Jordan Edwards belongs to all of us

The death Jordan Edwards, a black teen shot and killed by a white suburban Dallas cop in April hit close to home for Annie Wright and members of the Dallas Public Voices Fellowship. As a white mother of daughters, she illustrates the confusion and anguish these all-to-common events cause families involved but also the wider family that is us.

By Annie Wright

Probably, like most of you, I am in the habit of reaching for my phone first thing in the morning. Through bleary eyes in a dark room, I squint at the too-bright light and skim the news from the previous night. I had been following the emerging story of the shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, in a community not far from my own in Dallas. Yet another in a too-long series of stories about black men and women and children even, being injured or killed by the police; and the horror and trauma that follows. For families, officers and for entire communities, it was this — again.

On this particular morning, the details of what had transpired had emerged; that Jordan had begged his mom to attend the party; that she had somewhat reluctantly let him go; that she felt a little better about him going because he was with his brothers and a family friend that may as well have been a brother; that when the party grew larger and confusion set in, Jordan and his friends did exactly what they were supposed to do: They left. While leaving, Balch Springs Officer Roy Oliver inexplicably fired his rifle into the boys’ moving car. Jordan slumped into his friend’s arms as the other boys frantically tried to process, in real time, what was happening.

In that instant, I closed my eyes, and gasped and felt the bile rise up in my throat, and tears spring to my eyes. And a jumble of thoughts and emotions — all of which are becoming far, far too familiar — sprang up, seemingly all at once:

I felt sheer horror for his friend sitting in the backseat with him. He will never ever be the same. And for his parents, waking up this morning, too. Did they even sleep? They will never ever be the same. I remembered, as a teenager myself, all the times we crammed into the back seat of a friend’s car, out later than we should have been, dashing away from a party because somebody said the cops are coming. We were avoiding some kind of nominal trouble, and for us, we metaphorically dodged “bullets,” like getting a curfew citation or getting grounded for being somewhere we promised we wouldn’t go. But for Jordan and too many others, this is no metaphor.

So I asked myself, how do I keep my daughters safe from this particular horror? Don’t go to parties? Don’t cram into the backseat with friends? Don’t try to drive away when the cops arrive?

As if we can keep them safe by showing them the mistakes made by others before them, slyly knowing we can’t avoid it all. But it makes us feel better. It’s a wink and a nod game we play with ourselves, and we’re really quite good at it. That’s the point of these complex coping strategies; to harness the power of our cognition to ease our emotional suffering. Like some benevolent cheat code built into our DNA, grown over millennia to just help us cope. So I asked myself, how do I keep my daughters safe from this particular horror? Don’t go to parties? Don’t cram into the backseat with friends? Don’t try to drive away when the cops arrive?

The strategy doesn’t work for this story because there’s nothing wrong with anything Jordan Edwards or any of the other children with him were doing. Just as there is nothing wrong with what so many other people wrongfully and tragically shot were doing: having a broken taillight or an expired plate; driving through a part of town where people don’t look like you; or walking through a neighborhood to your friend’s house with a hoodie on.

I comprehended, again, the full reality: My children can do these things and more and still be safe because they are white. By the psychological laws of cognition, this realization should have made me feel better, my fear should be reduced, my momentary suffering abated.

And I did feel a little relief to recognize, again — in this specific way, my children are safe, safer than most. But I felt guilty and scared, and I felt angry that other people’s children aren’t safe, too.

And I just felt sad.

This was the right thing to feel (and it still is) because it is so very wrong. The cognitive appraisal and the emotional response are in sync with each other, they are both accurate, and they are terrible. And yet, I feel more bile and a gasp for breath.

I hear one of my youngest skipping down the hall to come find me and say good morning. I shove the phone under my pillow and pretend to be asleep to avoid her asking “What are you reading?” She’s 6 and doesn’t need to know yet, but she will need to know soon.

I shove the phone under my pillow and pretend to be asleep to avoid her asking “What are you reading?” She’s 6 and doesn’t need to know yet, but she will need to know soon.

All of this and more happens in a split second. We are capable of holding competing and perplexing perspectives in rapid succession. But then the immediate and sharp emotional response shifts a little and what lingers is maybe a little duller but maybe more expansive and certainly no less powerful.

I still feel angry and sad and guilty and scared. And that’s still the right thing to feel, too, because this is still so wrong. The suffering is real. The question is whether each one of us is going to be brave enough to step into this suffering on our own and then together. Our nimble minds might try to find a way around the enormity of this problem. But we have to be wiser than our base instincts that will try to hide the pain every time. The only way to really change this is going to be to go right through it, to be brave enough to hold the fear and the anger and the sadness and whatever guilt may be lingering and not look away.

Jordan Edwards has to be my child and yours, too.

Annie Wright

Annie Wright is a program evaluator at Southern Methodist University and a Dallas Public Voices Fellow.

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