One Young Man's Terror

A white mother looks at the NYPD through the eyes of her black godson

30 Jan 2020 | 01:23

One of the first things I told our son when he began school was that if he ever got lost or was having a problem, he should ask a woman or a policeman for help. I thought I had done a good job with that advice and had repeated it to him many times through the years. But I'm white and our son, Graig, is white. I admit to handing out that advice with ease and I feel somewhat guilty at how comfortable I felt with those words because there are, no doubt, cities full of mothers whose hearts are in their throats each time they open the door and wave goodbye to their sons.

We've all read about the increasing numbers of innocent black boys and men killed by police. We see the resulting grief and can only begin to imagine, if we dare allow our minds to take us there, the fear in these men and the agonizing pain for their loved-ones left behind. Think of the senseless killing of the young groom-to-be, Sean Bell, who was just about to start his life as an adult, who died on what was to be his wedding day, in a barrage of 50 bullets, fired by five New York City policemen, in 2006. An innocent, unarmed black man who never made it to the altar.

Or think of Eric Garner, a family man and fixture in his Staten Island neighborhood, who died in July 2014 after being put in a chokehold (while he was cooperating, with his hands in the air) by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for doing nothing more than selling single cigarettes in the street.

A Distinction I Never Made

While most police officers carry out their duties responsibly, it’s sad to say that there are far too many similar cases to recount, which brings to mind an unsettling incident I witnessed some years ago. Our two godsons were spending the weekend with us. At the time, the oldest, who I will call Nick, was about 17. We're talking about a tall, muscular, handsome young man. A black man. I never really made that distinction until that night, but it's a distinction that now has to be made.

It was late in the evening. The boys were playing video games with our then young - adult son, Graig, watching TV, talking, and laughing up a storm. It was a pleasure just listening to them. I was cleaning up and collecting the garbage from dinner which I brought out into the back hallway of our apartment. As I walked towards the back elevator, I noticed our neighbor's door was slightly ajar. I rang the doorbell to alert him, but no one answered. I pushed the door open a bit more and saw that no lights were on. I tried calling out and knocking, but no one responded. Since my husband had already gone to sleep, I took a wait-and-see approach. Three hours later the door remained ajar and I began to think robbery, maybe worse.

I called 911. I was advised not to go into our neighbor's apartment, that maybe someone had broken-in and was still inside. I told the boys about the open door and that the police were on their way to check it out. That's when my older godson lost it completely.

Looking for a Place to Hide

I don't think I've ever seen anyone have a panic-attack like the one he had. He was pacing, walking in circles, holding his head and asking me over and over why I had called the police. But he wasn't listening for an answer – not from me, not from his younger brother and not from our son. Frankly, we were all shocked.

He continued to pace, walking about the apartment, asking where he could "hide." We tried to explain that he hadn't committed any crime, that the police were coming to inspect the apartment next door, that they had no interest in him, that he was our invited guest, and that I had called the police – they weren't just coming for an unsolicited random check. But logic offered him no relief. He begged me not to let the police in. He was inconsolable. I assured him I would not let the police enter our apartment, that I would meet with them in the hallway, by the elevator. Nevertheless, he locked himself in the bathroom.

It turned out the neighbor had fallen asleep and hadn't realized he had left the door open. The policemen were a bunch of friendly, protective, young guys, not much older than our godson, who I think would have been relieved had he met them. But the bathroom had been his sanctuary and there he remained until the officers were gone.

The police left – but the memory never did. I saw first-hand the abject terror of a fine, young black man when confronted with the possibility of encountering policemen up close and personal. Even his mother was shocked when I called her the next day and recounted the story.

So, my godson: When you were very small, you asked me whether bogeymen are real. I told you, “No.” In light of the recent, tragic, unwarranted and unjustified occurrences, I must now revise my answer. I was wrong. There are bogeymen and it seems sometimes they come disguised in blue uniforms with badges. And that perhaps is the saddest commentary of all.

I saw first-hand the abject terror of a fine, young black man when confronted with the possibility of encountering policemen up close and personal.