My son is gone.
It’s been two years since my husband left our home—on Feb. 7, 2014—to pick up our 14-year-old son, Andrew Joseph III, from the state fair, after he was late for curfew. We understood him being late this particular Friday night because Saturday would be Andrew’s confirmation—a Catholic ceremony where he would affirm his faith to God before his family and friends. It was a weekend for celebration, so I sent my son to enjoy Student Day at the Florida State Fair with his friends.
After looking around the fair for our son, my husband, Andrew Joseph II, could not find him. He then worked with fair police to help us locate our son as I continually called his cellphone from our home. Eventually we were notified that Andrew’s phone was ringing in the morgue.
My son is gone. As a mother, I would never have imagined that I would utter those words after sending my 14-year-old off to a night of fun at the fair. That was the day I was thrust into a life of advocating for justice, not only for my son but also for the dignity and respect of black families.
Andrew Joseph III was killed by an oncoming car when he tried to cross the highway on which he had been abandoned by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office after being ejected from the Florida State Fair. My family has been left with many gaps and unanswered questions surrounding Andrew’s arrest and death.To this day, there is no police report, and in the absence of their names, there is no accountability for the arresting officer or officers who failed to protect the life of my son.
But what we know for sure is that the police did not notify my husband and me, his parents, that he had been arrested, or that my 14-year-old child had even been removed from the fair. In doing so, the sheriff’s office and the Tampa Fair Authority not only failed to value his life but also failed to acknowledge that he was a child who belonged to a family that loved and was responsible for him. When children misbehave, their parents are usually called; however, it seems that this foregone assumption does not apply to black children.
Unfortunately, my son’s death does not exist in a vacuum. The murders of and assaults on black children around the country point to that. From black girls at pool parties and classrooms who are brutally assaulted to Tamir Rice, who was killed by police officers for playing with a toy, there is an ongoing stereotype that “misbehaved” black children are violent and in need of state intervention.
The police, in these cases and countless others, handle these children as if they were menacing adults. When black children are assessed so harshly, there is also a stereotype that black parents are incompetent at raising them. So instead of calling their parents, the police and other authorities feel that it is their role to punish our children on our behalf because they assume that we are neglecting our children. Not only are black children denied their dignity and humanity, but black parents and our communities are also denied our right to protect and parent our children.
These notions are rooted in an ongoing discourse around the pathology of black families. The controversial and popular 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” by then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan has been at the center of this conversation for 50 years. Moynihan wrote, “At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro Family.” For Moynihan, white, two-parent heterosexual families were the prime example of healthy and successful families. While Moynihan acknowledged that racism made economic and social success harder for black families to achieve, he still held the underlying belief that black people were dysfunctional.
He continues, “In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped.” Despite racist undertones, this document continues to be cited by prominent public figures across the political spectrum, from President Barack Obama to now-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. And while some Moynihan advocates have good intentions, the report has broad cultural implications when it’s used to prove that African Americans are ultimately inherently culpable for the violence inflicted upon them because of their own dysfunction and are, indeed, incapable of caring for themselves and their children.
These racist ideas have impacted the ways I was able to parent and shortened the amount of time that I was able to have with my son. As a society, we have to address and dismantle the underlying ideas that prevent our children from achieving the level of humanity and innocence that they deserve.
One phone call could have prevented my baby’s death. That was my baby. He is gone because someone deemed him a dejected criminal before he was thought of as someone’s baby with a loving family and community that cared for him.
Black lives and families matter, and we do not need the state to bypass us as caregivers and instead raise and discipline our children through police interventions and imprisonment. We need the state to realize that our children are part of communities and families.
We have community. Our children are loved and can be taught to find their way through the world without the assistance of the criminal-justice system. We are, and always have been, capable parents even in the face of violent racism that perpetually threatens to tear our families apart. That racism hasn’t changed, but neither has the strength of our love.
These are our kids; this is my family, not yours!
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Deanna Joseph is the mother of 14-year-old Andrew Joseph III. She is a member of Black Lives Matter Tampa and wants justice for her son and the many black families who are recovering from the mistreatment of their children by the criminal-justice system. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.