In light of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York City, New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, Black families cling a bit tighter to their sons whenever they embrace. Tensions between police departments and Black residents in these areas have police and Black folks alike all over the country concerned about what could happen during the next confrontation between a White police officer and an unarmed Black male of any age. If you are a Black man, you have received “the talk” from your parents and you’ve possibly given “the talk” to your own son about…
In light of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York City, New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, Black families cling a bit tighter to their sons whenever they embrace. Tensions between police departments and Black residents in these areas have police and Black folks alike all over the country concerned about what could happen during the next confrontation between a White police officer and an unarmed Black male of any age. If you are a Black man, you have received “the talk” from your parents and you’ve possibly given “the talk” to your own son about what to do and what not to do when either stopped and searched or pulled over by police officers, specifically White police officers. In the state of New Jersey, lawmakers want schools to have a similar talk with not only Black male students, but all students as outlined in Bill A4130.
According to the bill currently up for debate in the state legislature, it would become a mandatory requirement as part of the social studies core curriculum content standards to provide students with instructions for students to speak with police in the ways the state deemed appropriate. This would start at the beginning of the next school year and would be instituted at all grade levels. According to the bill, the instruction shall provide students with information on the role and responsibilities of a law enforcement official in providing for public safety, and an individual’s responsibilities to comply with a directive from a law enforcement official.
According to a state legislator sponsoring the bill, the bill was inspired by the various episodes of police killings across the country. That same legislator said that kids need to learn how to speak and behave when being talked to by the police and that proper behavior and respect by kids at the same time protects police officers. Another state legislator, who is a co-sponsor, said the bill is about breaking down any and all misinformation, disinformation, or mischaracterizations about the police that students may receive through the media. All of those things sound good and I am sure that these state legislators are well-intentioned, but this bill being proposed as law is the wrong strategy if you are seeking to protect citizens and police alike.
If the bill was inspired, even if only a little bit, by the episodes of White police officers killing unarmed Black men, then it is safe to conclude that one of the intentions of this bill is to teach young Black men from an elementary age how to behave with and speak to police officers when approached for any reason, whether legitimate or illegitimate. The history of interactions between Blacks and law enforcement has always been tenuous at best. Economic and political structures have made Blacks an easy target to blame for their own collective condition and behavior. It is no wonder why the racial profiling of Black men is so easy and so “effective.” Which is why the assumption that this sort of thing can be taught by anyone is very disconcerting. For example, in cities like Newark, Paterson, Jersey City and Camden City where the Black and Latino population is heavily concentrated, it is safe to say that the schools reflect those respective populations.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 85 percent of all teachers are White. White teachers do not share similar experiences with adult Blacks and Latinos in these cities, and in municipalities like these, when it comes to encounters with the police. These teachers, no matter how well-intentioned and well-meaning they may be, are not the individuals who should be teaching students of color, in particular Black males, on how to handle oneself when approached by a White police officer. Any assumption that White teachers collectively are capable of doing so is asinine.
A desire to bridge any gaps of miscommunication, misrepresentation and disrespect between the police and all citizens, particularly people of color, is a worthwhile effort. However, any approach must be two-pronged. In this particular instance, I see the attempt of the legislature to insure the “instruction” of citizens on police encounter decorum. What I don’t see is any attempt to further “instruct” police officers on the municipal and state level on how to properly interact with citizens; how the terms probable cause and reasonable suspicion are not open to assumptions based on what you think or how you feel; how not all Black men carry guns or are engaged in criminal activity; how you achieve greater gains from the public through establishing relationships; how there is no room for a Napoleon complex in law enforcement; why historically Blacks and law enforcement have had a tenuous relationship; how to improve relations between themselves and citizens in disadvantaged communities. More “instruction” for police on those things can never hurt.
But what New Jersey legislators really need to consider is the overall message that the passing of this bill means for everyone. Schools are not only a place to learn information for practical application but they are also places of inquiry. Schools are places where students are encouraged to question everything about the world around them. Questions like why the earth rotates on an axis and why there are children around the world without clean water. Good teachers not only facilitate such inquires among students, but good teachers also force students to challenge the status quo and even to challenge authority. In school, students learn about the purpose and practicality of a protest, a boycott, a march or any form of civil disobedience for their own rights and for the rights of their fellow man. Civil disobedience is rooted in lessons on challenging authority. A movie was just released last month about a movement where a Baptist preacher disobeyed police, a governor and a president in an attempt to gain the voting rights of Blacks in the United States — a movie many New Jersey schools sent their students to watch on the day honoring that very Baptist minister, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A law requiring that students simply obey law enforcement in any given situation, even if authority goes against the rights of the public, sets a dangerous precedent for future action by police and policymakers that is not for the benefit of the public.
To the legislators of New Jersey who sponsor and co-sponsor this bill and to those who will vote on it, I urge you to reconsider your support for such a bill. To the residents of New Jersey, I implore you to contact your representatives in the state house and tell them not to pass this bill. I know that I will.
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