My son is big for his age. At only 16, he’s already 6 feet 4 inches and 225 pounds. As he grew, I began to have a lot of anxiety because I knew he could get mistaken as an adult. And being an adult black male in St. Louis — like anywhere in America — can be uniquely dangerous, especially when the police are involved.
So recently my son and I began having The Conversation: What to do if he gets stopped by a police officer.
No matter what’s going on, I tell him, stay quiet. Keep your eyes down. Lower your shoulders. Let the air out of your chest. Get the bass out of your voice. Sound as much like a child as possible. And above all, do not make any sudden moves.
Whatever they ask you to do, I tell him, you do.
They are going to jiggle your balls searching for drugs. Your face is going to get dirty, and so are your new clothes, because they’re going to have you on your stomach. Be ready for these things.
At first, my son didn’t quite get it. One day, as we role-played an encounter with the police, he asked, “Mom, well what if it’s cold, don’t I have a right to just reach back and grab my jacket? What if I drop my phone, can I just pick it back up? What if my nose is running, am I supposed to stand there with snot running down my chin?”
“Let it run down to your ankles if you have to,” I said.
He thought he had the right to voice an opinion, to tell an officer he was wrong. The only right you have, I told him, is to make it home alive. Me explaining in court that my son was right in his actions, but dead as a doorknob, is not going to help me.
I know all too well the importance of being subservient to law enforcement. Over the years, I’ve been pulled over by the police for lots of stupid things. Once the officer said it was because my license plate was dirty. My son, who was in the car with me at the time, was so confused. “It’s not dirty,” he told me. “You should say something.” And I kept shaking my head no. I had to teach him it didn’t matter who was right or wrong, only that we made it out of that situation alive.
Still, traffic stops have resulted in me getting jailed many times in St. Louis County, Mo., often over unpaid fines for minor driving-related infractions. It’s a common problem for folks in my area who are financially strapped, especially people of color. Public transportation is very limited, so you need a car. When you’re making nine dollars an hour, and the rent is due at the same time as the car insurance, the car insurance waits for the next check. Not because you’re trying to cheat the system, but because you’re trying to provide for your family. But before you get that next check, you get pulled over for no reason and caught. What happens then? You go on the run. Or you just don’t drive in certain areas. Or you accumulate the warrants and you wait.
When my son was small, having him in the car didn’t keep me from getting pulled over, but it did keep me from going to jail; officers would let me go rather than take me in along with a young child. But he wasn’t always there. I remember the first time I had to call to tell my son I wasn’t coming home because I was in jail over traffic tickets. He was about 10 years old, and he just cried and cried.
As my son got bigger, I would sometimes either have him slouch down in the back seat or else we just wouldn’t go through certain municipalities because it looked like two black adults in the car, rather than a mother and her young son.
I know that my son has been affected by my experiences with police. But it was when Michael Brown was shot by an officer in nearby Ferguson, when my son was 12 years old, that he lost some of his innocence. At his school, it was all about the Pledge of Allegiance, that we’re all American citizens, and kumbaya with the world. But he saw that the reality of living in St. Louis as a black man didn’t match those ideals. One time he said, “I don’t think the U.S. Constitution applies in Missouri.” He thought that because of what he was witnessing in his own community.
My son turned 16 in August, and I still have not let him drive. I’m too worried he’ll get pulled over by police. At first, I told him, “Wait until next summer.” Or, “I’ll teach you when you make all As.” But right now he has a 3.7 GPA. Sometimes when he asks me to teach him, I just ask, “So I can get you out of jail?”
I think he’s starting to get it. If my mom can get locked up for traffic stuff, I don’t stand a chance. He hasn’t said a word about getting his license or driving a car in awhile now.
My challenge is: How do I give my son the hope that he can be a productive member of society, but at the same time, let him see society in its ugly, bare-naked truth? My choice has been, I’d prefer to let him know how to really navigate life as it is rather than say: You can be president!
You can be anything you want to be when you grow up! Except, that is, for being black while driving through certain parts of St. Louis.
Meredith Walker, 47, is a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed by ArchCity Defenders in 2016 that alleges residents of the city of Florissant, particularly African-Americans, have been jailed improperly and unconstitutionally solely because they could not afford court fines and fees arising from tickets and other minor offenses.