My son turns 14 today. I'm sure he's wishing for all sorts of stuff: an Xbox, Beats headphones, maybe even good grades.
However, my wish for my son on his 14th birthday is much more fundamental. I wish for him to be able to walk to the grocery store without being harassed or gunned down. I wish for him to live.
I know my fear may seem dramatic, but the facts are clear.
Today, young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than young white men. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that blacks are more likely than whites or Hispanics to experience use or threat of force from police. In a seven-year study from the FBI, one out of four police shootings where white-on-black, and black men were much more likely to be killed by officers than white men.
All parents worry about their children -- where they're going, who they spend their time with, what their futures will hold. But for parents like myself who have black children -- especially boys -- there are added fears. Will my black son get hurt, arrested, or even killed, not because of his own actions or indiscretions, but because of the shameful realities of police aggression and brutality in America?
The recent killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City are two of the most recent occurrences of excessive force by police in this country. In both cases grand juries chose not indict police officers responsible for the deaths of unarmed black men.
The problem of police brutality is nothing new. Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1970s, a battleground for the Civil Rights movement, I witnessed on more than one occasion aggressive police behavior towards young black men -- my neighbors, my relatives, my classmates. They would be randomly stopped or slammed to the ground, sometimes guns were pointed at the heads of teenagers. Many cops acted as though they could do whatever they wanted, with impunity. Every family had to teach their sons how to respond if and when they were approached by the police, because their lives were, quite literally, at stake.
Police brutality today may not be as rampant as it once was in the Deep South, but it remains just as insidious. Long-held and deeply rooted prejudices in society will also present in the people who represent the justice system. What makes the problem lethal is that those people have guns.
We have to be able to hold men and women in uniform to higher standards. We know that training and education can be effective, but if a community does not put pressure on the local department to require it, and repeat it often, it will not be put in place. We know police have strict use-of-force standards, but if department leadership and the court system do not view it necessary to enforce these guidelines, they will be ignored. We know that community pressure can be a major motivator for change, but if those who believe they are unaffected by this injustice stay silent, the aggression will continue.
As my son grows into a young black man, he will do things and go places alone or with friends, and I will not always be there to protect him. I worry that in a fraction of a second he could be struck down by a police officer who has no idea he is a straight-A student, captain of his track team, a star soccer player with bright future. I worry for his well-being and safety and that of millions of other boys with bright futures.
The protesters in Ferguson and around the country have brought this critical issue front and center in public discourse. Many policy makers and activists are working to find ways to hold police accountable for their behavior. Now, we all must take action.
It's time for people to stand up and act, because as difficult as the problems may be to tackle, it can be overcome. Candace Simpson, a ForHarriet.com contributor, beautifully challenges every one of us to find a personal way to contribute to the movement, because "there's enough work to be done for everyone to be busy."
As a nation that stands for freedom and justice, no one may be afforded the luxury of ignorance. Together we must all take a stand for social justice to ensure that those who enforce the law are held to the highest standards, without exception.
Though I fear for my child every time he walks out of the house, I remain optimistic that the realities my son faces needn't be the one his future children face.
What will you do to change the future?