When kids of color sit down with the police

In Brattleboro, a conversation starts with awkward silence and ends with a better mutual understanding

BRATTLEBORO — The events in Ferguson, Missouri have had an impact on every community in the country, and ours is no exception.

In November, a group of middle- and high-school students sat down with Brattleboro Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald and three other officers at the Boys and Girls Club for dinner and dialogue. The youth were primarily from the Brattleboro Union High School AWARE group, which provides support and advocacy for students of color.

Members of the Community Equity Collaborative, including Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Ron Stahley and Diversity Coordinator Mikaela Simms, were also present.

The agenda was created by the students but had an underlying purpose: to bring out into the open the impact that bias and racism have in encounters between people of color and the police.

As the circle came together, there was initially some awkward silence.

There was acknowledgment that this was an unusual gathering of people, that part of the problem is that police and people of color interact with one another mostly in highly charged situations.

The students had prepared questions for the officers, and the first ones were about their fears. The sense that rights and freedom could quickly be stripped away because of even a small misunderstanding was conveyed.

Some youth described being afraid when they saw a police officer; others stated that if they felt threatened in the community they would not think to call the police.

The police were questioned if they felt afraid in some areas in the town. One officer said yes, but mostly police said that the situations they were called into daily were either a known or potential danger. In this case, fear is a healthy response.

There were assurances that police want to be a resource to youth, and that everyone has a right to walk in our town without being fearful.

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Some youth commented on the fact that since Brattleboro is a primarily white town, they feel singled out and targeted when the police are looking for someone of color. They said they had the sense that police officers felt exempt from making mistakes.

Chief Fitzgerald commented that he is from Brattleboro and is white. Therefore, he had a different perception of the police when he was young; he was taught that the police were helpful.

In contrast, parents of youth of color teach their children to be careful in interactions with the police, to keep their hands visible, and to be aware of the real possibility of violence.

This led into a discussion of white privilege, with several of the police acknowledging that they had this privilege.

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Each officer was also asked about Ferguson: what did they think about the shooting of Michael Brown?

This conversation took place just before the grand jury results were made public Nov. 24, so there was consensus that the process should be respected. However, they brought up a disconnect: that the police force in Ferguson was almost entirely white for a community that was almost entirely African-American. They noted that if the community's first dialogue with the police is with full riot gear, there is a real problem.

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At the end of the evening, many youth felt that the dialogue went better than they expected. Several people felt that a barbeque should be planned or another opportunity to keep the lines of communication open.

Some of the adults expressed that they were glad this event happened so that youth are known to the police and thus will be safer.

All agreed that this was an important first step in preventing tragedies like Michael Brown's death from happening in our community.

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