no cuffing by nic stone

  The Atlanta area native vividly describes the personal inspiration behind her bold forthcoming  debut, Dear Martin (Crown Books for Young Readers), due October 2017.

       When I was seven, one of my favorite things to do was put my little brother in handcuffs. It was your standard Cops and Robbers fare, and since I was the eldest, I got to be the cop—just like our dad—and he was the grubby little robber. 

        I have two little boys of my own now, one of them four-and-a-half—same age as my brother when I was putting him on lockdown. A few months ago we went to get frozen yogurt, and there were a couple of little white kids playing with the handcuffs of a police officer I assume was their grandfather. When I saw the boy click the cuffs around the girl’s wrists, I looked over at my own son who was staring on in wonder. 

         And my heart skipped a beat. 

         In 1992, it was fine for little brown kids to play with cuffs. Now though? In 2017?

         Nah.

        I can’t pinpoint exactly when my perception of cops shifted. I think it was pretty recent, but perhaps it’s been ongoing for a while now. I know I still saw cops as heroes as recently as a few years ago. My dad was a cop for the first twenty-four years of my life, and to this day, my head is full of Good-Cop memories: traipsing around the precinct like I owned the place at ages six, seven, eight. 

          Getting fake “permits” with my picture on them for stuff like being a big sister.

         Having my little fingers rolled across the blank boxes of a fingerprint card after first being rolled across a cold surface covered in ink. 

        At eleven, I picked up Daddy’s radio, pressed the button on the side and said, “Hello, hello?” Daddy, eyes wide, took the thing from my hand, pressed the button himself and said, “This is 9-7-4. Please disregard.” We still laugh about it. 

      At fifteen, my best friend and I joined Daddy at the precinct for Take Your Daughter To Work Day. We had a blast running around to the different departments and talking to lieutenants, detectives, plain-clothes cops and cops in uniform, members of the SWAT Team.

      A little older, and I got tapped to go on an “underage buy” with a group of undercover cops—in an expensive car confiscated from a drug dealer, no less. I spent the evening going into bars and restaurants and attempting to purchase alcohol. Anyone who sold it to me got ticketed. Probably also got fired, but I wasn’t thinking about that part. I was undercover with some of my favorite cops. 

       Then at nineteen, a friend—another African American girl—and I got pulled over in middle-of-nowhere Kentucky. The white police officer made her sit in his cruiser while he ran her license and registration info. It was broad daylight and we hadn’t been speeding. To my knowledge, hadn’t broken any traffic laws at all. Was I curious as to why he’d even pulled us over? Yeah, I was. But what did I know? Maybe we had done something wrong. 

         He finally walked her back to the car, opened the driver side door for her to get in. No ticket. He just told her she had to remove her graduation tassel from the rearview mirror. “It’s illegal to have anything hanging up there,” he said. “You girls drive carefully now.” And he let us go. 

          I didn’t think anything of it. 

       Until a couple years ago. Sandra Bland was found dead in a jail cell three days after being pulled over for failing to use a turn signal. I saw the video of the traffic stop, and my mind flashed back eleven years to my homegirl being asked to get out of the car in Illinois. 

         What would’ve happened had she not complied? 

        Looking back though, my perception of cops shifted before Sandra Bland. It was before Freddie Gray, Eric Harris, Walter Scott. In 2012, I was in the car with my dad, and he told me that one of the cops who took me on the underage buy is in prison now. He was caught on camera sticking thirty grand into his bag during a big drug bust. Part of me didn’t believe it. He was a good guy. A good cop. There’s no way he would’ve stolen money.  

         But he obviously had. It was caught on camera. 

         Maybe this is when my perception of cops started to shift. 

        The shift was definitely spurred on by the death of Mike Brown. Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were both gunned down for no reason, but they were killed by civilians, which to my cop-are-heroes brain (what a sellout, right?) was somehow easier to swallow. 

         Mike Brown’s death was like trying to swallow a cactus. 

         Then at twenty-nine, I saw the Eric Garner video. 

         He couldn’t breathe.                                                                                          

         They didn’t let go. 

        When two grown men opened fire on a kid in a park with a toy gun, I think that was it for me. Tamir Rice was twelve. A middle-schooler. Probably hadn’t even had his first kiss yet. 

         I didn’t get it. These dudes in uniform were supposed to protect and serve, not pounce and slaughter. 

      At twenty-nine, it finally sank in. The uniform isn’t automatically akin to a superhero cape (though my Daddy is still a superhero to me). Cops… they’re people. With prejudices. Prejudices often aimed at people who look like me. People

my sons will grow into. 

         Every time I looked at my kids, I understood a

little more. Swallowed a little harder. Let the Truth

about cops-as-human-beings in a country where

systematic racism is as real and immediate as the

brown skin on my babies’ faces push into my veins

and flow through me until I could no longer deny it.

         At twenty-nine, while the first massive wave of

anti-police-violence and Black Lives Matter protests

were sweeping across the nation, I wrote a book. It’s called DEAR MARTIN (it’ll be out October 17th from the Crown Books for Young Readers imprint of Random House).

      In the book, there’s a seventeen-year-old boy. A black boy. The kind of boy I hope my sons will grow into. Kind, wicked smart, college-bound, never been in trouble a day in his life. Yet despite this boy’s goodness, things go bad for him at the hands of a couple of cops.

       Because despite my upbringing and my continued admiration for good cops, at thirty, I’m still accepting a new reality: it’ll never be okay for my boys to put each other in handcuffs. 

Nic Stone was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, GA, and the only thing she loves more than an adventure is a good story about one. After graduating from Spelman College, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to the US to write full-time. Growing up with a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work.

 

You can find her goofing off and/or fangirling over her husband and sons on most social media platforms as @getnicced, or on her website: www.nicstone.info.

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