In a few weeks, I will return for my second year as a counselor at a weeklong summer camp for kids. During training, we were asked to ponder what the world would lose if by some mysticism all children were to disappear, with the intent to hone in on the importance of our work with these developing minds. The most common response: the world would be without innocence.
On August 2nd, 23-year-old Korryn Gaines was gunned down by police and her 5-year-old son was hit by a bullet “in the crossfire” (and sustained non-life threatening injuries) inside of her home in Randallstown, MD. Police say they showed up at 9:20 a.m. to serve her a warrant for failing to appear in court for a traffic violation. Gaines did not respond to the door, but somehow the officers obtained keys from someone else and entered the private residence. Once inside, they saw Gaines holding her son and a shotgun. After hours of negotiations, police admit to shooting at Gaines, and when she shot back they opened fire and killed her around 3 p.m. No officers were injured.
The 9th Black woman killed by the police this year was dead within a matter of less than 6 hours over a traffic violation and a refusal to surrender after forcible entry. In less than 6 hours, a 5 year old witnessed his own mother’s slaughter and was nearly killed himself. His face would fit right into the vision which manifest when I was presented with that theoretical scenario in training. He is one of the children with the remarkable capacity to bestow the gift of innocence unto the world—but now much of that innocence has been lost forever along with his mother.
Some will argue that he had lost his innocence far prior to this week. In a video circulating on social media, Gaines can be seen refusing to comply with police in a previous incident. As officers demand she get out of her car because of another traffic issue, she tells them that they will “have to murder (her)” before she hands over her vehicle or submits to arrest, making clear that she does not respect their authority to force her to do anything. During the altercation, she instructs her son, “If they tell you to get out this car… you better fight their asses.”
Many have criticized her for how, in their view, she violated her child’s innocent vision of the world by positioning the police as an enemy deserving retaliation and noncompliance at such a young age.
But what is innocence without freedom?
Black people in America are not free and Gaines’ violent end and the violence against her child in their home is not unique. Mere weeks after the highly publicized murders of two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, a new poll exposes just how common violent interactions with police are for young Black adults. Results from GenForward, a survey of the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago with the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, show that 66% of Black people age 18-30 reported that either themselves or someone they know have been the victims of police harassment or violence (compared with 29% of Asian American, 40% of Latinx, and 30% of white young adults).
The survey also shows that 73% of young Black adults believe that the killing of Black people by police is an extremely serious problem (with only 35% of Asian American, 45% of Latinx, and 24% of white young adults saying the same). The poll illuminates how Black young people are both one of the greatest collaterals of this problem and the most aware of the necessity of fixing it (hence their being the driving force behind the Movement for Black Lives). Yet, the same survey shows that all groups of young people polled favor increasing police presence in their communities for the sake of public safety (68% of Black, 61% of Asian-American, 71% of Latinx, and 68% of white young adults).
I believe that young Black people are stuck in limbo. The world is a cruel place for us, and there is almost no way to ignore this fact even though many of us are not far removed from the innocence of our childhood. Still, with the solutions we are presented with, it seems all of our problems can only be fixed by exacerbating others elsewhere. We are clear on how police are able to harm us and our children for breaking no laws and easily get away with it, but we cannot imagine safety without them, so we support increasing their presence.
We understand that the two party system fails us (66% of Black respondents told GenForward they believed a third party is needed), but have not even considered the viability of third party alternatives (3/4 of Black respondents have no familiarity with the Green or Libertarian Party candidates).
We understand the disturbing need to give Black children “the talk” (comply with police or you could die), many of us having been given it not too long ago, but the alternative—that one shouldn’t need to walk on eggshells to live, that one should be able to fight back—is a dangerous threat to innocence.
We make excuses for the murder of a 23 year old Black mother while she held her child for resisting for 6 hours when a group of white men can hold out for 40 days. Our ability to imagine a world where freedom is unconditional, an ability we were supposed to embrace not long ago as children, is being destroyed.
My first year at the camp, I was blown away by how the kids could imagine a free world and themselves free within it. I am coming back this year because I couldn’t help but be inspired by how they held tightly to their ideals that the world could be fundamentally a good place, that they could be fundamentally good people. I was inspired by how they held tightly to their innocence.
By innocence I don’t mean they invested in feel-good childlike myths. These are children who come to this camp because they are faced with hardships far greater than most other children will ever have to face, and they are well aware of this fact. They are not oblivious to pain and suffering, they just haven’t yet given up hope. This is the type of innocence the world would lose without children—the type that is so powerful it keeps the world turning. This is the type of innocence that is always under attack in Black communities: an innocence of imagination.
This is an imagination that does not have to sit tortured in the in-between of life and death. This is an imagination that can conceive of the end of police, an imagination that could conjure an alternative that works for us all. This is an imagination that does not just say, “There are just two evils, so we must vote for the lesser,” but one that only seeks to wipe out evil in its entirety.
This is the type of innocence of imagination that Gaines did not destroy in her child, but fostered. That baby will always believe in freedom. His mother died fighting for his, after all—what could be more real than that?
Black people cannot afford a world without this imagination. When there seems no way to solve our problems, we must look outside the answers we are given. Our choice cannot be to submit or die. As Eddie Glaude writes, we “must resist those voices who urge us to settle for the world as it is. Ours is an opportunity to shift the very ground of this society.”
Young Black millennials are close enough to their childhood to touch an innocence of imagination the world would be desolate without. We must keep within our reach an innocence that can imagine true freedom, a freedom worth fighting for. And we must keep in our embrace those who give up their lives to hold onto this innocence, lest it be lost with them.