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When grown men point loaded weapons at 12-year-old boys, none of us should sleep well at night

If we as a city are to truly fight racism, we must measure the impact, not the intent, of city-sponsored grown men who pointed loaded guns at 12-year-old boys.
Shawndryka Moore, Jacquetta Sims, and IKeshia Quinn addressed the City Commission

Shawndryka Moore, Jacquetta Sims, and IKeshia Quinn addressed the City Commission /LaDonna Norman/Facebook Live

Last night, I couldn't sleep.

It was 2 a.m., but my mind was still at the City Commission meeting, where three mothers told the story of their sons - 12 to 14 years in age - being stopped at gunpoint by police. (Their comments are at about 31:00 on this Facebook Live video.)

During the public comment period at the end of a very long meeting, Jacquetta Sims began by asking if all three of the mothers could tell their story together. Public comments are usually contained to three minutes per individual commenter, but Sims asked if they could combine their time to make sure their full story could be heard. Mayor Bliss consented to that request.

‘Walking as Black males’

The mothers - Sims as well as Shawndryka Moore and IKeshia Quinn - then relayed the kind of story that makes every parent shake. Their boys, walking home together at 6:30 p.m. last Friday, March 24, after playing basketball at the Kroc Center on Division, had been identified as “fitting the description” of suspects the police were looking for.

The first officer pulled up fast in his vehicle, onto the curb, frightening the boys. According to the mothers, this officer drew his weapon and made the boys lie on the ground with their hands on their heads. He called for backup, and the officers surrounded the boys, weapons out. (A Facebook Live video shows the boys lying on the ground, the area surrounded by police cars, the police pointing weapons from behind their open car doors.) The officers then made the boys walk backwards, hands over head to be handcuffed and enter the police vehicles. The boys cooperated and followed all instructions.

As the boys got closer to the officers, the officers seemed not to have recognized how young the boys were and kept their guns drawn. When they shut a boy’s foot in the door, Sims reported that they told him his foot shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

The mothers tried to get to their sons, but the police had blockaded the street by then and told Sims only to calm down “or else.” Sims reported that one of the boys had a mark on his wrists where the cuffs were too tight.  

“For 12, 13, 14 year-old boys, this is extreme. Our kids are terrified. ... Why the use of force, of guns, when they have [less-than-lethal] options? Why did they have to be frisked three times?” said Sims.

Moore agreed. Though she recognized that the police were trying to find suspects who had been fighting and had been reported with a gun, she said, “[The police] want to explain this is the proper protocol, but I just don’t get it. [The boys] were unarmed and they weren’t doing anything. They didn’t even know what the police were approaching them for."

The mothers said there was no apology, simply an explanation that the boys were “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But the mothers felt differently. “These are good boys. They all play basketball - go to school, go to practice, come right home. ... I feel it’s a case of they were walking as Black males,” said Sims.

GRPD responds

I spoke with Sgt. Terry Dixon, GRPD Public Information officer. "Situations like this involving young people are always concerning to us," said Dixon. "Chief Rahinsky has talked with the City Commissioners and the parents about this; he will meet with the mothers personally tomorrow. We understand how they feel - none of us would want that for our children."

Dixon went on to say that officers were acting on a report of a fight of about 100 teens at the Kroc Center. One witness had reported seeing a teen dressed in black, putting a gun in a bag. The teen was with a group of other teens. This report was given to all the officers looking for groups who had been involved with the fight. When an officer saw this group of boys, one dressed in black, he responded to the threat of a possible weapon present. Dixon described the officer's engagement as "textbook procedures, and nothing discourteous was said. The individuals followed all the commands. As soon as the boys were in custody, the parents were notified and briefed on the situation." Dixon also mentioned that officers are currently recovering a large number of weapons from the streets, and they feel they must take the threat of a weapon seriously for the community's safety.

"Chief Rahinsky and the GRPD are interested in continuing the discussion and dialogue."

Continuing the dialogue: Bias

Regarding Sims' comment that the boys were stopped because they were "walking as Black males," the boys were indeed walking in a part of the city where often the only white faces that officers see when they patrol is each others’.  If we in Grand Rapids want to do true anti-racism work, we must address this. We must address impact and not just intent. The officers involved would likely say they did not mean to cause inequitable outcomes for these boys. But it seems clear that the impact is just that.

We need to address a system in Grand Rapids that continues to create traumatizing and harmful outcomes for people of color, a system which all of us - myself, police, city government, schools, and white citizens and institutions of all types -- continue to perpetuate. A system of continued segregation and higher poverty rates for Black neighborhoods.

For instance, research shows that Black boys are often seen as older than they really are. Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

‘Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that Black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,’ said author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Research also shows that most people have trouble identifying people of a race different from their own. Though the mothers pointed out that the boys were wearing different clothes than those of the suspect’s description, it apparently wasn’t enough for the officers to see the boys as differing from the suspects - a small group out of 100 teens - they were looking for.

None of this may have been the officers' intent, but the impact seems to have lined up with what research says is institutional racism - as enacted by individuals within the system. Dixon identified himself as Black during our phone conversation and when asked, said that he does see how race - segregation, poverty, and more - is an important part of the conversation.

A loaded, deadly weapon

I have a 13-year-old son, my youngest. Sometimes he goes walking with his friends, not with a basketball, like these boys carried, but with wooden swords or Nerf guns. Sometimes they walk at night, and not in daylight like these boys did. My son and his friends laugh and jostle each other, just as these boys were most likely doing as they walked.

But the fact is my son is middle-class and white, in a mixed but largely white neighborhood. We have never once “fit the description,” even of white suspects, and I expect we never will. It is far more likely the police would simply ask my son and his friends if they had seen anything, and the boys would have a much more benign story to bring home, rather than me running to a blockade of police cars barefoot, as Moore did, in fear that my son had been hurt.

Impact: faces pressed to dirt, trembling

What I want never to lose sight of is this: these children had their faces pressed to the dirt. They were likely trembling and wondering if one of the guns would go off by accident while pointed at them - or if one misunderstanding would make the officers just flat-out shoot. (Tamir Rice was also 12 years old.)

I cannot fathom how such a mistake could be made. Why do Sims, Quinn and Moore have to fathom it?

If it were my child, I would expect quick, disciplinary action and procedural review.  We must expect it and demand it in this case.

What I heard in the shaking voices of Sims, Quinn, and Moore last night was the very real terror that the damage and trauma done to their sons will be lasting. It is exactly the terror I would have if I were in the same position. That is impact, regardless of intent. That is where we must address this inequity.


We need to keep pushing this issue

Police forces all over the country are working to lessen the harmful impact of these kinds of biases, but because Grand Rapids has such a problem with economic bias as reported by Forbes, we must work twice as hard.

We as a community - white, Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American - low-income and middle-class - must continue to push this issue. If this is protocol - to match the possible threat of one gun with the drawing of six in order to deter violent action - to equip our force with high-level weaponry that could be pulled on a twelve-year-old - is that what we want?

Dixon said that if changes need to be made, that may be a conversation to have with the City Commissioners. Are there community solutions and community building that we could do to decrease the risk that one of our babies will be shot because he or she panicked when faced with an officer's weapon? How do we find community solutions to the number of guns on our streets - and the reasons that people feel they need to carry them?


I will not be telling these mothers that the near-paralyzing fear they felt for their sons is due to large systemic problems that are too difficult to address. There are a web of problems - police representation, segregation, poverty, and mass incarceration - that are systemic and yet must be addressed.

As Moore expressed, and the other mothers agreed, “[The police] got to do something about the way they handle things.”

I am here with them saying, let’s find the solutions, because the impact on children is too much to bear. 

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