The Talk: What I Tell To Young Black Men to Keep Them Alive (RIP Laquan McDonald)

One of my goals in life was to become a mentor to a young Black man. As boy I did not have my father in my life, so I gravitated towards adults that treated me like a son and gave me advice. I wanted to pay it forward and impart knowledge to a young man, so I was introduced to M, a pre-teen that lived near me. He and I would talk about the importance of school, today’s music, and joke about his relationships. The one subject that I knew sooner or later we would broach would be his interactions with the police and how to stay alive, or have “The Talk.”

I have had “The Talk” or different variations with my Mother, Father, Grandfather, and my teacher Mr. Banks. The subject of the police and young Black men would come of casually. They would give me bits of advice such as “Don’t be hostile when police approach you,” when driving “Never roll four deep” or don’t have four or more friends in the car with you. And the most important, when talking with the police, say “Yes sir or no sir” and never raise your voice. At the time I thought it was normal as eating everything on your plate and obeying your parents. Little did I know those suggestions would aid me in my survival.

The subject came up one Saturday when M and I had a doughnut after a walk through San Francisco. We sat down and started eating while I was teasing him about girl he had liked. The tone had changed when I had started thinking about the public lynching of Michael Scott and 12 year old Tamir Rice, who was one year younger than M. I asked him how he felt about the killings and he said, “It’s like we aren’t safe.” I sighed and paused for a second, then asked him if he has ever been harassed by the police?” M then told me of times walking around with his friends and the police stopping them and asking what they were doing and were they were going. It sounded as if he was telling me stories from my childhood; being stopped or pulled over and asked what we were doing, as if being young and Black was a reason to be searched. M then told me of an evading tactic he used to keep police at ease. He called it “code flipping” or as he put it “talking extra proper around police.” I then interjected and told him, “Listen young brother, you and I are Black, and so the rules are different. As Black men, we are walking around with a target on our back. We are looked at as threats; it has always been like that. There are a lot of things that our white friends will be able to get away with, and to a certain extent, our Asian friends will have that benefit too. But we will not be able to get away with.” M asked why is like that?” I then sighed again and told him, “Because the system is built on demonizing and locking up Black people, especially Black men.”

As our conversation went on I started to relay the lessons I had learned as a young Black man that kept me alive at 37. “First M, you have to understand that most if all police look at young Black men as criminals. It doesn’t matter how we talk, dress, or act, we are painted the same way. So it is inevitable that the police will stop you. Now how you act may determine if you turn a situation from mild to hostile. Always keep your hands to your side. You never want to give them an idea that you think you have a gun. The average opinion of a young Black kid is that he is a gangbanger holding a pistol, so you want to put them at ease. M you also want to look the police directly in the eye, talking at a calm tone. Don’t get excited or fired up.” I said this as I thought of a time recently when a cop stopped me from jaywalking — a crime I had never been cited for. I was a bit upset and that made the police nervous and him a bit cautious. I then gave him some tips if he would be stopped by the police while driving. I told M to “Always pull over in a lit area or somewhere with light, preferably with people on the street. Therefore if something was to go wrong, people would be witnesses. I then suggested to him to not “Roll four deep, because the cops will automatically think something is suspicious. When the police walk up to his window, I told him to keep his hands on the steering wheel, so the police can see his hands. Finally, I suggested to M, “If they ask to search your car, tell them that you do not consent without a warrant.” Now a lot of people may disagree with this, but I have heard of way too many times of cops mysteriously finding guns and drugs in their cars.

I can tell this was difficult for M digest as he had a confused look on his face. I told him, “Look, I know all of this sounds crazy. We grow up and are taught the police are here to protect us, but little brother that is not our life. The main reason for me telling you this is I want to group up and do great things, and I can’t have some cop stopping that because you “fit the description.” I rubbed his head after.

For me to give “The Talk” was a day that I will never forget. It almost made me tear up because this is not how life should be. M should be concerned with getting good grades, hanging out with friends, listening to whoever is the hottest rapper is today, kissing his first girl, and growing up to be the great man that I know he can be. He shouldn’t be getting police survival tips from his big brother. This is not a war zone I thought.

Later that day I thought about what I told M and I sighed. Hopefully he will not have to repeat the same cycle to his son, but who knows?