‘I am a child!’ Pepper Spray Reflects Black Children’s Police


The 9-year-old black girl sat handcuffed in the backseat of a police car, distraught and crying for her father as the white police grew increasingly impatient as they tried to push her all the way into the vehicle .

“This is your last chance,” warned an officer. “Otherwise, the pepper spray gets in your eyes.”

Less than 90 seconds later, the girl had been sprayed and was screaming, “Please wipe my eyes!” Wipe my eyes, please!

What started with a report of “family problems” in Rochester, New York, and ended with police treating a fourth-grader as a crime suspect, sparked outrage as last example of ill-treatment inflicted by the police on blacks.

As the United States suffers a new toll of police brutality and racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death last May, the girl’s treatment illustrates how even young children are not. exempt.

Research shows that black children are often seen as older than they are and are more likely to be viewed as threatening or dangerous. Advocates have long said this leads to police treating them in ways they wouldn’t dream of treating white children. In some cases, this has resulted in deaths such as the murder of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black man who was shot dead by a white policeman in Cleveland in 2014.

“Black children never had the opportunity to be children,” said Kristin Henning, professor of law and director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown Law.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics in late 2020 found that black children and adolescents were six times more likely to die from police gunfire than white children. He analyzed data on the use of force by police in situations involving young people aged 12 to 17 from 2003 to 2018.

“Black children were really seen as older, more guilty, less likely to be rehabilitated, and less worthy of Western notions of innocence and Western notions of childhood, Henning said.

Rochester’s headlines were deeply personal for Mando Avery, whose 7-year-old son was hit by pepper spray from a police officer targeting someone else during a protest in Seattle last summer. The spray left her son’s face and chest sore and swollen from chemical burns for several days, and even required an emergency room visit.

He has since had nightmares and now fears the police. Small things can bring back bad memories, like using a spray bottle to style your hair.

“Their innocence disappears a lot, a lot sooner,” Avery said. “What kind of tantrum leads to handcuffing a child?” “

In the Rochester case, the girl’s mother called the police on January 29 after an argument with her partner and said she asked officers to call mental health services when her daughter became increasingly more upset.

But the police body camera video only shows policemen at the scene, first handcuffing the girl’s hands behind her back, then becoming more and more impatient as they tried to get her up. in the police car, resulting in pepper spray.

There is a point in the video where an officer says, “You are acting like a child! “To which the girl replies:” I am a child!

Officers have been suspended pending an investigation. Other video footage released on Thursday showed the wait until an ambulance arrived for the girl.

The case comes months after the high-profile death last spring of Daniel Prude, a black man suffering a mental health crisis when his family called Rochester Police. The officers handcuffed him and then put a hood over his head when he spat on them. As he struggled, they pinned him face down, an officer pushing his head against the sidewalk until he stopped breathing.

The 9-year-old’s mother, Elba Pope, told The Associated Press that she didn’t think white officers saw her daughter the same way they would see a white child.

“If they had looked at her like she was one of their children, they wouldn’t have peppered her,” she said.

Henning agreed. “This is where the question of race comes in,” she said. “If this child had looked like one of their little daughters, looked like the little child they put to bed, it is much less likely that they would have.”

The Rochester Police Union chairman said the officers were not lacking in compassion but faced a difficult situation with limited resources and were following departmental protocol.

New York is not the only place where the police treatment of black children has been a flashpoint.

In a Denver suburb, four black girls aged 6 to 17 were arrested by police at gunpoint after being falsely suspected of being in a stolen car last year.

An officer attempted to handcuff the 6-year-old girl, who was wearing a tiara for what was supposed to be a girls’ day with her relatives, but the handcuffs were too big, according to a complaint filed by the family.

In North Texas, a white police officer was videotaped pushing a black girl in a swimsuit to the ground at a poolside party in 2015. Later that year, a sheriff’s deputy of a South Carolina school threw a girl to the ground and dragged her through a classroom after refusing to return her cell phone in math class.

In the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old was playing with a pellet gun in November 2014 when Cleveland Police responding to a call pulled over and within seconds, shot him. When her 14-year-old sister rushed to the scene, she was pushed to the ground and handcuffed. The officers were not charged.

It’s this story that makes Christian Gibbs, a black father of three, thankful that Rochester’s daughter was not more seriously injured – and angry, it’s even a worry.

“Thank goodness she was not killed. … And the fact that we have to say this is already an indictment of the kind of treatment we expect to be given, even to small children, ”said Gibbs, 46, of Bowie, Md.

Holly M. Frye, of South Ogden, Utah, said she had almost daily conversations with her three children about how to deal with the police, the same kinds of conversations her parents had with her.

“This kind of assault on the black race has always been around, it’s just being recorded now,” she said. “It’s a subject that never leaves our kitchen table, we always talk about it all the time.”

Although data is sparse on very young children’s interactions with the police, black youth are nearly five times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, according to an analysis by nonprofit The Sentencing Project. .

The incarceration rate for white youth is 83 per 100,000; for black youth, that number jumps to 383, found The Sentencing Project. Although this is in part due to differences in delinquency, studies have found that adolescents of color are more likely to be arrested and more likely to face serious consequences compared to their white peers, according to the report. .

And it’s not just the police and the criminal justice system. Black students face higher rates of suspension and expulsion from school, said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, which combats structural racism.

It’s “the way our black kids are interviewed by adults, with this underlying assumption that you don’t believe them, and you don’t trust them, and that they’re always up to something. wrong, ”she said.

This leads to trauma and mistrust on the part of young blacks towards the authorities around them, she said.

“There is no ‘Officer Friendly’ for black children,” she said.

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