It is almost 12 a.m. on a Friday night and four 12-year-old boys are riding their bikes on Elm, going the opposite direction of traffic. They disrupt traffic as one of the boys tries to cross all three lanes. His friend is riding on the handlebars of the bike with a broken arm, which makes them slower than the rest of the group, and they annoy all the cars trying to speed away. Upon seeing this dangerous behavior, a Yale police officer that happens to be driving by tells the boys to pull over. Their friends also stop. They roll their eyes out of annoyance and one of them shouts, “Com’ on, his arm is broken!”
I was on my way to G-Heav for my regular bacon, egg and cheese as the scene unfolded. When I walked out with food, the boys were still there. Now there was another cop car, and the boy struggled to hold his broken arm to his chest as he was getting searched.
I am not trying to make any assumptions about these boys, nor about policing protocols. Maybe they stole a couple of the iPhones that Chief Ronnell Higgins recently emailed the Yale community about. Maybe they had planned to steal a bicycle later that night, explaining why there were four of them but only three bikes. Maybe they smelled of weed and needed to be searched.
But maybe they are just innocent kids riding while black.
Had it been a drunken Yale student (preferably not Hispanic or black) stumbling across Elm Street during a pedestrian red light, he would not have been searched. He would have received a slap on the wrist and that would have been the end of the story. How many times have cops seen belligerent students stumble home and not interceded? I have seen people hold Solo cups while in line for Toad’s with cops only a few feet away and face absolutely no consequence.
But these children — who were possibly just being kids and not thinking about the dangers of riding on handlebars and crossing lanes of oncoming traffic — they are not as lucky. They fit the description of “problematic,” and innocent until proven guilty does not seem to hold.
Last year, one of my friends from home happened to be going out in New Haven and came to visit me in Swing Space late at night. A New Haven Police car was driving by, and upon seeing a football-build black male wearing a fitted cap and baggy jeans, the officer felt the need to slow down and eventually just pull his car over and stare until we went into Swing. I don’t know what the cop expected my friend to do, maybe sell me a couple of grams — but it was clear the officer was suspicious of my friend.
I do not want to discredit cops’ intuition. They know the field they work in and are obviously experienced at determining what situations need further attention. I trust cops to make sound judgments to keep me safe. And as a white girl, I feel confident enough to say hello when I walk past a cop, even if I am far from sober. But my black friends should be able to feel the same way.
The anger I saw in my friend’s eyes that night showed me a distrust that I have never experienced when it comes to the police. “What the hell is he staring at me for,” was his response. He did not see the protection that cops are supposed to provide. Rather, he saw a distrusting official trying to catch him doing something he was not supposed to do.
At a young age, many black parents sit their boys down to discuss possible run-ins with officers. They are told to always carry an ID, especially as they get older. They are told to be wary of sudden movements that may make officers feel threatened. And above all, they are told to show respect even if it is not reciprocated. “Boys will be boys” does not hold true for them. It feels as though the police strip black boys of their innocence as children because they will someday be black men, and black men commit crimes.
How are the boys on the bikes, my friend and all the other minorities that have ever been in similar situations supposed to trust policemen when it seems that they constantly carry the burden of proving themselves innocent? It is 2012, and my president is black. But what value does that hold if the simple act of being black and walking down a street can be considered suspicious?
Sara Silva is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .