What A Four-Year-Old Taught Me About Police Brutality

by Morgan Jerkins

His name was Marcus*, a four-year-old, plump-faced Black boy whose enthusiasm for learning knew no bounds. I just picked up a side job tutoring children near Camden, New Jersey, and Marcus was the first boy who I assisted my boss in teaching him his shapes, colors, and spelling of his name.

Every week, Marcus would sit across from me and we would learn how to correctly sound out different words and every so often, I would have to kindly ask him to return to his seat because he would often times get restless and shuffle around the room. For one assignment, I instructed him to do an exercise out of a workbook where he would practice drawing inside the lines.

I quietly watched him and then suddenly, his face dropped and was marked with an unspeakable level of despondency. Before I could ask him what’s wrong, he said, “I hope the police don’t come in here”, as he continued to trace the sides of an octagon. I nervously chuckled and asked him why would the police come in this small tutoring facility, thinking that maybe he was just blurting out something nonsensical since he loved to regale me with stories all the time in between my lessons. But then he responded in a low voice, dissimilar to his regular high pitched and spirited tone, “Because I don’t like the police.”

After that, my face dropped too. Besides the sounds of his pencil drawing upon the pages, the room was silent. Fortunately for me, Marcus did not look up from his workbook and get bothered by the apprehension in my eyes. Since he was getting to the end of the page, I quickly began to assess whether or not this was just another whimsical remark made by a child who was far too young to know any better. But in light of Michael Brown’s death and the acquittal of George Zimmerman for Trayvon Martin’s murder, I could not divorce these remarks from an entrenched issue in the black community: Fear.

Why didn’t Marcus say that he hoped that the boogeyman, or any other childhood monster, would not come into the room? Why did it have to be the police? We were sitting in a well-lit room and yet this child feared someone unabashedly scaring him out in the open. These are not the fears of the nighttime, but those that we as Black individuals carry day-by-day—that someone can encroach upon our space. I wanted to pat Marcus on the head and pull him close to my chest to hug and tell him that everything would be okay, but how could I? How could I stare into his innocent eyes and tell him not to be afraid when there are innumerable examples in our culture that tells us both that we should be?

As if this situation was not nightmarish enough, Marcus began to sing “Ring Around The Rosie” as he corrected himself on how to curve his pencil the right way in order to recreate a circle. That was when I thought that I needed to excuse myself from the room for everything inside of me was crumbling. As a child, like Marcus, I loved to sing this melody. But as an adult, I know better.

Ashes, ashes/We all fall down.

A little Black child who still stumbles with remembering how to spell his name just told me that he fears the police and then eerily sings a song about death almost in the same breath. I wondered, “Where did he learn his fear?” I didn’t know whether or not he’d been profiled or he’d seen his other relatives encounter the police in terrible ways. But what I did know is that this fear is normalized in marginalized people like Marcus at an inexplicably young age. He did these two things in a stoic manner as if this fear of the police and singing of death were both mundane activities. I was blown away by his passivity but then I remembered that he was a child and perhaps it did not register to him, the meaning behind what had just occurred.

For Black people, the fear of racial inequality looms over our heads like a nimbus cloud. This fear either paralyzes or enrages us to fight back as seen in the Ferguson protestors, for example. For others, this fear of the police is translated into countless comedic skits, which serve as reminders to the ignorant and artistic anesthetics to our pain at what we know to be too real. It is a plague that permeates our minds at a young age, even if we are not at the maturity level to understand what is going on.

Marcus could not have been more far removed from protestors around the world fighting for racial inequality but their sentiment is strikingly similar: Fear the police because death lurks behind every corner. We can become ashes. We can fall down. This is not some scary bedtime story out of which we can wake up the next morning, go to school or work, and forget that the tale was never told to us. No, this nightmare, this macabre anticipation is something we carry with us all the time, even in the midst of the mundane activities of our lives. And that to me is downright heartbreaking because I think of the children. As adults, we want to retain their innocence as much as possible, but this fear that unites us all fragments that forever.

That was my last session with Marcus. I had to take on other children but I’ll never forget him. He’s going to grow into a man and his ideas about the police may change or remain the same. However, I will always remember what he told me on that one fateful night. Although I know that fear will never go away for as long as he lives, I just hope that he will be able to stay strong as I, as well as many other like him, are trying to do.

*The name has been changed.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Morgan Jerkins graduated from Princeton University with an AB in Comparative Literature and is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has been featured in Ebony, Salon, The Toast, and The Huffington Post, among others. You can find her online at http://blackgirlinmfa.tumblr.com.

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