"Mom. Did those people just get arrested? Oh wait. Yes, they did. I see the handcuffs on them. They must have done something REALLY BAD. Hang on. I mean, the police must THINK they did something really bad. But WHY is that police officer taking stuff out of their car? Is he looking for something? What on EARTH is he looking for?"
As we left the beach today following a short (but soul restoring) sandcastle building session, we arrived at our car only to find ourselves crime-scene-adjacent. And because a police car was blocking my only way out of the parking space, Wyatt got a good, long look at everything that was happening. Fortunately, he didn't notice the collection of drug paraphernalia that had been placed on the roof of the suspects' car, so I didn't have to explain that. He did, however, watch one officer meticulously searching the car, another officer minding and questioning the two morose, handcuffed suspects seated on the curb, and he saw more officers arriving to assist. Shortly after help arrived, one of the officers moved their car and I was able to leave.
Here's an excerpt of my conversation with Wyatt on the ride home. WHAT DO THE OFFICERS THINK THOSE PEOPLE DID? I have no idea. WHY DO THEY GET TO LOOK AT EVERYTHING IN THEIR CAR? That's one of the things police officers can do when they arrest you--search your pockets, your car, your bags, that kind of thing. WHAT ARE THEY LOOKING FOR? Stuff you're not supposed to have. LIKE WHAT COULD THAT POSSIBLY BE? Ohhh, I don't know. Stuff you're not supposed to have. LIKE WHAT? Ummm. LIKE WHAT? Maybe you have a gun you're not supposed to have. A GUN? WHY WOULD YOU HAVE THAT IN YOUR CAR? Okay, good point, forget that. Remember when we flew on the airplane and there was that list of stuff you can't bring in your luggage? Like fireworks? Maybe they're looking for fireworks that people aren't supposed to have. WHY CAN'T YOU HAVE FIREWORKS? Because in some places, they're considered too dangerous. LIKE BECAUSE PEOPLE DON'T MAKE GOOD DECISIONS WITH THEM AND THEY LIGHT STUFF ON FIRE? Yes--exactly. BUT WHAT IF THE PEOPLE IN HANDCUFFS DIDN'T DO WHAT THE POLICE THINK THEY DID? OH WAIT! I KNOW. THEY STAND UP FOR THEMSELVES. THEY CAN BE LIKE ROSA PARKS AND SAY THEY SHOULD GO AHEAD AND ARREST THEM. No. That's a different situation. It's called civil disobedience. But I can see why you're thinking about that. If you get arrested, you do your best to be respectful of the officers without saying much, even if you know you didn't do anything wrong. WHY? For two reasons. First, we respect other people. Second, you should really only be talking to the officers to ask to call your lawyer. HOW DO YOU GET A LAWYER? HOW WOULD I GET A LAWYER? I am your lawyer. Do you know my phone number?
It was really hard for me to make the concepts involved in this conversation age-appropriate. It was especially hard today because the killing of Jordan Edwards was very much on my mind. I mean, a kid can be doing his best, including leaving a party before the cops show up, and if he's black, the police still might shoot him in the head (and lie about it).
After Wyatt reassured himself that he knows my phone number, I reassured him that he wouldn't have any chance of being arrested for a long time. I also told him it's great to know my number in case of an emergency. (LIKE WHAT KIND OF EMERGENCY? Like if you're out somewhere and you can't find me, but you see another parent, you could ask them to call me. OKAY.)
Ultimately, our conversation about criminal law came down to trying to answer the question, "How do you stand up for yourself?" We talked about how Rosa Parks stood up to the bus driver who told her to move. And we talked about how if you're arrested, you can stand up for yourself by insisting you need to talk to a lawyer. I also raised a question about what it might be like to stand up for a friend when you notice something isn't right, like the time a stranger started patting Wyatt's friend's hair. Wyatt remarked, "She was white, right? Why did she think she could touch his hair? Is it because his skin is darker than hers or because he uses a wheelchair?" "Maybe both," I said.
I suggested that how exactly you stand up for yourself or for your friends can change depending on the situation, and after thinking for a little bit, Wyatt agreed.
Watching police work was not the way I would have chosen to end our sweet little beach visit today, but I couldn't be more pleased to have stumbled on such a useful way to frame discussions around justice of all kinds.