When I was a kid, growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother who enabled him (consciously or unconsciously I was never sure), sometimes we would find ourselves, the 6 of us, crammed into our too-small Saab, driving from bar to bar in the next town over, my mother struggling to pilot the car, comfort (sort of) her 4 distraught children, and keep my father from getting any meaner than he already was.
At that time in his life my father prided himself on never driving drunk. He did most of his drinking at home, but sometimes he would get started while we were out somewhere. He would have a drink with dinner, and once the train was on that particular sloped track there was no going back. He would barhop until he was falling-down drunk. My mother would become his chauffeur and we kids his cringing silent witnesses.
One time, when my father was stumbling through the various bars of LaPorte, Indiana, a few towns over from where we lived, my mother got so flustered that she forgot to turn on the headlights.
She got pulled over. At the moment my father was in one of the bars so it was my mother and us kids. I remember some things very distinctly. The officer leaning down to talk to my mom through the driver’s side window. The way he bent still lower and peered into the back seat, probably trying to see exactly how many kids were crammed into the car and what state we were in.
I remember those things, and I remember watching my father stand outside the car later that night and pound on the front fender of the car while shouting at my mother – I don’t think he had any reason but to bully.
But the thing I remember the most distinctly is how terrified I was that the policeman was going to kill my mother. It was a primal terror that was as deep and instinctual as the fear of one’s own death.
I asked, “Mommy, is the policeman going to shoot you if you don’t turn your lights on?”
I was quickly assured that that’s not what the police were there for. My mother and older brother explained that he was trying to help and that police don’t shoot people who aren’t doing anything wrong.
You might see where I’m going with this. I can’t stop thinking about Charleena Lyles and her children. I can’t stop thinking about how her children felt that horrible fear, that paralyzing, bowel liquefying, primal fear, that they might lose their one and only mommy. But for them there was no one to tell them that it’s all going to be OK, that police don’t shoot people unless they’re doing something wrong. It wasn’t OK for them. Their mother was killed in front of them.
We live in multiple Americas. As a white, middle class kid, I was reassured that the police are there to do good. It didn’t solve all the problems of growing up in my crazy family, but at least I could breathe easily around the police from that time forward. Charleena Lyles’ children never had that privilege. They live in an America where your mom calls the police for help and somehow she becomes the problem; a problem to be eliminated.
This one horrifies me more than the other police shootings because those children were denied the right that all children should have – to know they’re safe; to know that the people they love are safe. To believe that the people who we have hired to protect and serve us will serve ALL of us, not just the white ones.
I remember my fear, and I remember my relief, when my mom explained that the police don’t hurt people who aren’t doing anything wrong. Everyone in this country is entitled to have that be true for them.