What Do We Tell Our Kids About the Safety of Police When Stories Like Adam Toledo Happen?

As a mom of four Black children, it's hard to keep having the same conversations with my kids every time one more person of color is killed by law enforcement. But these honest conversations are necessary to try and keep our children safe.

An image of the light bar on a police car.
Photo: Getty Images.

"When will they stop killing us, Mom?" my 14-year-old daughter asked me to the backdrop of the newly released body cam footage of police killing 13-year-old Adam Toledo, another person of color, another teenager, this time the same age as my youngest son. Never mind we'd just learned the latest news in the murder investigation of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old father who was fatally shot in Minneapolis—all while the George Floyd murder trial is taking place. All these killings at the hands of police officers sworn to protect and serve.

How do you answer such a question from someone who understands right and wrong so definitively?

As a mom of four Black children—three of them being young men—I have had to try to answer this question far too many times. Lately I'm coming up short with anything other than how my daughter ended up describing these obvious wrongs that day: just stupid. Sure, there are other words we could use to give a definition of what is happening to our young, and not so young, children of color like racist, unjust, tragic, corrupt, and despairing. But regardless of how we describe it or how many times we try to bring attention to systemic racism, racial injustice, and Jim Crow, the problem is that in 2021 we can't seem to stop it. Nor can we shield our children from it.

When I was 20, not knowing I would be a mother by December of that same year, I, along with the world, watched the relentless 1991 beating of Rodney King, an unarmed Black motorist pulled over by the Los Angeles Police Department and viciously attacked for one minute and 19 seconds. At that time, cell phones were not recording our every move, but thankfully, someone witnessed the attack, recorded it on a video camera from his house, and sent it to the local news. It went what we now consider viral, and the brutality was shown repeatedly on TV and in newspapers. It was horrifying to see, but when it became too much for me, I was able to turn it off, not look, and in some ways try not to listen.

Thirty years later our children witness these kinds of attacks on a constant 24-hour loop even if they don't watch the news on television. Their news travels to them by way of their cell phones, tablets, and laptops or by their friends' or parents' devices. These horrific events are always only an earshot or screen away. So, our children can't escape this unjust reality even if they wanted to. It's a reality I never could have imagined that three decades later, I would be forced to keep explaining, and keep trying to make sense of public executions at the hands of law enforcement.

I'm running out of what I call "just get home" tactics to teach my young non-driving children, and I can only reiterate, remind, and pray for my older ones to continue to do what I'm sure every Black parent has instilled in their kids. First, call me or someone if you are getting pulled over and record the encounter. If you fear for your safety, drive to a lit, public area and call 911 to notify them you are scared for your life and to have an ear witness. Once you are pulled over, keep your hands visibly on the steering wheel or dashboard, speak in "Yes, Ma'am" and "No, Sir" language, don't be confrontational, don't argue, articulate clearly when you must reach for your license, registration, or anything, and again, keep your phone recording or someone on the line listening.

In the case of Alex Toledo, the country appears to be split, as it is on so many other life-changing matters. Questions have been raised on whether this young man had a gun that he tossed seconds prior to being shot as if that fact potentially justifies the police officer using deadly force. However, I am 100 percent clear on one thing, I am exhausted of attempting to explain another murder of one of our own at the hands of a police officer. We deserve better.

I recently had this conversation with a white coworker, a mother of two teenagers she describes as privileged, and she expressed her concern about what is going on in our country. She asked, "What can I do?" My answer was to keep doing just what she's doing: Don't be afraid to talk about it and ask questions of your friends of color. Admitting your privilege is likely the first step and then decide how you will use it to be an advocate for others. She committed to keep talking to her children to make them more aware and empathetic to their friends of color.

We all must keep talking to all our children, and listening to them, but more than anything we must be honest. Our children of color are living this reality every day and the only chance they have at survival is to be armed with the truth and have advocates that will stand up, call out racism, and fight for and with them. Every child deserves a future but recognizing some of us must fight for ours might be the first step in claiming it.

Sharisse Tracey is a mother of four, an educator, and writer in upstate New York. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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