“Mama, aren’t police supposed to help people?”
It was a reasonable question. We had, after all, called police “community helpers” in our home until May 25, 2020.
My four-year-old, who is white like me, asked this question because of what happened that Memorial Day. That day, just a two-minute bike ride from where my son will go to kindergarten, a police offer pressed his knee into the neck of a man named George Floyd for such a long time that Mr. Floyd died.
I have written at length about what I said to my children in the days after George Floyd died. I have talked to my children about why people are angry. I have talked to them about why Black Lives Matter. But this question, this one haunts me. I think it haunts me because I, too, wonder, in a way that I have not wondered before: Aren’t police supposed to help people?
Sometimes my children’s questions, so innocent and sincere, compel me to reckon with what is really in front of me.
* * *
Police are supposed to help keep people safe, I think I know that much is true. At least that is what the Minneapolis Police Department says in its mission statement. I imagine that it is the same in many other places as well. Where I grew up, not in Minneapolis, I learned that you are supposed to call police officers when you need help, especially when you are the victim of a crime. I am a good student, and I learned this lesson young, with help from initiatives popular during my childhood in the 1980s and 1990s like Safety Town and Officer Friendly.
The idea of police as “community helpers” is a comforting one, and I held it close for many years. But, I now realize, even my own personal experience, as a white person, offered a counternarrative.
When I was pregnant with my first child, our house was robbed. I felt shaken and violated. The police came. The officers agreed that we had been robbed, took some notes, and left. That was it. Law & Order had not prepared me for that outcome.
Then, of course, when my first child was a four-year-old and his little brother was a two-year-old, our neighborhood burned during the protests. I felt shaken and violated. This time, the police were already there. The officers were unable or unwilling to stop the violence and destruction.
It is difficult to make sense of these experiences given what I was taught. I think for a long time I had trouble mapping my adult experiences with the police onto these early teachings. So I didn’t. When I heard about Breonna Taylor and Philando Castile and the many, many other people police officers have killed and harmed, I felt sad. I felt bad. I signed petitions about police reform and mandatory body cams. I was not really listening. Police say that their role is to keep people safe, but that is not what policing does.
I have had difficulty knowing what to do with this discrepancy. Then my two-year-old hit me.
* * *
It was yesterday. I was scrolling Twitter on my phone, and my sweet toddler hit me in the leg. When he hit me, it did not matter that some days earlier he had said, “Pippy nice.” The fact was, he hit me. I have learned, through my training as a mental health therapist, to ask questions about behaviors like this. Behaviors, after all, are a kind of communication.
What was my son trying to tell me? Was he too tired? Did he get too much screen time? Did he need my attention? What was going on just before he hit me?
I have learned, as a mother to young children, that you have to answer behaviors the same way you answer language. This is the context from which I say: The behaviors of the police demand answers.
I do not know all of the reasons the police are not agents of safety in my own community and many others. There are many ideas from many people who have been more awake to the problems of policing much longer than me. But I do know that the police’s behaviors are communication. It is time to listen to what police officers’ actions are saying, to what they have been saying for years.
The police are not solving our crimes. The police hurt people and then hurt the people who ask them to stop hurting people. Police officers are telling us with their bodies that there is a very big problem with policing in the United States.
When my toddler hits me, I work to understand what he is saying with his body. At the same time, when he hits, I do something else. I gently and firmly hold his hands. I say, “I won’t let you hit me.” I do this because I love him. Calling to defund and demilitarize the police is not necessarily an aggressive call to action, though it can be. It is not a way to demonize all people in uniform. It is loving boundaries, which we can set with anyone. Especially those we love. These boundaries can keep our community — all of our community — truly safe.
* * *
We played a game at dinner a few nights ago. My four-year-old held up all ten of his fingers. He asked, “What will happen when I am this old?”
“I don’t know for sure,” I said, “But, probably, you will be in fifth grade at your elementary school. You’ll have a lot of friends and know a lot of amazing things.”
Then my son asked me to hold up my fingers, too. We wiggled our collective 20 fingers. “What will happen when I am this old?” It went on like this until, all together, we held 70 fingers in the air. He asked again, “What will happen when I am this old?”
“Gosh, I really don’t know,” I said, “It’s hard to know anything for sure that far out.”
The truth is, I don’t have to know what my son’s life will be like when he is a 70-year-old to have an idea about how to parent him today. I don’t have to know the future of policing to know that we need to do something profoundly different today.
We don’t have to know everything. We don’t have to know how to dismantle racism all at once. We just have to know, like my Pippy’s beloved Princess Anna of Arendelle, “the next right thing.”
Let us, as parents, listen to what the police are showing us. Let us, as parents, set a boundary and demand something better for children, for our world, than a militarized police force.
Let us imagine something different.