In this essay, the names of children have been changed to protect their anonymity.I know a boy named David. He is ten years old and shorter than the other boys, which makes him better at backflips. The cool girls all love him and he trades jackets with the ones he dates, unflinchingly confident in the fur hoods and pink lettering that would socially destroy any other boy. When you yell at him, he doesn’t look you in the eyes and he shrugs his shoulders repeatedly. I know because years ago, he was a student of mine, and his shruggy averted eye contact used to render me speechless with frustration.
I started thinking about David when my brother John was arrested at Occupy Wall Street for the second time. In my time as a white American adult, I’ve grown used to the expectation to have control over what happens to my body and the bodies I care about. It’s an expectation of privilege, one I only became aware of when the NYPD seized control over my brother’s body. I began to think about how many adults in the world have been systemically denied this autonomy. Specifically, I thought of the of the ones whose first interactions with their local police department came long before the age of 25, when mine did. Without my voluntary attendance at Occupy Wall Street, I probably could have gone the rest of my life without being shoved or threatened by a police officer; Jateik Reed and millions of other young men of color have no such choice. By walking to school or work or the bodega, their bodies are at risk of being beaten, detained, shot, and killed by the police.
I thought about David because I was extremely angry. The emotions I contained for the year I spent being shoved, screamed at, shamed, and sexually harassed by the NYPD all boiled over on September 17, 2012, when two white-shirts (senior officers) reached out and grabbed my brother off the sidewalk. I couldn’t stop being angry, and I’m not sure if that’s the only reason I thought of David, who is perhaps the angriest 10 year old I’ve met, or if everything else about David’s life had suddenly come into focus to make me feel as angry as he is. My expectation of control over my body is something that children do not have—from the second they wake up until the second they go to bed, children’s bodies are subject to the authorities around them. Of course David is pissed. At about 75 pounds, David’s body is not merely braced for the future wrath of the NYPD and its institutional hatred of his skin color and gender. David’s body is already the object of that hatred; he exists as a child in a world structured to hate who he will be as an adult, and his daily life is a reminder of how powerless he is to those structures.
Children, generally, don’t have much control over their lives, but economic privilege endows those born into it with more choices as babies than David has ever had at 10. Children who qualify for free lunch don’t choose what they eat, but a child whose parent has the time and money to make lunch at home can choose grapes over apple slices. Children in overcrowded classrooms can’t choose when they go to the bathroom, but elementary-age kids in private schools are given the trust, freedom, and staff support to move freely between their rooms and the hallways as they need. With over half of NYC public schools overcrowded—30, 35, 40 kids in a class—there’s no time to talk to David when he gets mad. Despite the fact that David’s teachers care for him deeply, the immediate need is to control him, or punish him, or get the NYPD School Safety Officer.subscribe to TNI for $2 and get Vol. 10 next week
David and I were both born in Iowa. He doesn’t remember where, and at the time of this particular conversation I knew he was in foster care but I didn’t know anything else about his family. As I named Iowan cities to see if they sounded familiar, his friend interrupted us to ask, “Aren’t there a lot of white people in Iowa?” She looked at me and added, “No offense.” I laughed and replied, “None taken. There are a lot of white people there, but it’s not like, only white people.” David nodded and repeated to his friend that he was born there, his very existence complicating both my and his friend’s understanding of an entire state.
Both times my brother was arrested, his Iowanness was invoked as evidence of his innocence. This, along with his glasses and his blonde hair, have been the foundational arguments made by his surprised friends of the brutality of the NYPD: How could they do this to someone from Iowa who looks like John? To see my brother’s body—a body onto which others project an expectation of dignified treatment—taken away and put into the hands of police officers is to see power exercised on a body not meant to experience that power. His Iowanness exonerates him even before the video evidence proving that he did nothing wrong. David’s Iowan birth, though, does not come into play when he is being detained by the authority figures in his life. We are as used to seeing him screamed at by uniformed School Safety Officers as we are to seeing boys five years older than him stopped, thrown against police cars with their hands up, and frisked.
Documentary films about “failing schools” feature the bodies of boys who look like David. Such films are created and consumed by concerned adults who would prefer not to send their own children to the schools. Although these concerned adults mostly benefit from class and white privilege, they are sad for the little boys and root, vaguely, for their education. But they—we?—are not surprised when taller versions of the boys come out of criminal court without belts and shoelaces. When I hear that a kid a few years older than David got caught selling a bag of weed to his white upstairs neighbor, I accept the fact that he has been taken to Rikers even though I will later buy that same bag of weed from that same upstairs neighbor with the unwavering confidence that he will never be taken to Rikers no matter how many bags of weed he sells me. Alongside the outrage many of us felt upon seeing my brother in handcuffs is its photonegative: our complete lack of outrage with the millions of images we’ve seen of the darker-skinned men who must be, based on the evidence we’re given, the ones who are supposed to be in handcuffs.
In what reality should David not be furious? I was wrecked for a week after a white shirt told me I deserved to be arrested, but American culture and society tells boys like David much, much worse. It sucks when people get in your face and yell at you. It sucks when you sense people underestimating you or dismissing you or assuming something about you after a single glance. I don’t know what David’s life is like, and by definition, I never can—the forces of the world could never align, even for a single moment, to marginalize my existence the way David has been structurally marginalized since he was born into his body.
In fact, the NYPD has always made me think of David, even before my anger on the 17th. The biggest showdown David and I ever had, and by far my shittiest moment as a teacher and maybe also as a person, was about a rubber band. I was trying to explain stage directions or something boring, probably, to the class, and David was messing around with a rubber band. I asked him to put it away. He didn’t. I asked again, he rolled his eyes, and then I demanded, and then he doubled down and refused, and suddenly we were like two bulls charging at each other furiously, ready to burn the whole building down just to prove to the other that we had the power. This interaction, it seems to me, represents the arbitrariness of authoritarianism in a nutshell. I couldn’t care less about the rubber band, but I couldn’t let David win, lest the fragile facade of my authority crumble before the eyes of all the other students and, more terrifyingly, myself. In a year of Occupy I have seen hundreds of interactions between cops and protesters that started with an arbitrary order to stop blocking an empty sidewalk. When you’re endowed with authority and someone undermines your meaningless order, it stirs in you a Hulk-like rage. It’s never about the rubber band and it’s never about the sidewalk.
It wasn’t until I was on the other end—specifically, when my friends and I burst out laughing after being given an especially arbitrary order by a cop—that I realized what my students must feel when I tell them to put away their rubber bands. As we laughed at the cop I felt an unexpected pang of guilt, knowing how awful it feels to be laughed at when you tell somebody what to do. I teach comedy and I have reprimanded kids for laughing at something I’ve done. It’s not that I desire tyranny in my classroom, I just desire order; as a teacher I know and fear how easily things can get out of hand. But face to face with the cops, it feels good to laugh. Laughter feels powerful even as we feel powerless.subscribe to TNI for $2 and get Vol. 10 next week
For all ten years of David’s life, his mayor has been the 11th richest man in the United States. That mayor cuts the budgets of the schools in David’s neighborhood, sometimes closing them all together, and threatens to eliminate the after-school programs where David trades jackets with the girls. Under that mayor’s Stop and Frisk program last year, more men of color were stopped than there are men of color in the city, which leaves David’s chances unacceptably high. He can also be arrested for trespassing if he visits a friend’s building or, sometimes, for being in the halls of his own building. When he is stopped or spontaneously arrested, he is not supposed to get angry, lest he play into our cultural fears about boys who look like him, and he’s not supposed to resist the strangers who are grabbing his body unprovoked, lest he be charged with an A-level misdemeanor. When the police seize control of your body, it is illegal to resist, which seems perfectly reasonable as long as you never expect to be unreasonably seized by the police.
Children have a hard enough time when they get emotional. It’s as if the bodies of adults are too big to feel the magnitude of Send your responses to email@example.com and despair experienced by an upset kid. But the things that make David mad won’t go away as he gets taller. He was born into a body we have little institutional tolerance for. At ten years old and 75 pounds, he is stronger than many children who were born into bodies that have an easier time. David has the potential to be incredibly powerful. But every other system of power waiting for David is determined, as I was that day, not to let him win.