As a youth justice advocate, I give lots of speeches and presentations to elected officials, the heads of national organizations, judges and attorneys. I talk about why children should never be sentenced to life without parole and other extreme sentences.
I also helped launch the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, or ICAN, which brings together people who went to prison as children and are now working to end violence in their communities. But before I did any of this, I was a victim of racist police brutality.
As protests continue following the death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown at the hands of a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer, I can’t help reflecting on my own experiences. I certainly am not comparing them to Brown’s death. I do believe, however, that both reflect a horrifying pattern in which too many police officers unleash their rage and frustrations onto African-American and Latino boys and young men. This extends to the courts, where black youths are sentenced to life without parole at 10 times the per capita rate of white youths.
Details are still emerging about what happened in Ferguson. But if this was an unjustified shooting, as many people contend, it reflects the unspoken impunity of police to shoot black and Latino boys and young men with very little cause—if any. It is the manifestation of a belief system that leads some within the legal system to see young black and Latino boys as “the worst of the worst” who do not deserve to be treated as children, or even as human beings; the same type of belief system that led criminologists during the 1990s to develop the “superpredator theory (pdf)”—which suggested that there would be a rise in juvenile crime led by black and brown youths.
According to this theory, these minority youths would have no morals, no fear and no concern about whom they hurt. The crime wave never occurred, and the developers of this theory later acknowledged that it was wrong. But we continue to live its legacy as some police assume the worst when encountering young people of color and treat them with little regard for their lives and humanity.
I had my first encounter with police when I was 6, when they took my siblings and me away from my mother because of abuse and neglect. Soon after we were returned to my mother two-and-a-half years later, I was arrested for the first time for trying to steal a candy bar from a grocery store. We were poor and often didn’t have food in our home.
In the years that followed, my encounters with police were plentiful and overwhelmingly negative. Before I even understood what racism was, officers alternated between calling me a “nigger” and a “spic.” They slapped me, punched me, poked me with nightsticks and choked me so often that I thought their behavior was part of the process—that it was normal. In all but one brutal encounter, the officers were white.
In the meantime, I was experiencing abuse and neglect within my home. Like many children in this situation, I responded by getting into more and more trouble with the law. In search of a family, I joined a gang when I was 11, and by the time I was 13 I had been arrested 19 times and convicted seven times. I was a deeply traumatized and troubled child. Unfortunately, my experiences with the police only reinforced my behaviors by suggesting that violence was the norm.
My worst beating at the hands of police came in 1989, when I was 13 and was arrested in connection with a gang-related murder. I was released from juvenile court and turned over to the homicide division, where I was interrogated for hours. While I was handcuffed to a chair, white homicide detectives questioned me about the murder, all the while insisting that I knew something. They repeatedly hit my head with a telephone book—presumably because it wouldn’t leave any visible marks.
I never knew I had grounds to complain about these abuses. It was the police—those who enforced the law—who were beating on me. Who would I have told? Besides, nearly everyone in my life had beaten me: my father, my stepfather, my foster mother, rival gang members and even members of my own gang whenever I messed up. The police were just next in line. I didn’t see them as the good guys; they were just the guys who had the right to carry guns and treat us any way they chose.
I was convicted in the murder case and spent 13 years in prison. While there, I grew up, changed, earned a college degree and committed my life to the memory of the victim. Since my release, I have worked to end violence in our communities so that other young people can avoid my trajectory. But in doing this work, I realize that there is an uphill struggle when narratives from police and news media portray youths from minority groups as crime-prone, aggressive and dangerous people. These stories negate the reality that the majority of people in our communities are law-abiding, caring and compassionate people who want what’s best for our children.
This phenomenon exacerbates the sense of alienation, worthlessness and unworthiness among many young black and Latino children who are often already dealing with poverty, failing schools and other traumas. How can we expect our children to believe in the system and the potential of the American dream when their very lives are not valued by society?
Not every police officer I encountered treated me harshly. Some were genuinely kind and concerned about my well-being. At times they gave me food and loosened my handcuffs. But too many treated me like the enemy, even though I was a child.
We must not allow these racist and negative narratives about our young people to justify the total disregard for their lives. Our children are not worthless. They should not be sent to prison forever, and each of them should be able to trust in the high standard we have set for those who have sworn to serve and protect our communities.
Xavier McElrath-Bey is a youth-justice advocate with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
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