STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Teaching black kids about the police: "They have legal authority to kill you."

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

The gymnasium at the Baxter Community Center in Grand Rapids started filling up a little before six Monday night. Dinner was provided. Parents and kids loaded up Styrofoam plates, then sat down with their meals at the rows of tables. It was a full house.

As the meal finished, napkins folded on plates, a man in a dark grey suit took hold of the microphone and began his presentation.

In front of him were families. Parents. Children. Young children.

The man talked for a while. Eventually, he got to this:

"They have more power than you do," he said. "They have guns. They have legal authority to kill you."

He was talking, of course, about the police. The people in this gym were almost all black.

The man’s name is Stephen Drew. He’s a civil rights attorney in Grand Rapids. He was invited to be a part of this community meeting by the local chapter of the NAACP.

This meeting was advertised to the community as an information session to “know your rights.”

But as he went on, Drew admitted most of his advice had nothing to do with rights.

"These are just survival tips," he said. "They aren’t just what your rights are, they’re more survival tips on the street."

He tells the young black men in the audience they will be stopped by police at some point. When they are, he says, the most important thing is to remain calm. Don’t make any sudden movements. Don’t argue. Don’t run.

This kind of talk is maybe not the way most Americans talk to their kids about police. Certainly not young kids. But it is the way many black parents talk to their kids about police.

Because they know what the statistics show. Black people, and young black men in particular, are more likely to be stopped by police. And in the instances when police use deadly force, the victims are disproportionately black.

"This forum, it was really good for the youth to hear this," says Branden Jamon, one of the parents in the audience. "Because this is something that’s actually happening. Like it really does happen. Black people aren’t just complaining for no reason."

The leaders at many police departments will tell you those complaints are being heard, especially after the events in Ferguson, Missouri.

This week, the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety announced new policiesto reduce racial profiling of suspects. In Grand Rapids, the local chapter of the NAACP is sponsoring a new scholarshipto help aspiring black officers make it through the police academy.

The hope is that with better relations between black communities, and the police, meetings like the one on 

"That's sad, for my 10-year-old, a survival tip on how not to be assaulted and abused just for being who you are?" Richardson says. "A survival tip?"

Monday will no longer be the norm.

"We shouldn’t have to get a session like that," says parent Jewellynne Richardson. "We got to have personal, black sessions to teach us what not to do to be killed on the street?"

Richardson was at the Monday meeting with her 10-year-old son Kalil. He was engaged and even asked a question during Stephen Drew’s presentation on “survival tips.”

"That’s sad, for my 10-year-old, a survival tip on how not to be assaulted and abused just for being who you are," Richardson says. "A survival tip?"

But even though she was clearly upset about the message, Richardson says she’s grateful her son got to hear advice on how to avoid potential violence by police officers. She says, the way things work now, he may need that advice.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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