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My Son Finally Gets Why I’m Terrified of Police

Photograph by Twenty20

"Mom," my 18-year-old son, Alvaro told me as I walked out of my bedroom this morning, "something really weird happened last night."

Behind my son was his girlfriend of nearly three years, Julia, a beautiful green-eyed Mexicana who I've come to love as my own daughter.

"We were driving down to the road last night to play 'Pokemon Go,' and I noticed red and blue flashing lights behind me."

Oh, God. "You got pulled over?" I interrupted.

"Yeah," my son replied. "The officer said the light above my license plate wasn't working."

Immediately my insides felt like they'd dropped. When Philando Castile was pulled over in Minnesota and subsequently killed by police, it was because of a supposed broken tail light.

Just the day before, I'd had another talk with both of my sons about what to do if they were ever pulled over by a police officer. I'd told them to never resist and to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times.

This is the reality for families of color. No, my family isn't black but our names and identities clearly mark us as "non-white" and in this day and age, that feels dangerous.

The same week that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police officers, five unarmed Latinos were also shot and killed by police. When Latinos, who account for just over 17 percent of the population, make up 23 percent of the total searches by police officers and an astounding 30 percent of the deaths by police, the fear is real.

As you can imagine, stats like these terrify me. The harsh reality is that my white friends with white children cannot identify with the fear of having non-white kids being confronted by police. They can empathize, but they cannot not actually know my fear of having my husband or children targeted because of their skin color.

Last year, weeks after returning home from a seven-month military deployment, my husband went fishing with our youngest son, Jorge, on the local pier. It's an area that, on any given weekend, has more than 100 people walking by or fishing along the rails.

The day my husband and son went, he counted at least 20 other fishermen; so many, in fact, that when an elderly white police officer stood and stared at my husband for about 20 minutes while he was fishing, he wondered why he, among everyone else, had attracted the officer's attention.

My family isn't black but our names and identities clearly mark us as "non-white" and in this day and age, that feels dangerous.

"Having him stare at me made me uncomfortable," my husband told me the day he'd come back from the pier.

He explained that being watched felt invasive. As he reeled in his line and turned sideways to recast it, the officer angrily approached him.

"Do you speak English?" the officer yelled. My son, who had been standing on the opposite side of the pier, turned and watched, horrified.

"Yes," my husband replied. He immediately felt defensive, but kept himself calm.

"Well then do you not know how to read?" His face was red and my husband followed his hand, pointing to a nearby sign that said "No Overhead Casting."

My husband knew this rule. It had been clear and he had taken great care to not hold his fishing pole above his head, instead turning sideways to cast the fishing reel. Still, he knew better than to argue with a man holding a badge and a gun, so he simply nodded and said he had read the sign.

"Well, I'm writing you a ticket," the officer continued. He asked my husband for his ID, which he'd left in the car as he didn't want to risk his wallet falling into the ocean.

When the officer asked for my husband's name, and he gave it, the officer asked him if he was lying. He then proceeded to issue my husband a $100 ticket and left. As he walked off the pier, my husband saw two young men clearly hold their poles over their heads and cast their fishing lines. If the officer even noticed them, he said nothing.

The entire ordeal left my husband humiliated. He tried to make a complaint about the officer's conduct, but it fell on deaf ears. He still refuses to fish on that pier anymore. This is the kind of life experience that changes how you parent children of color.

The harsh reality is that my white friends with white children cannot identify with the fear of having non-white kids being confronted by police. They can empathize, but they cannot not actually know my fear of having my husband or children targeted because of their skin color.

Last night, my son told me he kept his hands on the steering wheel exactly as I'd instructed him to, and listened as the fast speaking officer, a white man in his late 20s or early 30s, asked what they were doing.

When my son explained they were playing a game, the officer then asked him and his girlfriend if they'd ever been arrested and when they said no, asked if they were on probation. Again, no.

I don't know how many times I've been pulled over for having a broken tail light, and never have I ever been asked if I was a convict. The questioning struck me as odd.

"He talked so fast," Julia explained to me. "It just felt really weird."

When the officer asked for my son's driver's license, registration and proof of insurance, Julia said she reached for the glove box, where most humans in our country keep their important papers, and was stopped by the officer.

"What are you reaching for?" he asked. "Is that where you keep them?"

Julia said she nodded yes, and was allowed to retrieve the items. The officer returned to his vehicle, ran their information and returned a few moments later. His mood had changed, the kids said. He was nicer.

"Good luck on your game," he said. "I hope you catch a Pikachu."

The experience left them both uncomfortable. As they told me the story, they said they now understand why I've been so worried about any interactions with police.

Thankfully, they survived a (mostly) routine pull-over, but it could have gone differently. To the kids, the cop seemed like he was on high alert the moment he approached their car, and while I'll never know his side of the story, I do believe his strange line of questioning about their criminal records was odd, especially if his only intention was notifying them of a broken light above their license plate.

The reality is that this police officer, like so many of us, may also fear of being targeted or killed because of his appearance. The recent horrific Dallas police shootings are a reminder that this anger at the injustices against people of color can erupt in senseless, stupid violence that only serves to strengthen the disparity between us.

It has to stop.

I am so grateful nothing happened to my son and his girlfriend this time. But until our country heals and people in positions of authority stop undermining and abusing minorities, my fear and the fear of many families, will continue.

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