By John W. Whitehead
“Fear isn’t so difficult to understand. After all, weren’t we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf.” ― Alfred Hitchcock
In an age dominated with news of school shootings, school lockdowns, police shootings of unarmed citizens (including children), SWAT team raids gone awry (leaving children devastated and damaged), reports of school resource officers tasering and shackling unruly students, and public schools undergoing lockdowns and active drills, I find myself wrestling with the question: how do you prepare a child for life in the American police state?
Every parent lives with a fear of the dangers that prey on young children: the predators who lurk at bus stops and playgrounds, the traffickers who make a living by selling young bodies, the peddlers who push drugs that ensnare and addict, the gangs that deal in violence and bullets, the drunk drivers, the school bullies, the madmen with guns, the diseases that can end a life before it’s truly begun, the cynicism of a modern age that can tarnish innocence, and the greed of a corporate age that makes its living by trading on young consumers.
It’s difficult enough raising a child in a world ravaged by war, disease, poverty and hate, but when you add the police state into the mix—with its battlefield mindset, weaponry, rigidity, surveillance, fascism, indoctrination, violence, etc.—it becomes near impossible to guard against the toxic stress of police shootings, SWAT team raids, students being tasered and shackled, lockdown drills, and a growing unease that some of the monsters of our age come dressed in government uniforms.
Children are taught from an early age that there are consequences for their actions. Hurt somebody, lie, steal, cheat, etc., and you will get punished. But how do you explain to a child that a police officer can shoot someone who was doing nothing wrong and get away with it? That a cop can lie, steal, cheat, or kill and still not be punished?
Kids understand accidents: sometimes drinks get spilled, dishes get broken, people slip and fall and hurt themselves, or you bump into someone without meaning to, and they get hurt. As long as it wasn’t intentional and done with malice, you forgive them and you move on. Police shootings of unarmed people—of children and old people and disabled people—can’t just be shrugged off as accidents, however.
Tamir Rice was no accident. Cleveland police shot and killed the 12-year-old, who was seen playing on a playground with a pellet gun. Surveillance footage shows police shooting the boy two seconds after getting out of a moving patrol car. Incredibly, the shooting was deemed “reasonable” and “justified” by two law enforcement experts who concluded that the police use of force “did not violate Tamir's constitutional rights.”
Aiyana Jones was also no accident. The 7-year-old was killed after a Detroit SWAT team launched a flash-bang grenade into her family’s apartment, broke through the door and opened fire, hitting the little girl who was asleep on the living room couch. The cops weren’t even in the right apartment. Ironically, on the same day that President Obama refused to stop equipping police with the very same kinds of military weapons and gear used to raid Aiyana’s home, it was reported that the police officer who shot and killed the little girl would not face involuntary manslaughter charges.
Obama insists that $263 million to purchase body cameras for police will prevent any further erosions of trust, but a body camera would not have prevented Aiyana from being shot in the head. Indeed, the entire sorry affair was captured on camera: a TV crew was filming the raid for an episode of The First 48, a true-crime reality show in which homicide detectives have 48 hours to crack a case.
While that $263 million will make Taser International, the manufacturer of the body cameras, a whole lot richer, it’s doubtful it would have prevented a SWAT team from shooting 14-month-old Sincere in the shoulder and hand and killing his mother.
No body camera could have stopped a Georgia SWAT team from launching a flash-bang grenade into the house in which Baby Bou Bou, his three sisters and his parents were staying. The grenade landed in the 2-year-old’s crib, burning a hole in his chest and leaving him with scarring that a lifetime of surgeries will not be able to easily undo.
No body camera could have prevented 10-year-old Dakota Corbitt from being shot by a Georgia police officer who tried to shoot an inquisitive dog, missed, and hit the young boy, instead.
When police shot 4-year-old Ava Ellis in the leg, shattering the bone, it actually was an accident, but it was an accident that could have been prevented. Police reported to Ava’s house after being told that Ava’s mother, who had cut her arm, was in need of a paramedic. Cops claimed that the family pet charged the officer who was approaching the house, causing him to fire his gun and hit the little girl.
Alberto Sepulveda, 11, died from one “accidental” shotgun round to the back, after a SWAT team raided his parents’ home. Thirteen-year-old Andy Lopez Cruz was shot 7 times in 10 seconds by a California police officer who mistook the boy’s toy gun for an assault rifle. Christopher Roupe, 17, was shot and killed after opening the door to a police officer. The officer, mistaking the Wii remote control in Roupe’s hand for a gun, shot him in the chest.
These children are more than grim statistics on a police blotter. They are the heartbreaking casualties of the government’s endless, deadly wars on terror, on drugs, and on the American people themselves.
Not even the children who survive their encounters with police escape unscathed. Increasingly, their lives are daily lessons in compliance and terror, meted out with every SWAT team raid, roadside strip search, and school drill.
Who is calculating the damage being done to the young people forced to watch as their homes are trashed and their dogs are shot during SWAT team raids? A Minnesota SWAT team actually burst into one family’s house, shot the family’s dog, handcuffed the children and forced them to “sit next to the carcass of their dead and bloody pet for more than an hour.” They later claimed it was the wrong house.
More than 80% of American communities have their own SWAT teams, with more than 80,000 of these paramilitary raids are carried out every year. That translates to more than 200 SWAT team raids every day in which police crash through doors, damage private property, terrorize adults and children alike, kill family pets, assault or shoot anyone that is perceived as threatening—and all in the pursuit of someone merely suspected of a crime, usually some small amount of drugs.
What are we to tell our nation’s children about the role of police in their lives? Do you parrot the government line that police officers are community helpers who are to be trusted and obeyed at all times? Do you caution them to steer clear of a police officer, warning them that any interactions could have disastrous consequences? Or is there some happy medium between the two that, while being neither fairy tale nor horror story, can serve as a cautionary tale for young people who will encounter police at virtually every turn?
No matter what you say, there can be no avoiding the hands-on lessons being taught in the schools about the role of police in our lives, ranging from active shooter drills and school-wide lockdowns to incidents in which children engaging in typically childlike behavior are suspended (for shooting an imaginary “arrow” at a fellow classmate), handcuffed (for being disruptive at school), arrested (for throwing water balloons as part of a school prank), and even tasered (for not obeying instructions).
For example, a middle school in Washington State went on lockdown after a student brought a toy gun to class. A Boston high school went into lockdown for four hours after a bullet was discovered in a classroom. A North Carolina elementary school locked down and called in police after a fifth grader reported seeing an unfamiliar man in the school (it turned out to be a parent).
Better safe than sorry is the rationale offered to those who worry that these drills are terrorizing and traumatizing young children. As journalist Dahlia Lithwick points out: “I don’t recall any serious national public dialogue about lockdown protocols or how they became the norm. It seems simply to have begun, modeling itself on the lockdowns that occur during prison riots, and then spread until school lockdowns and lockdown drills are as common for our children as fire drills, and as routine as duck-and-cover drills were in the 1950s.”
These drills have, indeed, become routine.
As the New York Times reports: “Most states have passed laws requiring schools to devise safety plans, and several states, including Michigan, Kentucky and North Dakota, specifically require lockdown drills. Some drills are as simple as a principal making an announcement and students sitting quietly in a darkened classroom. At other schools, police officers and school officials playact a shooting, stalking through the halls like gunmen and testing whether doors have been locked.”
Police officers at a Florida middle school carried out an active shooter drill in an effort to educate students about how to respond in the event of an actual shooting crisis. Two armed officers, guns loaded and drawn, burst into classrooms, terrorizing the students and placing the school into lockdown mode.
What is particularly chilling is how effective these lessons in compliance are in indoctrinating young people to accept their role in the police state, either as criminals or prison guards. If these exercises are intended to instill fear and compliance into young people, they’re working.
Sociologist Alice Goffman understands how far-reaching the impact of such “exercises” can be on young people. For six years, Goffman lived in a low-income urban neighborhood, documenting the impact such an environment—a microcosm of the police state—on its residents. Her account of neighborhood children playing cops and robbers speaks volumes about how constant exposure to pat downs, strip searches, surveillance and arrests can result in a populace that meekly allows itself to be prodded, poked and stripped.
As journalist Malcolm Gladwell writing for the New Yorker reports:
Goffman sometimes saw young children playing the age-old game of cops and robbers in the street, only the child acting the part of the robber wouldn’t even bother to run away: I saw children give up running and simply stick their hands behind their back, as if in handcuffs; push their body up against a car without being asked; or lie flat on the ground and put their hands over their head. The children yelled, “I’m going to lock you up! I’m going to lock you up, and you ain’t never coming home!” I once saw a six-year-old pull another child’s pants down to do a “cavity search.”
Clearly, our children are getting the message, but it’s not the message that was intended by those who fomented a revolution and wrote our founding documents. Their philosophy was that the police work for us, and “we the people” are the masters, and they are to be our servants. Now that has been turned on its head, fueled by our fears (some legitimate, some hyped along by the government and its media mouthpieces) about the terrors and terrorists that lurk among us.
It’s getting harder by the day to tell young people that we live in a nation that values freedom and which is governed by the rule of law without feeling like a teller of tall tales. Yet as I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, unless something changes and soon for the young people growing up, there will be nothing left of freedom as we have known it but a fairy tale without a happy ending.