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To Protect and Serve?

Growing up, the lectures and warnings from my parents were endless. In elementary school, my brother and I were encouraged to build our vocabularies so people could never question our intelligence. When attending community events, we were reminded to always dress better than what was expected. After receiving our driver’s licenses, my father could not stress enough how important it was to not speed, especially when driving a nice car, and to never forget to signal when turning. My brother, being a male and a bit darker than I, always generated more concern from my parents, but they made it very clear that neither of us could get away with the same things our White peers could.

One thing my parents emphasized over all else was that we must always, in every circumstance, respect the police. If and when pulled over, first place your hands on the steering wheel, then follow orders exactly, and only speak when spoken to. If a police officer approaches you on the street, do not walk away, but stand with your hands visible. In all honesty, these conversations never frightened me. I figured my parents were providing us with the proper tools we needed to get through life safely. It was always my belief that if I complied with the police, they would do their part to protect my life. I understood that, like everyone else, police officers carry racial bias, but when you are told your whole life to respect a certain group of people, you assume it is because they deserve that respect.

On Memorial Day, four Minneapolis police officers detained a Black man, George Floyd, outside of a store. After apprehending him, three of the officers held him to the ground, while one, Derek Chauvin, calmly, hands in his pocket, knelt on and crushed the man’s neck. The next day, I watched the video. I saw the torture of a civilian, I heard the cries of the onlookers, and the cries of George Floyd. I saw the fourth officer standing by. I saw the life leave George Floyd’s body. I saw four police officers willfully murder an innocent man.

My first thought was that George Floyd did everything the cops asked him to, yet his life was not protected. My second thought: was he also raised to respect the police, the institution that just murdered him?

Respect means, “to consider worthy of high regard.” In my naivety, I grew up believing that every police officer was worthy of this. I have come to realize that each time my Black father reminded us to respect the police, he was really telling us to fear the police. He chose the word “respect” over “fear” because he did not want to raise people who were afraid to exist – but the two words are not synonymous.

There are good police officers. I know some of them personally, and I thank them for doing their jobs and serving their communities. But now I understand what my father felt all along. What I feel toward the racialized, oppressive, and violent institution today is not respect – it is fear.

-Rebecca Charles


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