‘I am a kid!’ Pepper spray reflects the vigilance of black children

The 9-year-old black girl was sitting handcuffed in the back seat of a police car, distraught and crying for her father as white officers grew increasingly impatient as they tried to get her completely into the vehicle.

“This is your last chance,” warned an officer. “Otherwise, you will get pepper spray in your eyes.”

Less than 90 seconds later, the girl had been sprayed and was screaming, “Please clean my eyes! Clean my eyes, please!

What began with a report of “family problems” in Rochester, New York, and ended with the police treating a fourth-grader as a suspect in a crime, has sparked outrage as the latest example of mistreatment by law enforcement. towards blacks.

As the United States undergoes a new settling of accounts over police brutality and racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death last May, the girl’s treatment illustrates how even young children are not exempt.

Research shows that black children are often viewed as older than they are and are more likely to be viewed as threatening or dangerous. Advocates have long said that it leads the police to treat them in a way they wouldn’t dream of treating white children. In some cases it has led to deaths such as the murder of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black girl who was shot by a white police officer in Cleveland in 2014.

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“Black children have never been given the opportunity to be children,” said Kristin Henning, professor of law and director of the Georgetown Law Juvenile Justice Initiative and Clinic.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics in late 2020 found that black children and teens were six times more likely to be killed by police shooting than white children. It analyzed data on the use of force by the police in situations involving youth between the ages of 12 and 17 from 2003 to 2018.

“Black children have really been viewed as older, more guilty, less amenable to rehabilitation, and less worthy of Western notions of innocence and Western notions of childhood,” Henning said.

The Rochester headlines were deeply personal for Mando Avery, whose 7-year-old son was hit by pepper spray from a police officer who aimed at another person during a protest in Seattle last summer. The spray left her son’s face and chest sore and inflamed from chemical burns for several days, and even required a visit to the emergency room.

Since then he has had nightmares and now he is afraid of the police. Little things can bring back bad memories, like using a spray bottle to comb your hair.

“His innocence disappears long, long before,” he said. “What kind of tantrum leads to handcuffing a child?”

In the Rochester case, the girl’s mother called police on January 29 after an argument with her spouse and said she asked officers to call mental health services when her daughter was growing increasingly upset. .

But the police body camera video only shows the officers on the scene, first handcuffing the girl’s hands behind her back and then growing impatient as they tried to get her into the police car, culminating in the gas. Pepper.

There is a moment in the video where an officer says, “You are acting like a child!” to which the girl replies: “I am a girl!”

The officers have been suspended pending an investigation. More video images posted Thursday showed the wait until an ambulance arrived for the girl.

The case comes months after the high-profile death last spring of Daniel Prude, a black man experiencing a mental health crisis when his family called Rochester police. Officers handcuffed him, then put a hood over his head when he spat at them. As he struggled, he was pinned face down to the ground, an officer pushed his head against the pavement until he stopped breathing.

The 9-year-old girl’s mother, Elba Pope, told The Associated Press that she didn’t think white officers viewed her daughter the way they would see a white girl.

“If they had looked at her like she was one of their children, they wouldn’t have pepper sprayed her,” she said.

Henning agreed. “This is where the issue of race comes into play,” he said. “If that boy had looked like one of their girls, he would have looked like the boy they put into bed, it is much less likely that they would have.”

The president of the Rochester police union has said the officers were not lacking in compassion, but that they were dealing with a difficult situation with limited resources and were following department protocol.

New York is not the only place where police treatment of black children has been a flash point.

In the Denver suburbs Four black girls between the ages of 6 and 17 were detained by police at gunpoint after they were wrongly suspected of being in a stolen car last year.

An officer tried to handcuff the 6-year-old, who was wearing a tiara for what was supposed to be a girls’ day with her relatives, but the handcuffs were too large, according to a lawsuit filed by the family.

In north texas, a white police officer was caught on video pushing a black girl dressed in a bathing suit to the ground at a pool party in 2015. Later that year, a deputy sheriff at a school in South Carolina threw a girl to the ground and dragged her across a classroom after she refused to hand over her cell phone in math class.

In the Tamir Rice case, the 12-year-old was playing with a toy gun in November 2014 when Cleveland police, responding to a call, stopped and within seconds shot him. When her 14-year-old sister ran to the scene, they pushed her to the ground and handcuffed her. The agents were not charged.

It’s that story that makes Christian Gibbs, a black father of three daughters, thankful that the Rochester girl wasn’t hurt more badly, and angry that it’s even a concern.

Thank God they didn’t kill her. … And the fact that we have to say that is already an indictment of the kind of treatment that we hope will be applied, even to young children, ”said Gibbs, 46, of Bowie, Maryland.

Holly M. Frye, of South Ogden, Utah, said she has almost daily conversations with her three children about how to act with police officers – the same kinds of conversations her parents had with her.

“This type of aggression towards the black race has always existed, it is just being registered now,” he said. “It is a topic that never leaves our kitchen table, we are always talking about it constantly.”

While data on very young children’s interactions with the police is sparse, black youth are nearly five times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, according to one analysis. by the non-profit organization The Sentencing Project.

The incarceration rate for white youth is 83 per 100,000; for black youth, that number increases to 383, The Sentencing Project found. While that’s partly due to differences in crime, studies have found that teens of color are more likely to be arrested and more likely to face serious consequences compared to their white peers, according to the report.

And it’s not just about the police and the criminal justice system. Black students face higher rates of suspension and expulsion from school, said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, which fights structural racism.

It is “the way our black children are questioned by adults, with the underlying assumption that they are not to be believed and cannot be trusted, and that they are always up to something wrong,” he said.

That leads to trauma and mistrust on the part of young black men towards the authorities around them, he said.

“There is no ‘officer friendly’ for black children,” he said.


Hajela reported from Essex County, NJ, Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press writer Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.


Hajela is a member of The Associated Press’s race and ethnic reporting team.


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