Our youngest son Garrett turns 16 in two days. Sixteen is a milestone birthday for parents and kids. Every day I marvel at the person he is. Normal parent stuff, I know. I treasure those normalcies. Times when we’re just like other families and he’s a regular teen. Whatever that is?
Why? Because in addition to wondering what hallmark gift we should give him, this year we had to do something a lot of the parents don’t consider. A few weeks ago we sat him down and presented him with a criminal lawyer‘s contact information. Our son is a Black male in the United States. As his 16th birthday approached, we had to find him a lawyer.
Once he’s 16, Garrett will be officially too old to call parents when detained by law enforcement. He’ll need top notch legal resources as quickly as he can retain them. This isn’t our first time dealing with this unwanted rite of passage. David and I have had this talk before with our older son.
Each time our sons move to a new city or become of age, they will get a lawyer. We tell the lawyer their names, agree to pay their bills, and, with permission, we give our sons the lawyer’s contact information. As with any worst-case scenario preparation, hopefully it will never be tested.
We aren’t the only parents of Black and Brown children who take such precautions.
The judicial system treats 16-year-olds as adults. Black, Brown and Native 16-year-olds are more likely to have adversarial contact with law enforcement than their White peers. Therefore, more likely to be treated like adults by police officers. As responsible parents, we’re compelled to chip away at what remains of Garrett’s youth by connecting him with a criminal attorney he can call immediately after a police stop. I pray he never uses that number. I pray the lawyer his father arranged never hears our sons’ voices outside of social interactions.
I want to be overreacting. I’m not. Criminal lawyer contact information is like a condom for our guys. They must have one on them. The consequences of a Black male navigating the earth without it are life altering.
When my mommy goggles slip, I peep the future man in Garrett.
He’s primed to make powerful contributions to the world. I’m excited and terrified. Excited to witness what he’ll do. Scared that someone else, perhaps someone armed with a weapon, will see him as a threat.
When I look at him, I see a classically trained, college bound, musician, like Draylen Mason, who opened a package bomb delivered to his home and was killed because a domestic terrorist targeted his Black family. I see a teenager smart enough to leave a house party by curfew and before things got out of hand, like 15-year-old Jordan Edwards did before police officers opened fire into the car his older brother was driving home. When I look at our youngest son, I see a kid who will succeed like his older brother, Corey. One day he too will have his own apartment, where he’ll eat ice cream in front of the TV, like 26-year-old Botham Jean did when he was shot on sight, without provocation. When I look at our sons, I see my greatest blessings and fears.
Some of you are reading this thinking, “Here we go again. Somebody else moaning about how life isn’t perfect.” This isn’t an example of overplanning or overreacting. This is neither a home fallout shelter nor a safe room. Every male (and some females) in my family has been stopped, without cause, by police.
Garrett was 13 years old the first time he was stopped.
I hate to say “for the first time” but chances are he won’t get through this life without being stopped again. That first time he was with another Black boy. Fortunately, they were well-versed in what to do. Their pride was bruised but their bodies made it out intact. The next time they may not be as lucky.
I desperately want to approach this milestone birthday like mothers who don’t have these worries. I can’t. To be the best mother I can be, I have to gift Garrett an attorney—along with a new, hard to find, not dorky, clarinet case. I have to remind him that because some see him as a predator, he’s the prey.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I got Garrett’s 16th birthday attorney business out of the way so that we can truly celebrate on his big day. I’ll go overboard with my birthday party ideas. We’ll have corny decorations, gifts, and lots of off-key singing. We’ll be that loud table at the restaurant during his traditional family dinner and he’ll tell us about his favorite gift—concert tickets for him and friends.
After all, our sons are like everyone else’s, especially on their birthdays.