A former judge in Oakland, Calif. has been teaching a class on “the talk” for the past four years.
This isn’t the birds and the bees talk most of America thinks of when thinking of “the talk.” Sadly, this is another talk, the one so commonly given to young folks in the African American community as they approach their adolescence, especially young black males. This is the talk that informs them how to act in public, especially when dealing with police, simply to survive, to avoid being gunned down like 12-year-old Tamir Rice. This is the talk that prepares them for Stand Your Ground laws, stop and frisk, and driving while black, to name only a few examples of the everyday bullsh*t black folks and people of color have to face in this inherently racist country on a daily basis.
One look at the media on any given day will show you what this is all about and why “the talk” is so necessary. From Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, right on down the line. Black men have been victimized, abused, assaulted, and downright murdered in this country since the beginning and, with the dawning of the digital age, the internet coming into its own, and the advent of social media pulling the entire world together into one virtual community, where one can see, experience, take part in and empathize with people’s plights and struggles all over the world, we are able to pay witness to the larger national and global climate.
Suddenly modern day equivalences to yesterdays’ lynchings from disparate small towns across the nation are brought together under one umbrella.
People can finally see how hard it’s raining, and the puddles at their feet carry a strange red sheen. For the first time, the larger picture is coming into focus, and people are becoming outraged.
Of course, there are the dinosaurs, the soon to be extinct perspectives and ideologies clinging to the last vespers of their America’s dying, racist breath. They cling hard, highlighting the great divide in the country, but a vast majority of us see the truth. The problem is, the system allegedly serving us is not progressing as fast as the civilians and citizens it supposedly serves. We are in the midst, still, of a great transition. Most likely we always will be, but until things get us to a place better than where we now stand, folks like former judge Demetrius Shelton are stepping forward to teach folks how to survive in the meantime.
If you’re at all doubtful of the landscape illustrated above, reconsider. Perhaps open your mind and do some research. Take into account, the latest FBI report, which shows violence among civilians down, while murder-by-cop is up, up up. It’s the highest it’s been in the last 20 years. According to that report, a black person is killed by a white police officer nearly twice a week in this country. One out of every five of those victims will be under 18 years of age, too.
It’s evident that classes such as offered by Shelton provide a necessary bridge to safety and security for people of color. As shameful as that necessity may be for the United States, it is what it is, and there’s no use denying it. After all, even Trayvon Martin suffered the violence of racist America, and his father had already given him the talk. When you’re black, you don’t have to find trouble. Trouble finds you. What was that Bob Dylan sang about the Hurricane? “Better not show up on the streets, ‘less you wanna draw the heat.”
All too often we’re hearing of these situations. The Michael Brown incident, the Trayvon Martin situation. It can be a matter of life and death.
D*mn right. This country is a racist’s dream, and Shelton essentially helps people learn how to not get shot, specifically by the police.
Recently, Shelton held a workshop at Oakland’s Castlemont High School and talked about how the behaviors that kids are being thrown in jail for now are the same things that used to get them simply sent down to the principal’s office before. It’s that old school to prison pipeline in effect, which is another huge problem in the U.S., and yet another means by which the lives of the youth of color are routinely discarded.
Granted, for those of you chomping at the bit to state that these things happen to white folks and white youth, too, you are correct, but the disparate difference in frequency is what’s being discussed here.
Shifting back into the focus of literal survival, the main focus of his classes, Shelton states:
We want, above all, for the young people to survive the interaction. If anything was done wrong, we’ll take care of it later.
Shelton’s class focuses on teaching students their basic legal rights, for starters. He points out the examples that an officer can ask for identification, but that one has the legal right to record the interaction with an officer on a smartphone. Recordings are good insurance measures against violence (sometimes) but also serve as a means of documentation that can be there for both the civilian and the officer’s benefit, depending on who is behaving questionably.
It’s important to know your rights and responsibilities, and it’s also important to use sound judgment.
By sound judgment, Shelton clarifies that one should never do anything that can be interpreted as threatening. Stay passive to ensure safety. One can always take up any abuse of power through legal channels later. The important thing is to survive the interaction. He tells kids:
There’s a safety concern, all around, on both sides.
What makes most interactions between civilians and police officers dubious and much more tense, according to Shelton, is an unfortunate lack of trust, citing Ferguson as an example. He states:
I think there is a lack of trust in the legal system and I think that frustration is what has resulted in the protests that are taking place across the country.
But Shelton’s message is also wider than that. While police officers need to learn to utilize deadly force as a last result, rather than jumping out of a car guns a-blazing, as the 26-year-old Cleveland PD rookie did with Tamir Rice, citizens also need to hold themselves accountable for their own behavior. We’re in this together, and trust will only be established between the two parties if both sides of the table work to be trustworthy participants in society and day to day life in our communities. And should one end up in the midst of an encounter with police, Shelton urges his students to remember a few key steps to survival. As one of Shelton’s students said:
Remain respectful, remain steady, keep my head on straight.
Do that, and you just might survive.
Stay safe out there, folks.