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets as residents and their supporters protested the shooting by police of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown who was killed Saturday in this suburban St. Louis community. Yesterday 32 arrests were made after protests turned into rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 12: A demonstrator protesting the killings of 18-year-olds Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri Police officer and Vonderrit Myers Jr. by an off duty St. Louis police officer gets help after being maced by police on October 12, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri. The St. Louis area has been struggling to heal since riots erupted in suburban Ferguson following Brown's death. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 3: A demonstrator cries while gathering in Philadelphia to protest the Eric Garner grand jury decision during a Christmas Tree lighting ceremony at City Hall December 3, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Organizers called for the demonstration after a grand jury in the Staten Island borough of New York City declined to indict the police officer who used a chokehold on Garner, resulting in his death. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - NOVEMBER 25: Police confront demonstrators during a protest on November 25, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Yesterday protesting turned into rioting following the grand jury announcement to not indict officer Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown case. Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, on August 9. At least 12 buildings were torched and more than 50 people were arrested during the night-long rioting. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Neal Blair, of Augusta, Ga., stands on the lawn of the Capitol building during a rally to mark the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, on Capitol Hill, on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Washington. Thousands of African-Americans crowded on the National Mall Saturday for the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Black Lives Matter supporters embrace after Minneapolis police poured water to extinguish an encampment fire as they continued their protest, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, outside the Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis. The fatal shooting of Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man by a Minneapolis police officer, has pushed racial tensions in the city's small but concentrated minority community to the fore, with the police precinct besieged by a makeshift encampment and many protesters. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
A spray painted message of âBlack Lives Matterâ was painted on a monument to former Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Thursday, June 25, 2015. The vandalism comes after a mass shooting in Charleston South Carolina has sparked a nationwide debate on the public display of Confederate imagery. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FILE - In this March 12, 2015 file photo, police shine a light on a helmet as they investigate the scene where two police officers were shot outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Mo. The one year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown, which sparked months of nationwide protests and launched the "Black Lives Matter" movement, is on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2014 file photo taken with a long exposure, protesters march in the street as lightning flashes in the distance in Ferguson, Mo. The one year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown, which sparked months of nationwide protests and launched the "Black Lives Matter" movement, is on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
A protester has some words with Minneapolis police officers on bikes as a Black Lives Matter protest continued, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, at the Minneapolis Police Department's Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis. It was the fourth day of protests of the killing of 24-year-old Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man, by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson leaves the Baton Rouge jail in Baton Rouge, La. on Sunday, July 10, 2016. McKesson, three journalists and more than 120 other people were taken into custody in Louisiana over the past two days, authorities said Sunday, after protests over the fatal shooting of an African-American man by two white police officers in Baton Rouge. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)
Jamine Clark points to the name of his brother, Jamar Clark, on an upside-down flag bearing names of people killed at the hands of police outside the Minneapolis Police Department's Fourth Precinct, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, in Minneapolis. Black Lives Matter demonstrators have set up an encampment at the precinct which is near the site of the Sunday shooting of Jamar Clark by a Minneapolis police officer. Clark has been taken off life support. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
BLOOMINGTON, MN - DECEMBER 20: Thousands of protesters from the group 'Black Lives Matter' disrupt holiday shoppers on December 20, 2014 at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Dec. 8, 2014 file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James wears a T-shirt reading "I Can't Breathe," during warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets in New York. Celebrities have long played a significant role in social change, from Harry Belafonte marching for civil rights to Muhammad Aliâs anti-war activism. James and other basketball stars made news in 2014 when they wore T-shirts to protest the death of Eric Garner. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)
A demonstrator chants during a rally in downtown Manhattan in New York, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, during the Justice for All rally and march. In the past three weeks, grand juries have decided not to indict officers in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York and the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The decisions have unleashed demonstrations and questions about police conduct and whether local prosecutors are the best choice for investigating police. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Parents of Michael Brown, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden listen to a speaker during a rally, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, for their son who was killed by police last Saturday in Ferguson, Mo. Brown's shooting in the middle of a street, following a suspected robbery of a box of cigars from a nearby market, has sparked a week of protests, riots and looting in the St. Louis suburb. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
A police officer stands over activists, demanding justice for the death of Eric Garner, as they stage a 'die-in' during rush hour at Grand Central Terminal in the Manhattan borough of New York on December 3, 2014. A New York City grand jury on Wednesday returned no indictment against a white police officer who used a chokehold on an unarmed black man who died as police tried to arrest him for illegally selling cigarettes, local media reported. The grand jury in the city's borough of Staten Island decided against criminal charges for New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. The deadly encounter on July 17 was captured on a video that quickly spread over the Internet and helped fuel debates about how U.S. police use force, particularly against minorities. REUTERS/Adrees Latif (UNITED STATES - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY TRANSPORT)
A man protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Pastor Charles Burton lies on the driveway at the Ferguson, Mo., police station as a chalk drawing is made as a memorial to Michael Brown, Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Activists planned a day of civil disobedience to protest Brown's shooting in August and a second police shooting in St. Louis last week. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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'COULD BE ANYONE, ANY DAY'
Research released this month by the Center for Policing Equity at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York confirmed what many have long known anecdotally - police are far more likely to use force in interactions with blacks than with whites.
From stun guns to batons and body contact, police used force on blacks at rates more than three times higher than for whites, the researchers found in a review of data from 12 police departments representing a cross-section of the United States. Even after factoring in higher arrest rates among blacks, racial disparities persisted in how force was applied.
Explaining such systemic injustice was a conversation that Brandon Simmons, 38, had been afraid to initiate with his 10- and 13-year-olds. His childhood in southern Louisiana was defined by racial inequities, with a white girl spitting in his face in the third grade. He believes his children are growing up in a better, more accepting society.
"I don't want to paint a horrific perspective of what happened and almost rape them of their viewpoint of the world," said Simmons, who showed them the video of Sterling's death at the urging of a friend who teaches middle school. "I was very cautious in my approach."
Living blocks from Sterling's shooting in Baton Rouge, Wajeedah Jones, 37, debated how much to show her young children. Then her six-year-old son told her that he knew why she had been crying.
An older relative had showed him the video. Her 13-year-old also had seen the footage, and he said it left him heartbroken.
"It could be anyone, any day," said her son, JaKairick Young. "We all know that."