When my son was 14, I left him for a week to go out of town. Before I left, I gave him all the ground rules for being home alone. Check in with grandma. Answer your phone when I call you. Make sure you get to bed at a decent hour. Make sure you get to school on time. Remember that I love you.
While I was making the 10 hour drive home, he called me and asked if he could spend the night at his friend’s house. I told him he could.
A few hours after I got home, I got a phone call from the police in Blount county where he was staying. They said that he and his friend were out past curfew. He just wanted to make sure I knew where he was since he was so far from home (he lives in Knoxville, his friend lives in Maryville). I told him that I had been traveling and I did, in fact, know where he was. The officer said that he would be happy to take the boys back to the friend’s house and leave them with a warning.
Within 10 minutes, my phone was ringing again. The officer said that he was arresting my son. Before he could let him get in the backseat of his car, he had told my son that he would need to search him – for his own safety. Upon searching him, he found a 9mm in his backpack, with a bullet in the chamber and the safety off.
It was almost surreal hearing those words being spoken to me.
I couldn’t fathom where or why he would have a gun. I laid out all the ground rules before I left. I did not think that I needed to tell him “don’t buy a gun on the streets and carry it around with you.”
They held him in juvenile for 24 hours before I was able to meet him at Juvenile Court and wait for the judge’s verdict. They needed to make sure the gun hadn’t been used to kill anyone.
Luckily, it hadn’t.
When the judge finally released him to me, I asked him what in the world he was thinking? Where did he get the gun? Why did he think he needed one?
He told me that he didn’t feel safe walking in the neighborhood. He told me that getting a gun was easy. All he had to do was walk out of the house. He knew plenty of places to get a gun.
None of it seemed real to me. I didn’t know what neighborhood he was living in that he felt that way. I wasn’t even sure we were living in the same world. My son, my baby boy, didn’t feel safe in his world and I didn’t even know it.
Luckily, the police officers that arrested him were cool headed. Nobody drew a gun on him. Nobody decided to manhandle him. Nobody killed him.
I watched the video that was released yesterday of Anthony Thompson, Jr getting killed in the bathroom of his high school. The high school my son went to. The high school he was attending the week he decided he was not safe in the neighborhood and felt like he needed a gun. When I saw the footage of the 17 year old, I thought of my own son, now 19. I saw the demeanor of a typical teenager. I saw a boy who was given less than 30 seconds for his teenage brain to make a whole lot of hard choices. I saw my own son. Tall. Dreadlocks. Skinny jeans. Hoodie. Brown skin.
Yes, he had a gun in school. No, he shouldn’t have. He made a poor choice. We’ve all made poor choices that haven’t gotten us killed.
But I feel like we are missing the real point here.
I feel as confused today as I did 6 years ago when I picked up my son from the Maryville police station. As I watched that horrific video being played 3 times on live news and once in slow motion, I had so many questions. Why did this child feel like he needed to have a gun? Where did he get the gun? Where was a staff member from the school, someone that he knew and trusted, trying to talk to him before the police went in? Why did the police not even try to have a conversation with him before they put their hands on him to take him into custody? Why was there less than one minute from entry to deadly shooting?
I’ve been pulled over quite a few times in my life and just about every single time, the officer has asked me, “do you have a weapon on you?” Why was this child not given the same courtesy? From what my eyes saw, they were not worried about a weapon when they walked into that bathroom. If they had been, they would have all had their weapons drawn. Why aren’t the police taught more de-escalation techniques? Why didn’t the school suspend him for the alleged “fight” with his girlfriend and let the police deal with him at his home? It’s been a couple of years since I’ve had a child in high school, but I don’t recall the police ever being called to school for two kids fighting even if it was a boy and a girl.
There are so many things wrong with this situation. And yesterday, as I watched the video being played on live television of a child losing his life, a friend yelling for someone to help him, and a District Attorney explaining away the death with very little emotion, I could feel that mother’s loss deep inside my chest. As the District Attorney was explaining how the officer was “reasonably” scared for his life, as she read his well prepared statement, all I could think was that if things had been done differently, maybe none of it would have happened. Maybe that child would have been home eating breakfast with his family instead of being buried today.
Anthony Thompson, Jr. is not around to explain if he was “reasonably” scared for his life. And the whole world is showing up to cast their own judgements.
And as I head to get my coffee this morning as school is starting, I will drive by scores of other children in my neighborhood who are probably “reasonably” scared for their lives every day. And now they are “reasonably” scared that they will be killed in school for making a poor life choice on any given day.
I don’t know what the answer is.
I do know the answer is not to blame the dead. It is not his fault that he is dead because he had a gun. It is not his mother’s fault for not knowing what it felt like in his world.
If I’m being honest, I feel like those of us still breathing are to blame. I’m to blame for “going back to normal” after my son served his sentence and paid his fine. I’m to blame for pretending that he couldn’t or wouldn’t just go find another gun. I’m to blame for not being more involved in my community. I’m to blame for not helping to create a safe space for kids. The police are to blame for not training their officers efficiently. The school is to blame for allowing a gun to make it inside. The community is to blame for making it so easy for our babies to find weapons right in their backyards. We all have our part to play, even if it is small.
My heart is heavy this morning for my community.
I’m not sure how to help, but I do know that doing nothing is no longer an option.
I can’t read about another Justin Taylor (15). I can’t read about another Stanley Freeman, Jr. (16). I can’t read about another Janaria Muhammad (15). I can’t read about another Jamarion Gillette (15). And I can’t read about another Anthony Thompson, Jr. (17).
How many more names have to be added to the list before enough is enough?
I say no more.