The chasm of race: ‘All American Boys’ stimulates conversations

October 19, 2016

This article originally appeared on on Sep 24, 2016

This year’s One Maryland One Book chose a subject that generates a conversation each time a black life is mourned through a viral Twitter hashtag.

“All American Boys” by authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely is a fictional, young adult book that tackles the subject of police brutality. This topic continues to be a popular issue as the number of people killed by the police this year has reached over 780, according to The Counted by British publication The Guardian.

Reynolds, who is African-American, and Kiely, who is white, bridged the divisive chasm of race in “All American Boys.” Though this award-winning book, written in 2015, is set in the fictional town of Springfield, some Frederick readers may remember the 2007 death of Jarrel Gray and the 2013 death of Ethan Saylor by Frederick County police. Gray was black and Saylor was white, but the deaths of both young men were linked by the complaint that police officers did not take the time to listen. Their families cited disabilities in Gray’s hearing and Saylor’s Down syndrome as a reason why force should have been avoided.

This essential need for listening inspired local police training and also the cohesive nature of “All American Boys.” Instead of the vitriolic debates that often fill today’s 24-hour news cycle, Reynolds and Kiely seek to meet at the center. Reynolds wrote chapters from the perspective of Rashad, a black teenager who evokes the life of Trayvon Martin. While Martin’s death followed a store run for Skittles and an Arizona drink, Rashad’s brutal beating at the hands of a police officer was shortly after he picked up a bag of potato chips. When Rashad regained consciousness at the hospital, he found himself at the fault line of a social rupture he never wanted.

The police officer who beat Rashad is the father figure of Quinn, a white teenager who has to reconsider the people he loves and the insular life he never looked outside of. Quinn’s chapters are written by Kiely, and expose the protective bonds of police families. Through a journey of listening and learning, Quinn begins to truly see Rashad. The book culminates to the protest rallying cry: “Rashad Is Absent Today.” The statement unifies Quinn and Rashad’s yearning to live as equals.

Through Frederick County events and the One Maryland One Book Author Tour series, there are local opportunities to discuss “All American Boys.” After a Baltimore tour kick-off, Boonsboro High School will host Reynolds and Kiely on Monday, Sept. 26, at 10 a.m. Washington County Free Library will co-host this free event that is open to the public.

Talking to each other

There is a likelihood that during the author tour, not all feedback will be positive. Police conversations have elicited fiery responses. The Santa Clara police union threatened to boycott its security services for the San Francisco 49ers stadium until quarterback Colin Kaepernick is punished for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Children who followed Kaepernick’s example at a football game in Beaumont, Texas, were given death threats. The sacrifices of veterans have been used to portray Kaepernick’s actions as disrespectful.

For some, criticizing the police is synonymous with being anti-police. Kiely and Reynolds, however, believes abusive police officers should be challenged in order to extricate policing from police brutality. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction that the book is considered anti-police. Even though, for the record, the book is not anti-police. The book is anti-police brutality,” said Reynolds in a phone interview with the Frederick News-Post.

“When people say it’s anti-cop,” Kiely added, “I would like for them to say what they really mean by that. Because when we live in a democracy, we’re supposed to have accountability. It’s an OK thing for people to challenge the institutions that are a part of our governmental system. It’s OK to challenge them and ask them to do better.” Kiely’s background as an educator informed his concept of police transparency. “I worked in schools for 10 years and I really appreciated feedback especially from students to tell me how I can do my job better because my goal was to teach them. I can’t pretend that I know best all the time.”

Kiely can remember speeding and being let off with a warning while Reynolds had his car aggressively searched, although he committed no crime. In light of this experience, Reynolds wants more than police transparency. “We are waiting for that day when police officers say they’re against police brutality.”

Both authors developed “All American Boys” so that the most unlikely people have a chance to talk to each other. Quinn knows nothing about Rashad, but by the end of the book, Quinn sacrifices almost everything to fight for Rashad’s safety. In some ways, Kiely has mirrored Quinn’s life.

“I think as a white person, I have to be very careful because I can’t turn the station, or turn the TV off and pretend it’s not happening. I have to recognize the reality that’s out there. Look, the reality is that people who are victims, people who are brutalized or killed, most often than not, are people of color. I want to recognize that but I also want to enter the conversation honestly. So, my role, my first responsibility is to listen to the experiential truth from communities of color. I can’t pretend to know their lives but I do want to support them and not continue or perpetuate the brutalization of those lives.”

A victim and a perpetrator

Police issues, like “All American Boys,” is a story that is more complicated than it appears. Because of the larger population of whites in America, The Counted documents that white people have the greatest number of 2016 deaths by the police. However, statistically, Native Americans and African-Americans have a greater percentage of their population being killed by the police.

When it comes to police brutality, whites can be both a victim and a perpetrator. And sometimes, they can not appear in a police brutality case at all. This is revealed in a family secret Reynolds develops throughout the book. “Don’t get me wrong, white cops should have to be explored but I also think the science of whiteness is something that people don’t want to talk about and the badge of a blue uniform is synonymous with the buy-in to privilege and the buy-in that that badge defeats your blackness.”

With officers of color killing both Philando Castile and Akai Gurley, although they were not accused of committing a crime, Reynolds asserts that anyone can be accused of police brutality. “[The book’s family secret] was painful and emotional but it was also truth. And what’s true is that Freddie Gray was not killed by six white cops.”

Kiely’s choice to use “Rashad is Absent Today” after his years of taking attendance may possibly point to a solution for police brutality. “It seemed like a natural metaphor to talk about people who are missing or absent. There’s also this notion that Jason and I were talking about, do you really see somebody, or do you only see the stereotype? Do you see the human beings? That notion of seeing or not seeing is a kind of absence,” Kiely said before Reynolds chimed in. “And a kind of silence.”

Frederick community members are working to make sure that silence doesn’t happen. Kavonté Duckett is a Community Liaison for Delegate Carol Krimm. His work often places him as a mediator between the police and the black community even while experiencing what he’s trying to end.

‘We need that representation’

“I find myself in a hard place sometimes. Being in relationship with the chief and the higher-ups in the police department and then to come in contact with some of the bad cops. It’s rough,” Duckett said. “I’ve been profiled. It’s typical. It’s expected. It happens to us daily. And we have to change that perception, just because I’m an African-American man, at 22, it doesn’t mean I fit that profile. I have cousins who are going through this stuff on a daily basis that are being profiled because they drive nice cars or they live in a certain area. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Though Black Lives Matter protesters may distrust Duckett’s closeness to the police, he lives by a popular mantra. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” He’s often the only African-American man at that table. “It’s something I have to do because we need that representation.”

Duckett has a cautious optimism and a bootstrap mentality eager to fix problems. “Frederick is not where it needs to be but we are making strides to better our community.” Duckett said this while seeing a police officer on a bike. “Just like this, the new chief of police [Edward G. Hargis] has made major strides to get officers on the street. I tip my hat off to him, but with incidents that happened in Tulsa [with the police killing of unarmed Terence Crutcher], it’s making me question.

“You want to support the police, you want to be an advocate for the police so our community can bridge that gap but at the same time, are we really doing all that we can do to fix this problem? Something like that can happen here in Frederick so what can we do? I’m trying to be more pro-active than re-active [and] not wait until things go down.”

Reynolds, Kiely, and Duckett are all advocating for a police force where a black teenager like Rashad views the police as a source of protection and not terror. Gayon Sampson, a 23-year-old Frederick native and policy associate for the Greater Baltimore Committee, provided a small glimpse of what that can look like.

He grew up wanting to be a police officer and worked for a judge in high school. He wasn’t racially profiled as a teen, because the police knew not only him but his family. “If there was a perfect world, I would see police officers and the community as hand in hand,” Sampson said. “We put so much focus on arrest, arrest, arrest, but we’ve not put the focus on engaging. How do you engage the community? …In an ideal world, I see police officers respecting the community and the community respecting police officers.”

Copyright 2016, The Frederick News Post

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