When my son was old enough to leave home and travel the city alone, I would instruct him on how to conduct himself out there in the street. At first he listened to my list of cautions, no doubt because listening and agreeing were his tickets out the door. But later, when he was an older teen, 15 or so, he had heard the litany often enough to know it by heart, and he would roll his eyes and say, "I know, I know, Mom, you've told me this before." Then came the day that he just looked at me with exasperation and said, "Mom, why do you think that I'm going to get shot the minute my foot hits the sidewalk!"
Though I had never actually voiced it, he had totally sussed out my underlying fear, which was based on nothing more than the fact that he was a Black boy walking through this world.
From the time he was born, I have held the fear that a White police officer will some day look at my child and see nothing but a criminal. They won't see my son. They won't see their own son in him, they won't see their nephew, cousin, baby brother, even themselves when they were younger. They won't be able to recognize normal teenage indiscretions if they are coming from my son, especially if he is with his Black friends. Instead they will look at him and see the stereotype in their heads, one born of urban decay and the fractures of poverty, lack of opportunity and toxic environments, and yes, prejudice too. The Black boy in handcuffs on so many TV crime shows is all they'll see when they look at my son.
No doubt my perspective as the mother of a young Black man, a good boy with no criminal history, is why I am so shaken by what happened to Danroy Henry, the 20-year-old Pace University junior who was fatally shot by police in the early morning hours last Sunday.
Danroy Henry played football for Pace. His team had lost their homecoming game that evening. His childhood friend had played on the opposing team, and their parents had driven down from their homes in Easton, Massachusetts for the game. The two families had shared a meal before the game, and after it, Danroy and his friend went with his teammates to a local bar in the mostly White, mostly wealthy town of Pleasantville, NY. Somewhere around midnight, the bar's owners called the cops because the crowd was getting unruly. An altercation had started inside the bar and had spilled out into the parking lot.
Danroy was not inside. He at no point took part in any fight or disturbance. He was the designated driver for his group, and had gone to get the car and had swung back around to the bar to pick up his friends as the cops arrived. Two friends, including the one he grew up with, were already in the car, which was standing in the fire lane. The young men were waiting for another friend. When a cop knocked on the window, Danroy thought the cop was telling him to move his car, so he drove off.
This is where the details get murky, diverging wildly depending on who's telling the story. The cops say Danroy drove directly at an officer who ended up on the hood of his car, and that the side mirror of his car struck another officer. So they started shooting.
Witnesses—and there were about 150 of them outside the bar—say one cop stepped in front of Danroy's car as he pulled away, and shot directly through the windshield. The cop ended up on the hood of the car, still shooting. Witnesses say the cops started shooting before any officer had been hit by the car. Danroy took a bullet, or several, lost control of the car and it slammed into a police cruiser and came to a stop. His childhood friend was shot in the arm. The young man in the back seat was uninjured.
His childhood friend described how the cops pulled Danroy from the car and handcuffed him. Danroy kept whispering, "They shot me, they shot me." As he lay face down in the parking lot bleeding, several of his teammates tried to get to him to administer first aid. They could see he was badly hurt and they knew he was not a young man who needed to be cuffed. But the cops held them back, pointing their weapons at the football players, punching one, tasering two others, and arresting and charging three with disorderly conduct. Eventually, the cops realized Danroy was dying, and attempted to give him CPR. This was 15 minutes or more after they pulled him out the car and threw him to the ground so they could handcuff him. It was too little, too late. Danroy died anyway.
The Pleasantville police chief met with Danroy's parents that Sunday and said later that they were "just a beautiful family." He said his officers were heartsick over what had happened. Never mind that their first reports had painted Danroy as a possibly drug-dealing thug trying to escape arrest by ramming his car into police officers. Never mind that not a week later, an anonymous law enforcement source leaked autopsy results that said Danroy had been drinking, an attempt, his parents said, to turn public opinion against him. Now, the governor of Massachusetts, Scott Brown, is calling for a thorough investigation. He is troubled by how divergent the two versions of what happened are turning out to be.
I can't help wondering what details have been omitted from the news reports. When the cops arrived, why did they approach Danroy's car if not to tell him to move from the fire lane? Why did they then open fire when he started the car? I want to know, too, whether there were any other Black boys in the parking lot, or were Danroy and his friends the only dark-skinned boys in a sea of college kids celebrating a homecoming win?
The Pleasantville police chief noted that the town's police officers hadn't fired a weapon in 22 years and had never before killed anyone. So why were they so quick to pump this young man full of lead? Did they see a Black boy and in the split second available to them make the assumption that he was a criminal?
Yes, I believe they did.
In the days since the shooting of this young Black man who was clearly going places, I find myself combing through every news story for stray details, piecing them together, trying to answer the questions that won't let me go. There is a hard ache at the center of me, tears welling in my throat, the hurt so acute I have to remind myself that I never once met this boy. And yet I know him. And I know intimately the worries that have plagued his mother since he took his first breath, and the prayers she made again and again that she would never be asked to endure his last.