Boys and Toy Guns: A Black Mom’s Reflection

I have had writer’s block for nearly two months.

I am drained.

We write, we protest, we stand up and things keep going as they have gone. We can recount all of the names of our fallen. The images of crying parents are imprinted on our souls. Earlier this week, yet another grand jury refused to indict police officers for criminal behavior. The murder of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot within seconds by an unfit police officer, should shock America’s conscience.

This country is morally bankrupt. Our injustice system is rigged against people of color and poor people.

When I was growing up, my mother never allowed us to play with toy guns. She felt that guns should be used wisely and were not for play.  Even our water guns looked like animals. The no-toy-guns rule stayed with me when I began raising my own children. Somehow I believed it would keep them safe. When we moved to West Virginia in 2010, my son made some great friends through Cub Scouts. Although we were often the only black family around, the kids were always welcome. There was never any feeling of not belonging or of sticking out. We fell into a great circle of people. There were times when race seemed to not really matter.

One time, when my son was about 7, we were at a play date. His new friend wanted to play guns in the backyard. My son knew my rule, but his friend thought it was unfair because they could have so much fun. So his friend asked why I wouldn’t let my son play with guns — they were fun, of course! His parents paused and tried to help shoo the kids away. I explained to him that where I grew up guns were not toys and we didn’t play with them. People used guns to kill each other not for fun. The little boy had no frame of reference for what I was talking about. The innocence in this kid’s face simply faded away. My son looked uncomfortable. It was a moment we all needed to experience. Eventually I gave in and allowed my son to play in the woods with his friend. They played army and hunting. With another friend he built his own tree stand. But there were rules and parameters. I let him go shooting and to target practice. We were in West Virginia and this was common — what harm could there be?

He is older now, and the rules have once again changed upon moving to the Atlanta area. We impress upon the children the importance of being mindful of their surroundings and how they interact with others. I do not want my kids to live in fear, but they need to be aware. In fact, they are fearless and intent on doing anything and everything they set their minds upon. However, “good” behavior might not save them.

I cannot help but look at my son, with headphones on, excited for his birthday. My son who even at 5’8” is my baby. He is the younger of my two children, but he is often mistaken for an older teen. All I see is the same little face looking at me. The same face that looked up at me when he was in preschool.

My son got a paintball gun for Christmas.  Not thinking, he ran outside to show his friends. As soon as I realized he was outside, I freaked out and made him come back inside. I scolded him for not thinking. No matter what, he always has to think. No, the paintball gun does not look real, but what does that matter?

I shared my Christmas day story with my godmother, who recounted a time when my  little brother was surrounded in a park by police with guns. He had been playing with friends who had BB guns. He did not have one. Some neighbor frantically called the cops because there were people in the park running around with guns. It never occurred to anyone that these were kids playing. With the area surrounded by police with drawn guns, my little brother hid in a bush and called my godmother. My godmother contacted the mother of one of the other boys and urged her to go across the street to the park and help diffuse the situation. Thankfully, all three boys left the scene unharmed.

As I listened to the commentary earlier his week regarding the grand jury’s decision to not indict the officers who ended Tamir’s life, these stories flashed in my mind. My momentary panic came back when I thought about my son outside holding his new paintball gun. I couldn’t help but think how lucky we were. How easily a kid excitedly showing his new Christmas present could’ve gone wrong. Or how common it is for little boys in West Virginia to play with replica guns. Or even to do target practice, for “fun.” My son’s friend was most proud of his sniper rifle. It was a toy. No one would ever think that despite its appearance, he actually had a real gun. And even if someone thought it was real, he would be given the opportunity to explain the situation.  His parents probably never thought twice about the way he would be perceived with such “toys” in his possession.

My son turned 12 on Tuesday.  He is an average sixth-grader. He likes to play with his friends, and he jokes around more than he should. However, at 5’8” and 130 pounds, he is often perceived as older than he is. He wears size 13 shoes. None of this should matter … but it does. As he attempted to justify the grand jury decision, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor discussed Tamir’s size and appearance as “older” — as if somehow his mere presence as a seemingly “big black man” justified the officers’ actions.

Jumping out gangster-shootout style and murdering a child in two seconds is not reasonable. It is not justifiable.

There is no excuse for not indicting the officers in question. We must stop allowing irrational fears and stereotypes to be viewed as reasonable in the eyes of the law. We must stop protecting police officers and police departments from the reckless and indifferent choices they make. No one who reasonably fears for their life runs up on an allegedly armed person and just starts shooting wildly.

This ain’t the wild wild west.

You are not in a gangster movie. And that is not a tommy gun.

We need to demand that prosecutors like Timothy McGinty of Cuyahoga County be held accountable. There is no reason for a prosecutor to botch a criminal case. NONE. Sir, you do not work for the police.  Your job is to uphold the law and pursue justice for the citizens of your jurisdiction.

Prosecutors fail to do their duty, when they refuse to prosecute cases against police officers. A grand jury inquiry is a very low legal threshold. Probable cause is a lower standard than even preponderance of the evidence, the standard in a civil case. As we know, in many of these cases, municipalities and counties are paying out millions of dollars for single incidents. This does not include the money paid for wrongful property damage and injuries. Coddling “bad” officers only reinforces this untouchable notion.

There is no deterrent for bad behavior. There is no check on the corruption from absolute power. It is dangerous to have individuals who are above the law. This isn’t Judge Dredd. Everyone should be held accountable for the things they do. The officer who killed Tamir Rice should be held accountable for the reckless and cavalier attitude with which he took an innocent life. Earlier this summer a municipal court judge in Cleveland determined there was probable cause  to arrest the officer who murdered Tamir Rice.  In two seconds, he could not have evaluated the entire situation. In two seconds, he could not have given time for Tamir to respond.

Deadly force is used in far too many instances in which police officers misjudge situations, presume incorrectly and make fatal errors rooted in stereotypes and irrational fear. We need to look at law enforcement training and use of force through the lens of international human rights law, not the “reasonable officer” standard. What is considered reasonable officer behavior has been passed down through the vestiges of a system ingrained with racial and ethnic disparities.

I try not to worry about if someone will overreact to my son because he is “so big for his age.” How could they? He still has that sweet baby face and pleasant disposition. To know him is to love him.  My son says “yes ma’am” and “no sir.” That matters, right? That’s what we are told. As long as we behave and follow the rules, everything will be fair. Right?

Wrong.

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Setting the Record Straight – Single Mothers and the BS of Not all Families are Equal

Contrary to popular belief, single mothers are not the bane of existence.  We are not just laying around having babies and collecting welfare. Single mothers and their children work hard, every single day, to create better lives and opportunities for themselves.  Maybe instead of passing judgment on what goes on in the inner workings of someone else’s household you begin to look at how you can get involved and help your own family and community.  Recently Ben Carson, yes he is the neurosurgeon with mouth diarrhea, made “comments” about single mothers and their children.  I say FUCK Ben Carson. My son, despite being born out of wedlock to a single mother, will be a better man, doctor, and human being.  Ben Carson is the latest right wing candidate spewing hate, to bring out the worst in us.

Like many conservatives, Carson feeds into the stereotype of single mothers as being a great evil of society.  A product of a single parent household, and having relied upon government assistance, Carson fails to acknowledge the various structural and economic inequities which create dire situations for some single mothers and their families.  As single households with only one wage earner, we are disproportionately impacted by low wage jobs, poor healthcare benefits, exorbitant child care cost, and lack of access to sick leave.  Without the needed protections, particularly ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, single mothers are at a constant disadvantage.

Even commentary about people being poor and criminals fails to acknowledge the fact that class, race, and family status play a big part in arrest and subsequent sentencing. Many people in jail currently are in jail for non-violent drug offenses. How many accounts have we heard of the person with the small amount of x drug who is in jail for life? Not saying that drug possession or sale is ok, but there should be proportionality in enforcement, prosecution, and sentencing. And we all know there is not.  Just because a greater proportion of people are in jail, does not mean they are inherently more “evil” or guilty of committing crime than others.  There are numerous reports and studies indicating that certain people are sentenced stiffer, and less likely to be offered probation and participation in divisionary programs etc.

Many people tell me I’m an exception, that I’m not the rule. Well I always respond that you are the company you keep. Despite where I have lived and who I have been around, I have always tried to be the best version of myself. I have sought out people with a similar work ethic and passion for family.  There are more of us around than you think.  Maybe you don’t see more strong examples of single motherhood, because you choose to only see the negative or you associate in a certain grouping of people.  Maybe it is time to upgrade your associations.  Anyone can find anything negative if they look for it.   Over the past 15 years I have met many women, young and old, who have overcome ridiculous odds to be where they are and have remarkable stories to tell and beautiful children to show for it all. From the block to the hollers, women struggle every day to do the best they can with what they have. No I cannot accept that I am an exception. I’ve seen the face of single motherhood and it is not the “ghetto welfare queen” alluded to so often on TV.  As a member of the access program I was one of dozens of women at The Ohio State University committed to raising my children in a positive and productive manner while completing my degree. Outside of my academic life I met women of all incomes and walks of life. The majority were 100% about their kids.  Once upon a time we had a greater focus on community and social supports.  However, the erosion of the working and middle class has plunged many of our families into stressful situations.  Things happen even to the best of people. And yes I’m sure you who may read this can think of x, y, z example of people doing poorly. But guess what none of us are perfect, but only some of us are scrutinized under the public moral microscope.

My personal passion, drive, and fear of failure helped me move from a scared 19 year old afraid of losing her scholarship pregnant with her first child, to a practicing attorney.  The lingering shame I felt, the family golden child, pregnant and unmarried was unbearable in the beginning. Through my friendships with other women I began to understand that it mattered how I viewed myself and the path I chose for my children and myself.  I am all for personal accountability and holding others accountable. But I believe that should be even handed and across the board.  When people like Ben Carson spew their vicious crap, it makes me sick. Yet it gives me something to write about and provides the reader with insight into another way of viewing things. Instead of attacking single mothers and their families, leaders should be offering solutions and developing opportunities for change.  We are only as strong as our most vulnerable families and communities.

As I sit here writing, I think about my son who wants to become a doctor and my daughter who has so many different ideas she cannot narrow it all down (leaning toward developer or engineer).  Anything is possible. We may have more to overcome than others, and a different time line, but DO NOT let anyone tell you who you are and what you are worth.  People like Ben Carson remind me that I am stronger than most and able to overcome otherwise insurmountable obstacles.

We have to stop allowing ourselves to be put into the stereotypes and vile characterizations of others. We are strength. We are excellence. And we have birthed, raised, and nurtured two presidents among many other wonderful people in the past 25 years. Let that sink in.

The Science of “Safe” and Perceptive Relativity

Safe is a relative term.  What is “safe” is dependent upon our perceived experiences.  While the water may be “safe” for one family or neighborhood, others still have problems.  For close to three weeks, state officials have insisted the water here in the Kanawha Valley is “safe.”   While the “truth” can depend on several factors, there seems to be a lack of concern by the Governor and the State Health Official for reports of continued water quality and persisting health issues.

Nearly three weeks ago, my neighbors and I were cleared.  Our area turned blue on the map and we followed the flushing procedures as laid out by the water company.  The rush to flush has left many with various issues and health concerns which have been summarily dismissed by the Governor and the State Health Official. Most of us are not engineers, scientists, plumbers, water specialist, or environmental technicians.  We are just everyday people trying to make sense of all the information (a lot of it highly technical) to make good decisions for our families.  However, only one of us is the Governor.  Only one of us is the State Health Official.  Someone has to step up to the job at hand and lead.  Protecting the public is their job.  It is unacceptable for state officials to say well my water is fine I’m using it and so is my family, as if the rest of us who do not trust the safety of the water are suffering from mass hysteria.

West Virginia Residents Worry Water Isn’t Safe

Our issues and health ailments are written off as mere worry or lack of trust.  This is not just an issue of trust and confidence, there are serious problems from persistent chemical exposure and irritation.  When we report upper respiratory issues, malaise, headaches, difficulty breathing, or throat burning we are told that it is flu season or maybe there is just a virus going around.  When we notice dry skin, rashes, itching, or discoloration we are told it is similar to solar burn, or we are not used to using the water.  We are given a prescription and sent on our way.  It is just a short term issue.  No big deal.  What may be a simple acute issue which clears up easily in a few days, could pose residual issues for other people with preexisting conditions including those with compromised immune systems, asthma, and allergies.   Some people, such as myself, are experiencing acute health issues for the first time ever.  Equations, formulas and scientific experiments, and data extrapolation to develop a “safe standard” at times need to be balanced with personal accounts.  We need to be documenting everything.  The more evidence we have the better we can sort out the unknowns.

To discount anecdotal evidence of potential chemical irritation is irresponsible, given the many unknowns of exposure to crude MCHM. What is considered safe should be a fluid concept open to correction and integration as we acquire more information.  At this point there are too many unknowns and several variables which have not been considered.  State officials have failed to respond to issues with the filters at the water treatment facility, differences in the pipe system, and the possibility that crude MCHM is lingering in our pipes and hot water tank to name a few.  While people in one area may view their water as “safe” or acceptable, it is possible that differences in elevation and pipe layout (including “dead end” pipes) could cause continued problems for others.  WCHS ran a story about a Fort Hill family’s concerns of their water.  In response, the water company stated there were “a lot of dead ends in the water lines, making it more difficult to flush the system.”[1]  State officials need to acknowledge the differences and complexities in the system and reevaluate their approach to “lingering concerns.”

“We don’t know what the long-term effects are, and that’s part of our mission at public health, is to follow this, so we do this every day,” she said. “I think we’ve been really honest about this — there really are no long-term studies available, so we have to start.”[2]

While it is great the Governor has reached out to the CDC for on the ground help (several weeks later), willful ignorance of a looming public health crisis is unconscionable. There is a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Instead of putting the people and rising questions and concerns first, the Governor and our State Health Officer are still refusing to acknowledge there is a problem.  You cannot admit there are unknowns and then say that everything is “safe.”  We need to make sure we are monitoring medical concerns regardless of where people were seen.  At some point those in our highest offices need to take a stand for the people they are supposed to serve and protect.  Someone has to take responsibility and make the hard decisions we need to get the answers we deserve.

Kanawha Valley Water Crisis – A few things you can do in the next 48hrs

I know a lot of us have been overwhelmed with information (good and bad) over the last few weeks. The question keeps coming up, but what can we do. Well Nailah and I attended an awesome meeting put together this evening by CAPE (check them out at https://www.facebook.com/pages/CAPECitizens-Actively-Protecting-the-Environment/235844596588703) and a few other groups. The panel was helpful in explaining the basics of lobbying as a concerned resident and provided a few examples of how we can do a direct action to help the cause of protecting the health, safety, and welfare of all in our community. I know we are all busy, but here are a few things you can do over the weekend that can make a difference and won’t take much time. I have written this after listening very attentively to others, so the commentary herein is my own. I do not mean to impose my views on any particular individual or group. With my background in City and Regional Planning and Law, my ears have been burning. I just wanted to share some thoughts. I plan on getting the kids involved as well, it’s a civics lesson in action! Besides our “leaders” needed to hear from all their constituents young and old.

1. Stay informed. I know there’s a lot of information floating around, and some disagreement about what is the “truth.” Well the truth is relative. But be aware of at least the basics. Know what the issues are, who are the major and minor players, and find out about next steps. Things are moving fast.  An informed citizenry is one of our strongest tools to ensuring our safety, health, and welfare.

2. Contact your Delegate and attend the public hearing Monday at 5:30 in the house chambers on Senate Bill 373. if you wish to speak you need to be there closer to 5pm to sign up. Prepare a brief (no more than 2min) statement. Anecdotes of this experience are good. They need to know the human impact. You can also submit a written statement which will be added into the record. This is the bill that passed the Senate this week. Note: This bill directs DEP to take certain actions that actually are within the purview of DHHR under the Safe Drinking Water Act (See below). Send an email or call your delegate if you cannot attend. Look them up on Facebook or twitter, and make sure they hear your voice. It is called public service for a reason…they work for the people. Most have been great about listening and taking feedback. Also, let them know if you think they are doing a good job and that you support them. Change is not easy, and our Delegates need to know we support them. To steal a line from High School Musical…we are all in this together.

3. Contact the West Virginia Public Service Commission and file an informal complaint regarding your issues with West Virginia American Water. Whether it is poor quality of service, drinking water quality, or issues with rates and charges, this is an agency which may be of some help. You can submit a comment here  or file an informal complaint I attached a document below that I received tonight with lots of great information about the informal complaint process and why this is important. I know some are planning to boycott but the Public Service Commission is an agency that can take action regarding WVAMW and its failure to provide quality drinking water. As with your landlord (if you rent) legally you cannot just simply stop paying. I’m not sure if there is an escrow capability of the PSC, where they collect our fees until WVAMW remedies the situation, but definitely contact them and file a complaint. WVAMW needs to be held accountable, from rude and uninformed customer service agents to their technicians giving people conflicting information depending on the time and day you call.

4. Contact our US Representatives and Senators. On Tuesday the Committee on Environment and Public Works’ water and wildlife subcommittee will hold a hearing. Scheduled to testify are West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman, Natural Resources Defense Council official Erik Olson and Putnam Public Service District General Manager Michael McNulty, among others. Senators Manchin and Rockefeller need to hear from us. Even though Senator Rockefeller is retiring he has been a key advocate for the valley in this matter. Also, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold its counterpart hearing in Charleston on Feb. 10. The committee includes two West Virginia members. They are the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Nick Rahall, and Republican Shelley Moore Capito. THEY NEED TO HEAR OUR VOICES!!!

5. Going along with #3 and #4, request an investigation into DHHR’s failure to adequately enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act. WV DHHR’s Environmental Engineering Division is the primary agency designated to carry out the provisions of the federal “Safe Drinking Water Act,” and for assuring that the state’s 2,000 public drinking water supplies provide a reliable supply of safe drinking water to approximately 1,387,000 individuals. We are 22% of there constituency…nearly a quarter of the state has been without potable water for three weeks. For whatever reason, the Governor and DHHR seem to defer to WVAMW. Federal Law does not allow for our state government to abdicate its responsibility to protect us by enforcing. We need to request proper funding for updated surface water assessments as well as source water protection plans with adequate community input and participation. REGIONAL PLANNING AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT IS A MUST!!! FEMA has required the state to shoulder 75% of the cost of distributing water because of the “safe” determination. The water company is not the final arbiter of what is “safe.” The water company did not close its intake valve nor has it changed the carbon filters despite all of us changing the filters throughout our homes. We have questions, and we need answers. It has been reported that it will take up to four months for them to change the filters. Did I mention the backup carbon filters were overwhelmed during the spill?(See ) Something needs to be done so that this does not happen again. Many of our local representatives are getting up to speed, this is another thing to bring to their attention.

6. Join a group, attend a meeting, or just show up. There’s a town hall meeting Monday night at 7pm at First Baptist Church – 432 Shrewsbury St, Charleston, WV 25301 I know we are all busy with work, family, etc. but there’s strength in numbers. Yes the water may be getting back to normal for some, and eventually this too shall pass, but we need to be vigilant to ensure that such a colossal mess does not occur again. We the people also bear some of the brunt of this epic failure…we need to make sure people are asking the right questions and findings solutions that are sustainable and provide a holistic approach instead of putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. We have to keep the people elected to lead…honest.

This is just my list of things to do. Other ways to get involved include water donation drives. And making sure schools have materials they need during this crisis. Our children are critical to our future success and growth. They are the greatest investment we can make…we need to make each school has enough water, hand sanitizer, bleach wipes etc. Contact your local PTA to see if there is a needs list for the water crisis or in general

.take action

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