When I was 14, my mother told me not to panic if a police officer stopped me. And she cautioned me to carry ID and never run away from the police or I could be shot. In the nine years since my mother gave me this advice, I have had numerous occasions to consider her wisdom.
Peart goes on to describe 4 different incidents when he's been harassed by law enforcement for no reason. It takes a toll.
These experiences changed the way I felt about the police. After the third incident I worried when police cars drove by; I was afraid I would be stopped and searched or that something worse would happen. I dress better if I go downtown. I don’t hang out with friends outside my neighborhood in Harlem as much as I used to. Essentially, I incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer’s gun at my head. For a black man in his 20s like me, it’s just a fact of life in New York...
We need change. When I was young I thought cops were cool. They had a respectable and honorable job to keep people safe and fight crime. Now, I think their tactics are unfair and they abuse their authority. The police should consider the consequences of a generation of young people who want nothing to do with them — distrust, alienation and more crime...
For young people in my neighborhood, getting stopped and frisked is a rite of passage. We expect the police to jump us at any moment. We know the rules: don’t run and don’t try to explain, because speaking up for yourself might get you arrested or worse. And we all feel the same way — degraded, harassed, violated and criminalized because we’re black or Latino. Have I been stopped more than the average young black person? I don’t know, but I look like a zillion other people on the street. And we’re all just trying to live our lives.
As a middle-aged white woman I can say that this is something I've never experienced. So my choice is to either ignore what Peart is saying, assume he's exaggerating, or take a minute to think about what its like to grow up like that. How might my world view be different if I had shared this experience (hint: attempting to do that is what we call empathy). Until folks like me take just a minute to try and walk in those shoes, we'll never understand the meaning of racism in our culture today. As far as I can see, its this kind of thing - and the results - that are the crux of the problem.
Based on my experience of talking to young black men, Peart's experience is not unique to him or to NYC. I suspect that most African American readers will see this article and say "So yeah, what's new?" How I see it, this editorial wasn't written for them. It was written (and published) for folks like me. We need to know that this is a fact of life in this country for young black men like Peart. So thanks to him for writing it and to the NYT for giving the words of a 23 year-old student such prominence on your pages. Perhaps a few more people like me will start to understand.
UPDATE: Young men like Peart and Dahlak are trying to tell us something...perhaps its time we listened.