It was a fall morning in 2017. My toddler son and I were on the way to the private children’s park in our suburban Manhattan neighborhood. He rode in his little red wagon his grandparents had bought for him as I pulled him along. I had one hand on the handle and my cell phone in the other as I glanced at Chiefs highlights on YouTube.
I looked up and noticed a white mother, mid-30s, and two children at the park. One child was younger, still seated in the stroller. The other, a toddler like my son, was playing near the playground equipment. I saw the mother glance up from playing with the older child to catch a glimpse at the combination of a black father and a black son walking toward her.
My anxiety started to rattle. It began in my stomach, then slowly flowed to my extremities, feet first, then hands, then chest, then mouth. Physiology is strange like that. I appeared to be roughly 100 pounds bigger than her, but I was the one trembling. As we got closer, I saw the mother gaze at us one more time, before picking up her toddler and moving away from the playground area as we neared. The anxiety in my mouth now felt as heavy as concrete in my throat.
I look down at my son and it started to hit me. As he played with his Spiderman action figure, he had no idea how his father felt — how much I wanted to protect him. In his mind, his dad is a good person. His dad wears a gun and a badge and protects people every day at work in my “folice car” as he described it. What he did not realize is that people view his dad differently out of uniform.
I finally swallowed and fought tears from my eyes, although the tears were not for me. I am used to this. I have been in shared spaces with white folks my entire adult life and experienced microaggressions, if not flat out overt racism. The tears were for my son. As a father to a black son, I know the day will come when my son goes from cute to being seen as a threat. The idea eats away at me slowly. I will have to have the talk with him that so many black parents dread. It is the conversation that includes words such as hoodie, comply, Miranda. I think to myself, what would it feel like not to feel like I do? Is that privilege?
It is 5 a.m. on a Wednesday in April 2020. It is pitch black outside, so I am wearing my Petzl headlamp. I have on my AfterShokz headphones and am not carrying a cell phone. I look down to set my Garmin Forerunner 245 Music watch to run mode and notice there are safety options for emergencies built in for the runner. If I get lost or hurt, my watch will call my wife’s phone or 911.
I have always overlooked these options unless I am trail running, but those watch options have never been so prudent as they are since I watched the murder of Ahmaud Aubery. The scene of white men in a pickup truck with rifles hunting down a black man looked like something out of Rosewood, Florida, in 1923.
My daily route in my calm, middle-class, suburban neighborhood is around 2 miles. It has never not been on my mind that someone could call me in for looking suspicious, and I could be stopped by law enforcement or an ambitious citizen/George Zimmerman character “protecting the neighborhood” where I own property.
I have mentally prepared for this encounter, like rehearsing a script from an Ava DuVernay screenplay. I talk myself through the motions. Show your hands, Tyrone (but it is too dark). Stay still, Tyrone (but I am shaking from jogging). Prove your identity, Tyrone (but my wallet is at home). My point is that it should not be a death sentence to be black, to “look” like someone. Our lives are more valuable than that, or they should be. I often wonder what it would feel like not to have this feeling, to not fear being killed for jogging. Is that privilege?
I have always been good at seeing the gray. In the mental health world, the inability to do so is known as splitting. There are so many good people who wear the police uniform. I am proud to be a police officer. I am proud to protect and serve the citizens of my community. But there can be no more gray, no more in between. There is right and there is wrong. Even on a macro level, it is that simple.
Billie Holiday wrote, “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” The strange fruit remains to be black bodies, the poplar tree, now replaced by the sidewalks and concrete pavement of city streets in America. When a black man is killed on film, unedited, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, we in the black community feel it. We mourn.
I know that unprocessed depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome eventually turn into confusion, anger and outrage. We see the protest. We see the riots. We see destruction. Is that all we see, though? Do we see frustration? Do we see hurt? Do we see pain? Staying silent is not the answer any longer. It is time to do the right thing.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin
Tyrone Townsend is a patrol officer for the Riley County Police Department. He is also a graduate student in the clinical mental health counseling program at Northwestern University.