And if children live with terror, trauma and violence – forced to watch helplessly as their loved ones are executed by police officers who shoot first and ask questions later – will they in turn learn to terrorize, traumatize and inflict violence on the world around them?
I’m not willing to risk it. Are you?
It’s difficult enough raising a child in a world ravaged by war, disease, poverty and hate, but when you add the toxic stress of the police state into the mix, it becomes near impossible to protect children from the growing unease that some of the monsters of our age come dressed in government uniforms.
Case in point: in Hugo, Oklahoma, plain clothes police officers opened fire on a pickup truck parked in front of a food bank, heedless of the damage such a hail of bullets—26 shots were fired—could have on those in the vicinity. Three of the four children inside the parked vehicle were shot: a 4-year-old girl was shot in the head and ended up with a bullet in the brain; a 5-year-old boy received a skull fracture; and a 1-year-old girl had deep cuts on her face from gunfire or shattered window glass. Only the 2-year-old was spared any physical harm, although the terror will likely linger for a long time. “They are terrified to go anywhere or hear anything,” the family attorney said. “The two-year-old keeps asking about ‘Am I going to get shot again.’”
While the two officers involved in the shooting are pulling paid leave at taxpayer expense, the children’s mother is struggling to figure out how to care for her wounded family and pay the medical expenses, including the cost to transport each child in a separate medical helicopter to a nearby hospital: $75,000 for one child’s transport alone.
This may be the worst use of excessive force on innocent children to date. Unfortunately, it is one of many in a steady stream of cases that speak to the need for police to de-escalate their tactics and stop resorting to excessive force when less lethal means are available to them.
In Detroit,7-year-old Aiyana Jones was killed after a Detroit SWAT team launched a flash-bang grenade into her family’s apartment, broke through the door and opened fire, hitting the little girl who was asleep on the living room couch. The cops were in the wrong apartment.
In Georgia, a SWAT team launched a flash-bang grenade into the house in which Baby Bou Bou, his three sisters and his parents were staying. The grenade landed in the 2-year-old’s crib, burning a hole in his chest and leaving the child with scarring that a lifetime of surgeries will not be able to easily undo.
In Ohio,police shot 4-year-old Ava Ellis in the leg, shattering the bone, after being dispatched to assist the girl’s mother, who had cut her arm and was in need of a paramedic. Cops claimed that the family pet charged the officer who was approaching the house, causing him to fire his gun and accidentally hit the little girl.
These children are more than grim statistics on a police blotter. They are the heartbreaking casualties of the government’s endless, deadly wars on terror, on drugs, and on the American people themselves.
Then you have the growing number of incidents involving children who are forced to watch helplessly as trigger-happy police open fire on loved ones and community members alike.
In Arizona, a 7-year-old girl watched panic-stricken as a state trooper pointed his gun at her and her father during a traffic stop and reportedly threated to shoot her father in the back (twice) based on the mistaken belief that they were driving a stolen rental car.
More than 80% of American communities have their own SWAT teams, with more than 80,000 of these paramilitary raids are carried out every year. That translates to more than 200 SWAT team raids every day in which police crash through doors, damage private property, terrorize adults and children alike, kill family pets, assault or shoot anyone that is perceived as threatening—and all in the pursuit of someone merely suspected of a crime, usually some small amount of drugs.
A child doesn’t even have to be directly exposed to a police shooting to learn the police state’s lessons in compliance and terror, which are being meted out with every SWAT team raid, roadside strip search, and school drill.
Cops have even gone so far as to fire blanks during school active shooter drills around the country. Teachers at one elementary school in Indiana were actually shot “execution style” with plastic pellets. Students at a high school in Florida were so terrified after administrators tricked them into believing that a shooter drill was, in fact, an actual attack that some of them began texting their parents “goodbye.”
Better safe than sorry is the rationale offered to those who worry that these drills are terrorizing and traumatizing young children. As journalist Dahlia Lithwick points out: “I don’t recall any serious national public dialogue about lockdown protocols or how they became the norm. It seems simply to have begun, modeling itself on the lockdowns that occur during prison riots, and then spread until school lockdowns and lockdown drills are as common for our children as fire drills, and as routine as duck-and-cover drills were in the 1950s.”
These drills have, indeed, become routine.
As the New York Timesreports: “Most states have passed laws requiring schools to devise safety plans, and several states, including Michigan, Kentucky and North Dakota, specifically require lockdown drills. Some drills are as simple as a principal making an announcement and students sitting quietly in a darkened classroom. At other schools, police officers and school officials playact a shooting, stalking through the halls like gunmen and testing whether doors have been locked.”
As journalist Malcolm Gladwell writing for the New Yorker reports:
Goffman sometimes saw young children playing the age-old game of cops and robbers in the street, only the child acting the part of the robber wouldn’t even bother to run away: I saw children give up running and simply stick their hands behind their back, as if in handcuffs; push their body up against a car without being asked; or lie flat on the ground and put their hands over their head. The children yelled, “I’m going to lock you up! I’m going to lock you up, and you ain’t never coming home!” I once saw a six-year-old pull another child’s pants down to do a “cavity search.”
Clearly, our children are getting the message, but it’s not the message that was intended by those who fomented a revolution and wrote our founding documents. Their philosophy was that the police work for us, and “we the people” are the masters, and they are to be our servants.
Now that philosophy has been turned on its head, fueled by our fears (some legitimate, some hyped along by the government and its media mouthpieces) about the terrors and terrorists that lurk among us.
What are we to tell our nation’s children about the role of police in their lives?
Do we parrot the government line that police officers are community helpers who are to be trusted and obeyed at all times? Do we caution them to steer clear of a police officer, warning them that any interactions could have disastrous consequences? Or is there some happy medium between the two that, while being neither fairy tale nor horror story, can serve as a cautionary tale for young people who will encounter police at virtually every turn?
Certainly, it’s getting harder by the day to insist that we live in a nation that values freedom and which is governed by the rule of law.
Yet unless something changes and soon, there will soon be nothing left to teach young people about freedom as we have known it beyond remembered stories of the “good old days.”
For starters, as I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, it’s time to take a hard look at the greatest perpetrators of violence in our culture—the U.S. government and its agents—and do something about it: de-militarize the police, prohibit the Pentagon from distributing military weapons to domestic police agencies, train the police in de-escalation techniques, stop insulating police officers from charges of misconduct and wrongdoing, and require police to take precautionary steps before engaging in violence in the presence of young people.