Black Mothers, Black Children, and Law Enforcement


August 13, 2020 by Jean

imageFor more than a week, I’ve been thinking (obsessing?) about two incidents in the news involving black mothers, black children, and violent encounters with law enforcement. One incident happened on a weekday in Washington, D.C.; the other happened on a weekend in Aurora, Colorado. One incident involved two mothers with their babies; the other involved a mother with a group of school-aged and teenage girls. The two incidents also involved different law enforcement agencies. What they have in common is that, in both cases, a happy outing with children turned in an instant into a nightmare that defied logical understanding. Both incidents were Kafkaesque in their horror.

The first incident took place on a blazing hot July day in Washington, D.C. Two black mothers, longtime friends with babies just a few months apart in age, decided to beat the heat by taking their babies to splash in the fountain at the World War II memorial on the National Mall. They had done this once before, and it had been fun. They drove over to the National Mall, where they found a parking space. Once the car was parked, they started to gather what they would need for their time at the fountain. If you’ve ever taken a baby on an outing, you can imagine the scene: Mother Goose songs played on the car’s sound system; they may have joked about how much equipment babies seem to require as they got themselves organized. As one of them later put it, “We were in full mommy mode.”

Into this moment of happy chaos came the sound/feel of a crunch. They looked up to discover that another vehicle had rolled head-first into the front bumper of their car. Then the doors of that other vehicle opened and law enforcement officers jumped out pointing rifles at them and shouting. The mothers were taken out of the car at gunpoint and away from their now-crying babies. They were being detained by Secret Service agents because their car matched the description of one driven by two male suspects wanted in a felony. But even after one of the mothers provided proof that she was the sole owner of the car, and even though, as one of them sardonically put it, “It should have been obvious pretty quickly that we were not the two male suspects in the warrant,” the women estimate that they were kept separated from the babies whose cries were growing increasingly frantic for at least forty-five minutes. At one point, the mother of the six-month-old asked if she could breastfeed her baby, and her request was denied. When the mothers expressed concern about the welfare of their babies still in the parked car, the Secret Service agents neither removed the babies from the car nor allowed the mothers to do so; instead, the agents called for an ambulance to come and check on the babies. How many minutes does it take for an ambulance to get to the National Mall in Washington traffic? How many minutes does it take for a baby left in a hot car on a 90+ degree day to die or suffer brain damage?

I was deeply disturbed by this incident when I read about it in the Washington Post, especially by the seeming disregard of the Secret Service agents for the lives of those black babies. But my concern was allayed somewhat by the fact that the babies seemed to be okay and that the mothers had the resources to get themselves a lawyer and file a formal complaint.

It’s the second incident, reported a day later in the Washington Post, that has haunted me. It began with a fun outing, Brittney Gilliam of Aurora, Colorado taking her twelve-year-old daughter, seventeen-year-old younger sister, and two nieces, aged six and fourteen, to have their nails done – a kind of “all us girls together” bonding experience. When the nail salon she had in mind turned out to be closed on a Sunday morning, they all piled back into the family SUV and were getting organized to try a different salon when the car was suddenly surrounded by shouting Aurora police with guns drawn. The only adult, Ms. Gilliam, was taken out of the car and led away in handcuffs; the girls were ordered out of the car at gunpoint and forced to lie face-down on the hot asphalt of the parking lot.

This incident became public because a determined bystander, Jennifer Wurtz, recorded it on her cell phone and made the video public. As the video begins, the two girls closest to the camera (ages 12 and 17) are lying on the ground handcuffed. The other two girls (ages 6 and 14) are lying with their arms out in front of them, palms down. The soundscape of the video is overwhelming as the terrified girls scream, wail, and sob. One girl screams over and over, “I want my mother.” Another sobbing voice repeatedly asks, “Can I hug my sister next to me?” When I first watched the video, I thought I was hearing the fourteen-year-old asking permission to comfort her little sister; but when I watched it again, it seemed more likely that the heartbreaking question came from the six-year-old. As the police gathered around and conferred with one another, no one responded to that request or even acknowledged having heard it.

When I first viewed the video, my focus was on the trauma to the six-year-old. On second viewing, however, I began to pay more attention to the twelve-year-old. (I have not seen any explanation of why she and her teenage aunt were handcuffed.) At one point, one of the police officers approaches her, stands at her side, and says “I’d like to get you up off the ground.” As he says this, he places his hand on her lower back, and she shrieks, “No!” It seemed to me he was trying to be kindly, and I was puzzled by her adamant refusal. Then, I imagined it from her point of view. She is lying, face-down, with her shoulders pulled back and her hands cuffed behind her back; it’s a very helpless position in which she is powerless to defend or protect herself. In fact, it is the same position that George Floyd was in when he was killed. How many times has she seen that video? The scene must have seemed both eerily familiar and utterly terrifying. Then the police officer walks past her head so that he is behind her; if she can see him at all, it is only in her peripheral vision. She sees/senses him bend toward her and then she feels the weight of his hand on her back. At that moment, I think she may have believed she was about to be subjected to the George Floyd treatment.

When newly appointed Aurora police chief Valerie Wilson held a press conference and issued a public apology for what had happened, she explained that the stop was the result of a computer error: an automatic license-plate reader (at a traffic light?) had flagged the Gilliam vehicle as stolen and alerted police. Chief Wilson also explained that the police officers involved were following standard protocol for a “high-risk stop” and that all stops involving stolen vehicles are treated by default as high-risk. She added, however, that police on the scene have discretion to back off from those high-risk protocols depending on the situation. “You like to think,” she said, “that some officer is going to say, ‘Wait, these are just kids.’ But that didn’t happen.”

Why didn’t it happen? Why did four police officers see a six-year-old as a “high risk” to them? Why did their safety require handcuffing a twelve-year-old? To answer these questions, I think we have to return to something I’ve written about before, implicit bias (see Race, Rhetoric and Those “Racist Bones”). Implicit biases are (mostly negative) stereotypes that we have about people different from us that shape how we perceive and behave toward those people. Often, we are not even aware that we have these biases, which is why analyses of racism that focus only on conscious, intentional discrimination are so inadequate.

It isn’t difficult to compile a list of negative stereotypes about black mothers, but I want to focus here on perceptions of black children. A number of studies have looked at how (mostly white) adults perceive black children. Some of these have been studies of adults in law enforcement, some have been studies of adults in education, and some have been studies of adult volunteers in after-school programs for children. Some of the studies focused on perceptions of black boys, some on perceptions of black girls. The methods used to study the perceptions have included experiments, observation, and survey questions. Despite all these differences, the studies have yielded consistent results (which means we can be confident that they really are tapping into implicit biases). What are those biases? Compared to their white peers, black children are perceived as older and more adult-like, as less innocent, as less in need of protection, and as more likely to be guilty (of whatever). Black boys are not only seen as older than white boys of the same age, but as physically larger. Black girls are seen as more sexually knowledgeable than their white peers.

We see these implicit biases play out in the Aurora video. The police treat these girls not as innocent children in need of protection but as dangerous and probably guilty. There is also evidence in the video that the police have overestimated the ages of the girls. When the police are moving down the line, repositioning the girls from lying prone to sitting up, the officer who approaches the fourteen-year-old says, “Ma’am, I’m going to have you sit up, but first I need to pat you down. I’m not going to separate you from your child.” After he pats her down, he says, “Okay, you can sit up now, and grab your little one.” This is a fourteen-year-old, probably about to enter 9th grade, but he perceives her as old enough to be the mother of her six-year-old sister. It makes me wonder how old the police thought the seventeen-year-old and twelve-year-old (both handcuffed) were. Was the computer error of flagging the car as stolen compounded here by a perceptual error that led the police to think they were dealing with three adult women and a child rather than four minors?

Some people will want to believe that this kind of mistake is rare and that it’s just a weird coincidence that these two incidents happened just three days apart. But even as I’ve been writing this, I’ve seen two more videos of black children being treated as criminals by police. In the most recent of these, police officers who were called when three black boys were threatened with a knife by a stranger on the sidewalk treated the boys as criminals rather than victims of crime and arrested them! It’s probable that the incidents we know about are only the tip of the iceberg, and we are not going to change this until we, as a society, are willing to confront the implicit biases that undergird our racism.

Correction: Since I wrote this piece, I have seen two news stories that identify the relationship of the various girls to Brittney Gilliam differently than I did. According to these sources, the six-year-old is Ms. Gilliam’s daughter, the twelve-year-old is her younger sister, and the fourteen-year-old and seventeen-year-old are her nieces.

12 thoughts on “Black Mothers, Black Children, and Law Enforcement

  1. Nathalie Lebon says:

    Thanks for writing this, Jean! I was really upset by the Aurora « incident » and the lack of attention to it in the press… this fills an important void… Nathalie

    • Jean says:

      Nathalie, I was also very upset by what happened in Aurora, and part of my motivation for writing this was to help process my own reactions and to get a little emotional distance (enough to stop crying every time I thought about those girls). I saw both stories first in the Washington Post, one on Monday and the second on Tuesday. I think the Washington incident was probably featured in their local news section; the Aurora incident was prominently featured in their website, with the headline focusing on the police apology for the mistaken stop. Most importantly, they included a cleaned-up clip from Jennifer Wurtz’s 12-minute long video. I think the Denver stations probably all covered the Aurora situation, and at least one posted Wurtz’s raw video on their website. CBS news picked up the story on Wednesday, probably because the CBS Evening News broadcasts from Washington, and a local staffer probably saw the two stories in the WP and, like me, saw their similarities. CBS Evening News did a good job of linking the two stories, interviewing all three mothers, and placing them in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and Black women’s interactions with law enforcement. They included some national polling data showing that Black women are three times as likely as white women to experience use of force in interactions with the police.

  2. A thought provoking piece, Jean. I did not know the details you brought into focus. Anyone who can’t see that whites and blacks are treated differently by jaw enforcement is lying to themselves.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I agree, but a lot of people are still lying to themselves about this, looking for reasons why the Black citizens brought it on themselves or using the “bad apple” argument. I think one of the powerful things about the Aurora video is that these police officers don’t seem to be bad apples.

  3. Karen Donaldson says:

    Thank you for writing this and articulating your observations and reactions so well. As usual, I appreciate your perspective. Please let me know if I may share this on my FB page as I feel it can serve a purpose with wider viewing. Our small, rural community is dealing with these issues of racism and the need for revamping law enforcement right now (as we are as a nation) and this could add much to the discussion. Thanks again, Jean.

    • Jean says:

      Karen, You should always feel free to share any of my posts. You’ll see buttons at the bottom of the post for sharing on FB or Twitter. I would be honored to make any constructive contribution to discussion of these issues.

      • Karen Donaldson says:

        Thank you, Jean. The last time I asked, did not get a reply but not sure I signed in as I did this time. Also, this time, I noticed the share buttons after posting my comment so went ahead and shared. We are in the throes of some major upheaval and I fervently wish for the US to grow in wisdom and compassion (and to just plain grow up). Too much at stake.

  4. smurray333 says:

    I am stunned by these stories – and have posted your article on FB – something I never do. I’m not sure what has to happen before this unnecessary violence has to stop. Thank you for writing about this. I hope it helps to change the world we are living in.

    • Jean says:

      Thank you for helping me to reach more people with this. I think white people need to do some serious thinking about how we can own this as a white problem (not a Black problem or a blue problem) and how we can take action to change things. I am encouraged by the visible presence of White people in Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

  5. Judy says:

    Such a relevant and smart piece, Jean. Horrific! To me one of the most striking themes of Michael Dyson’s “Tears We Cannot Stop,” which our group is reading, is seeing police as a “blue plague” on the Black community and as a militant enforcement arm of racism. The incidents you describe show the accuracy of your position and Dyson’s, too.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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