Parents at St. Louis protests to police: ‘That could have been my son’

What is it like to raise a child in Ferguson, Missouri, where police shot and killed an unarmed black teen?

Protesters kneel outside a St. Louis County government building in Clayton, Mo., their arms raised to show they aren’t armed, a rebuke to reports that 18-year-old Mike Brown was shot and killed by police while unarmed.
Ryan Shuessler

FERGUSON, Mo. –  At the protests that have become a daily ritual after an 18-year-old unarmed African-American youth was shot and killed by police on Saturday, a growing population has emerged: parents of children in the community who want to show their support.

They also want the world outside St. Louis to know this:

Mike Brown could have been their son.

“I couldn’t even imagine,” said Miyasa Jackson, who turned out to protest on Tuesday morning in Clayton, Mo., where the St. Louis County Police Department is headquartered. “My son is 14.”

For many black parents raising children in the patchwork of municipalities in the St. Louis area, teaching their children how to deal with the police when approached is as much a part of raising them as teaching them how to parallel park a car.

“When I taught my son how to drive, I told him, ‘Do not have a car full of Negroes,’ ” said Geralda Ray, whose son just graduated from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Don’t have more than one friend.’ ”

Ray, who was holding a sign outside the apartment complex where Brown was killed, said even the smallest groups of black youth draw police suspicion in this part of the county, and it’s that deep distrust that has culminated in the unrest seen this week.

Policing tactics questioned

“What I think people who live in the area are responding to is the social climate that has been created through police officers or policing tactics that seem to target African-Americans who either live in the area or pass through the area,” said M.K. Stallings, assistant director of community education and events at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis. “And the data bears it out. It’s real.”

According to the Missouri Attorney General’s office, in 2013 nearly 90 percent of vehicles pulled over by Ferguson police were driven by African-Americans. The arrest rate was of those drivers was more than 10%, nearly double that of white drivers who were pulled over.

Those rates have been steadily increasing since the first study was done in 2000.

“It is vital that Missouri law enforcement agencies review the rates of stops and searches and continue their community-outreach efforts,” Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said in a 2013 statement that accompanied the report.

Ferguson’s population of slightly more than 20,000 is approximately two-thirds black. There are only three minority police officers in the municipality’s police department of 53, according to Police Chief Thomas Jackson.  

“The police departments do not represent the racial makeup of the people who live in these districts,” Ray said.

The NBC affiliate in St. Louis, KSDK, quoted Ferguson’s mayor attributing the lack of diversity in the city’s police department to a low number of black applicants and recruits. Jackson echoed this, saying the city has had trouble recruiting and retaining black officers.

‘A powder keg’

One mother outside the apartment complex where Brown was killed, who requested her name be withheld, became emotional when she talked about what it was like to raise kids in the area.

“My son comes to me and says, 'Mama, we can’t even walk down the street [without being stopped by the police,]’ ” she said. “Ferguson is the worse place to raise a child, and it ain’t getting better.”

Candles and a cross mark the spot where 18-year-old Mike Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer over the weekend.
Ryan Shuessler

“The way the police is out here, it’s crooked,” she added. “They don’t want black kids to walk out here at all. But you’ve got to let your child breathe and go outside.”

As she spoke, a St. Louis County police helicopter circled overhead.

“I cried when I seen that boy lying there,” she said of when she saw Brown’s body on Saturday, which was not moved for hours. “What if that had been my child?”

“You don’t have a situation like Mike Brown unless you have a social climate where African-Americans came be stopped, harassed, controlled,” Stallings said. “The individuals who are able to wield their power can do so without reprisal and without accountability.”

Al Kidd, a father in North County who was also at the protest in Clayton, described the past days’ events as a “powder keg” based on the way area police treat black youth.

‘You gotta kiss your sons’

Kidd, who said he was pulled over by Ferguson police just days ago, said he always advises his son to follow police orders if he is stopped, to keep a level head. His son was slapped with a misdemeanor charge earlier this year, Kidd said, after police had provoked him during a traffic stop. 

“They try to get anger in them,” Kidd said of the police. “That’s the system.”

Geralda Ray, who has lived in north St. Louis County her entire life, holds a sign near the spot Mike Brown was killed.
Ryan Shuessler

His son, who never had a criminal record before, is now having trouble finding work.

It is this atmosphere that has angered many of Ferguson’s black residents to action this week. For them, the death of Mike Brown is just the latest casualty after years of systematic targeting on the part of law enforcement, not only in their community, but throughout the area.

“If [the police] want us to take responsibility,” Miyasa Jackson said, “then they have to take responsibility. Lead by example.”

Kimmie, a mother of three teenagers who asked to have her last name withheld, came to Clayton to show her solidarity with those in North County. The attitude of Ferguson’s police, she said, is common in municipalities and jurisdictions throughout the St. Louis area’s predominantly black communities, such as hers in north St. Louis.

“We are telling our children from birth, do exactly what the police tell you to do,” she said. “But at the same time, there is a lot of distrust.”

Despite that distrust, there are few options for black youth approached or targeted by police, protesters say. If they are confronted, anything but absolute cooperation could raise red flags.

“I tell them to keep their mouth shut,” said Sharon Golliday, a teacher who has taught at various schools in North County. “Don’t say nothing. If they tell you to get down, get down. If they tell you to put your hands up, put your hands up.”

This week, protesters have been walking and standing with their hands up, shouting “don’t shoot!” Witnesses to Brown’s death have said he was shot while holding his hands in the air, unarmed.

“The only thing a mother can tell her son is to be careful, keep God ahead of your life,” Jackson said. “You gotta kiss your sons every time they leave the house. They might not come back.”

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