Dear Mayor de Blasio,
Thank you for your words supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. It is refreshing to hear, especially after Police Commissioner Bratton’s recent criticism of BLM. His statements prove that somehow, two whole years after Eric Garner’s murder by the literal hands of police officers, white privilege and the dehumanizing of people of color are alive and real.
In the spring of 2016, while walking to the bus stop from the school at which I work as a high school teacher, I saw a pair of police officers interrogating a young man of color. I stopped to observe, and was told by one of the officers to “stand back.” I calmly stated, “I’m not obstructing you, sir.” He then turned to his partner and said, “let’s go.” They got in their car and drove away, hardly saying a word to the man they had stopped. If they had a legitimate reason for stopping this man, why did they flee simply because a white woman– who knew her rights– chose to take a closer look at their activities?
In December of 2014, I supervised a small group of students on a field trip to visit elderly people in an assisted living home. While walking from the train, one of my students muttered “I can’t breathe…” which prompted me to turn around and notice a pair of NYPD officers following us. As soon as the officers saw my (white) face, they turned around and ceased following us.
As a public school teacher in the South Bronx, I fear for my students’ lives each time I hear yet another story about a person of color murdered by the police. My students, all people of color, have built up defense mechanisms after years of experiencing and bearing witness to these kinds of encounters. They’ve suffered trauma, abandonment, heartbreak, and fear. Many are constantly in a state of high stress and anxiety. If a police officer spoke in a threatening manner, I have no doubt many of them would crack and say something provocative, both because of their emotional struggles as well as how they have come to see the NYPD—not as supportive but as invasive. Where is the empathy training in the NYPD for NYC residents like my students? Do NYPD officers have a working understanding of Emotional Disturbance and Oppositional Defiance Disorder, two of the most common classifications of young boys and men of color in our city? Do they understand how these conditions could affect how people behave under duress?
Mayor de Blasio, I know police brutality is an issue that matters to you because you yourself have cautioned your son to be careful when encountering the police. I appreciate your empathy, but where is the long-overdue systemic change? You know a 3-day training isn’t enough to bring about this much-needed reform. It’s not enough to train officers to stop using the chokehold; we need to eradicate the verbal abuse and physical intimidation as well. To do this, there must be a focus on issues of race, class, power, and privilege at the center of any attempt to reform and improve the NYPD. As long as officers continue to assert their authority by following young people of color and raising their voices, students like mine will never trust their police officers. Without trust, the unnecessary arrests and deadly interactions will continue.
I often hear police apologists bemoan the difficult nature of a police officer’s job I can relate: it’s hard to be a good teacher. I cannot fail at my job because my students’ education, and consequently their futures, is at stake. Police officers cannot fail at their jobs because peoples’ lives are at stake. Upon looking at rates of college acceptance, high school graduation and high school dropouts, reading levels, special education classification, mass incarceration, deaths at the hands of police officers, it’s clear that both our school system and our criminal justice system are failing young people of color. The school system is responding in a variety of ways, such as raising teacher certification standards. Furthermore, programs like Teach For America and the New York City Teaching Fellows, as well as your own Men Teach initiative, are integrating diversity training and cultural responsiveness into their preparation models. In these programs, future teachers reflect on their biases and learn to understand the culture of the students in their classrooms. This kind of reflection helps them build trust. It’s easy for students to see the teacher as an outsider, and it takes training and self-reflection to change this. What is the NYPD doing to raise the standards of policing? What is the NYPD doing to support officers in reflecting on their biases? Such difficult professions must have high expectations and rigorous training.
Mayor de Blasio, I beg of you, for the sake of my students, look beyond chokeholds and video cameras. Demand that NYPD officers show competence in de-escalating situations with young people whose emotions are quickly elevated. Demand an end to not only overt physical violence, but verbal violence as well. Demand that race, class, power, and privilege be at the center of NYPD training. Show me that the city I love is capable of honoring not just the lives but also the identities of my students and all people of color.