There’s a moment when a child confronts an unfairness so big it changes the way he or she looks at world.
It could be a significant trauma − abuse, a loss − or a simple awareness that the rules don’t apply to everyone the same way. There’s a moment when we question what we’ve been taught or assumed to be true in a way that shakes the ground underneath us.
For the past several days, some children in Ferguson have seen a slain teenager on the street, killed by a police officer, a childhood symbol of protection. They’ve witnessed police in riot gear in clouds of tear gas, night after night, heard barking dogs used to try to control the unrest, angry shouts from protesters and police. They have heard shots fired and seen a building burned, glass shattered.
“I know that in the coming days, weeks and months children will continue to re-experience this,” said Marva Robinson, president of the St. Louis chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists. It’s not just those living nearby, but also those who have been watching the news with their parents. Children could have nightmares for years to come. They may be hypersensitve or hypervigilant around law enforcement, Robinson said.
From their parents, they may be hearing about how their community is treated unfairly, targeted or hated. Instead of new backpacks, they may carry a sense of devaluation, anxiety, fear with them too as they head back to school.
What is the eventual impact of being exposed at a young age to violence and a feeling that the police can’t or won’t protect you? You build up a wall of mistrust. You are closed off to persons of authority. You find it hard to trust the guidance of school professionals or others who may want to help you. You see them as part of a system that killed someone who looks like you or doesn’t care about children who look like you.
“If they were innocent before this, the seeds are being planted in them of feeling dehumanized,” Robinson said. Those seeds bloom into a cycle that perpetuates scenes like what we are seeing in Ferguson.
Isn’t the loss of this innocence yet another injustice, which should outrage us and motivate us to do something?
The onus on parents will be to drown out the negative with the light of the positive. Reinforce to their children that they do matter. Tell them and show them that the world is bigger than what’s happening right now. Show them that they can be the change that stops incidents like this from occurring again.
The responsibility on the local community will be to step up and increase mentoring so children have role models for what they can aspire to and road maps for how they can get there.
The imperative for law enforcement will be to work to change behaviors that target people unfairly. Make it a priority to identify the patterns that led to this sort of escalation. Listen to the grievances from the community they are there to serve with an open mind and address some of these concerns. Handle the investigation into what happened to 18-year-old Michael Brown, killed Aug. 9, with the utmost fairness and transparency. People want to be treated with a basic level of dignity.
Those of us further removed from the situation also have obligations. There’s a toxic mindset here: Their problem, not ours.
How many of us have taken a sustained interest in a child outside our own family, outside our most immediate circle?
I’ve had to take a look at my own life and priorities after spending time in Ferguson in the aftermath of the shooting. I care about this region deeply. These recent events may seem to have a weary familiarity to the cynics among us. It may look like forces at play much larger than us, problems much deeper and bigger than we could ever hope to change.
That’s just rationalization to sit back and wash your hands of a messy, heartbreaking situation.
This isn’t just a tragic story unfolding in a suburb of St. Louis. Every city has children who lose faith, who are failed by institutions and adults.
I met Ronaldo Ward, 32, of St. Louis, outside the QuikTrip store the morning after it was burned by rioters. There’s a question he says he rarely hears from people quick to criticize the community: What can I do to make it better?