My Six-Year-Old Son Shouts ‘I Can’t Breathe’ While Driving By a Protest

If I were to name one of my fears, it would be, seeing police lights gather in my car while my son is perched in the backseat.

I lived this fear when a cop on a motorcycle barricaded the street where I was driving, I came to an abrupt halt, and the officer’s lights danced on my son’s face like shadows from fireworks.

We made a right turn onto a different street, an attempt to maneuver around the cop, but we couldn’t proceed due to another cop blocking the street. That is when I realized the officers were patrolling the blare of protesters chanting the mantra, “We can’t breathe.”

In response, my son, who is six, with a glorious sense of wonder and curiosity, rolled down the window and repeated “I can’t breathe.”

He sat down then asked me “Why are they saying I can’t breathe?”

At this precise moment, I experienced an unsettling terror: horror conceived out of not knowing what to say, or how to describe the stark reality his skin was born into.

I wanted more time to rehearse a thoughtful response, but the louder they shouted the more urgent my response seemed — as if the chants themselves demanded me to tell my son the unvarnished truth.

I told him everything; I told him that Floyd was black and a police officer kneeled on his neck, and he died (I had wanted to say, it wasn’t his knee that killed him, it was his blackness reimagined as violent — that got him killed. But I couldn’t say it. I wouldn’t say it. I was afraid he would think of his skin as death). And my son’s confusion was conspicuous: his eyes widened, and silence fell over him. He said, “ I thought officers are supposed to save us.”

My voice diminished as I was dishearted to learn that I had to dispel this myth to him, not out of necessity, but out of survival. But I didn’t know how to say it.

My partner sensed this and spoke instead. “The simplest way to explain this is that not all officers are bad.” Yet, even then we both knew that it was more complicated than that. Our struggle to reveal to a six-year-old that police officers are sometimes not officers at all was grueling.

My son settled into a deeper quietude and the next thing that came out of his mouth jolted us. He said “what if that was me” and repeated, “what if that was me?” His question sucked out all the music that played in the car. In dismay, his small hand sat underneath his chin and he shook his head as if he could feel in his six-year-old body that he, too, was Floyd, or, perhaps, he could easily become him.

As we drove further away from the police, their lights grew smaller like fireflies, and he asked another question — if the police officer in the movie “Sonic” was good. I reassured him. Yes — that officer was.

In light of the recent recrimination of law enforcement in the US, it occurred to me that I should ask a police officer to give my son a reason why he shouldn’t fear him. I didn’t want fear to overtake my son; rather, I wanted him to be fearless as if it were scarcely possible for a cop to harm him, which it isn’t.

I happen to see a cop parked to the side of a gas station, which appeared vacant. I was anxious to talk with him but too uneasy of his reaction to a car pulling next to him at night, occupied with my son’s and my skin. I certainly didn’t want to risk being an “imminent threat” with my son in the car. So I didn’t stop.

The next day, my son and I drove his scooter around our neighborhood, and when my son saw a cop car, he shouted in recognition of what it was. He also turned his scooter around in haste and said, “I am out of here.”

I was galvanized to definitely talk with an officer as soon as I could.

I happened to stumble into one while on a shopping trip with my son and girlfriend. I took out my son’s scooter from the trunk, and we drove over to the officer, who happened to be black. I knocked on his window and said to him, “I don’t want my son to grow up thinking that all cops are unethical. Do you have some words of comfort?” His response was, at best, idealistic — a reality he knew was not plausible, or at worse, not real at all.

He said, “ If you are ever in danger or confused, call us. We will never hurt you.” It was his ghastly statement — “We will never hurt you” — that was haunting, I felt and still feel he didn’t have the right to utter that impractical promise, not when there is a legacy of black children who have, in fact, been gunned down by bullets that were shot by law enforcement.

I knew my son could sense my bewilderment and that it jarred him. Silence fell over me like fog. I said my farewells to the officer and looked at my son; his smile glistened brighter than any lights firing off the hood of a police car.

My son got back onto his scooter and glided away from the police car. As he sailed like a bird in flight for the first time, he turned and said, “But daddy you can save me.”

And I felt both empowered and powerless as his parent. I really wanted to believe in his words. I really wanted to believe that I could possibly save him.

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is the author of the debut full-length collection “We Made It To School Alive,” He is an educator and lives in Cleveland Ohio with his son.

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Quartez Harris

Quartez Harris

is the author of the debut full-length collection “We Made It To School Alive,” He is an educator and lives in Cleveland Ohio with his son.

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