Trayvon Martin’s death and the George Zimmerman trial brought up all kinds of emotions for Americans: sadness, anger, hatred, cries of injustice, bursts of racism.
For Charles Mudede, the associate editor of The Stranger, an alternative weekly in Seattle, it brought up a memory from 30 years ago. Charles was born in Zimbabwe, but his family moved to a nice, East Coast community when he was a kid. His parents were highly aware that being black put them in the minority, and insisted Charles work extra hard to succeed. They gave him a talk that’s really resonating with him now.
“They said, if a stranger or a police officer, white of course, approaches you, do not exacerbate the situation. Even if you’re in the right, do not challenge them. Try to get out of that situation as calmly as possible. Don’t assert yourself. Even if you’re correct, do not assert even your rights. And the reason they’re saying that, of course, they were thinking about me not being killed. Which happens a lot. I mean, a situation gets out of a control and you end up with a bullet. What’s the use of your rights when you’re dead?”
It’s not like he was a bad kid who had scuffles with the cops.
“Wasn’t even a poor kid, wasn’t even the ghetto. This was just them saying, no one will see you as a kid from a nice neighborhood. They’ll see you as a black kid walking down the street and maybe something has happened and they’ll associate me with whatever has happened.”
Thirty years later, Charles is a father. And after Trayvon Martin’s death, he found himself in his parent’s position.
“I have a 17 year old son, the age of Trayvon, and it just struck me that holy, you know, this is my son. I had to sit down at the dinner table and I pretty much repeated what my parents told me. And he nodded, I mean I don’t know how much he absorbed of it. ‘Please, just don’t get tied up with the cops. Please, you know. I’d rather you’re in jail than dead.’ My son, like so many teenagers, they will fight to be right. I said, don’t do that to a police officer and don’t do that with anybody who is strange.”
It’s not necessarily a conversation he wanted to have.
“I’d rather I don’t have to warn them about things like that. I ought to do the normal stuff, the birds and the bees,” Charles laughs. “I used to write a police column so I don’t want to knock every police officer because there are fine police officers out there. But there are also some very aggressive police officers and you cannot say they don’t exist. Can’t tell which one is which so it’s best to use the default. Don’t aggravate the situation.”
One of the most interesting things Charles talked about, was having to remind his son that he is black.
“My son runs around Lake Washington a lot and I just wanted him to be intelligent because maybe he’ll forget he’s black. Quite simply, this is a horrible thing to say, he doesn’t see that someone is seeing him as a black teenager, just remember that. They’re not seeing you the way you see yourself which is just a jogger on the street. Lots of people won’t see him as black but a lot of people will and will wonder, has he got a gun? Has he just robbed a house? What is he doing in our neighborhood? Let’s face it. I’m not gonna act like it’s not a fact of life.”
When Charles was in his 20’s, his parents advice actually came in handy.
“I was walking to a gas station to buy coffee, this is in the Central District. The police officers jumped out of the car, guns drawn. I had my hands up. And they were demanding, screaming at me for my ID. And I said, ‘I do have an ID but it’s in my back pocket. I just can’t reach it without lowering my hands.’ And then they understood that I was not causing them problems and then they went and took my card and saw I wasn’t the guy who they wanted. But that situation, if you just said, ‘I’m just walking to get my coffee. Get out of my way, you Bozo!’ I mean, weirdly enough that could have been, with a gun drawn, it could have been seen as confrontational. I could have been dead. They could have said I was aggressive and a challenge and it doesn’t matter. I’m just dead at that point.”
Charles wrote about this in The Stranger, and the article, of course, received all kinds of comments.
“I think that a lot of African Americans and a lot of black Africans would actually question my position on that and say, ‘No, it’s important that we assert ourselves or else continue to be targets and so forth and so on.’ But I’d say, yes, I agree. I don’t want a dead son. I don’t want a martyr. I’d rather vote and find other ways to be politically active.”