When I was a little girl, I remember the terror that filled my soul when the story of Polly Klaas broke. I read it in People magazine as I waited with my mother in the grocery store aisle. A girl, only a few years older than me, was snatched by an intruder at knifepoint out of her bedroom during a slumber party as her mother slept in the next room.
Afraid to go to sleep that night, my parents assured me that Polly’s case was rare and that it wouldn’t happen to me. “You don’t KNOW that!” I cried. They continued on, explaining why I shouldn’t be afraid when I read stories like that and how for a whole host of reasons, they didn’t think anyone would break into my bedroom window, kidnap and murder me. “Neither did Polly’s mom.” I replied. I wouldn’t be moved. I had to make them see that there was no difference between me and Polly. I knew in my heart that if they understood that part, they would do something to protect me.
After about 20 minutes of pleading and crying, my parents finally got it. My father looked me in my eyes said “You’re right. That could happen to you. But we’re here to make sure it doesn’t.” My mother went on to say that I could sleep with them tonight and that from now on she and my father would make a point of checking and double locking my windows in front of me every single night at bedtime.
Suddenly, I felt their respect. They recognized the logic of my terror and responded with real changes. Why? Because they refused to have me live in fear. Because they wanted me to know that they would do anything necessary to keep me safe. And because they loved me.
We weren’t the only ones reacting that way.
Parents and children everywhere were moved. The capture and prosecution of Polly’s killer, Richard Allen Davis, wasn’t enough to satisfy the throngs of Americans who believed that our country isn’t the place where little girls should be afraid in their own homes. They searched for any legislation that could be enacted to honor Polly and stop this from happening again.
Most people had the good sense to recognize that while there were specifics in her case that made it rare, the story was just too shocking and hit too close to home to ignore. So the Three Strikes Law – a law that would have prevented Davis from being free on parole from previous crimes the night he kidnapped Polly – was passed. Like my parents, California lawmakers locked the windows, this time structurally and legally, to help little girls sleep easier.
So why in the aftermath of stories like Trayvon Martin, Aiyana-Stanley Jones and Renisha McBride, isn’t the entire country mobilizing to prevent crimes where adults shoot young people first and ask questions later?
Why is it that when Detroit mother, writer and filmmaker Dream Hampton tweets about Renisha McBride she gets more “well meaning” people asking questions about the unarmed teenager’s actions than the more humane “How can we make sure another young woman isn’t shot in the face?”
Why is it that when I say that Trayvon’s murder makes me more afraid to have a son or that Renisha’s killing makes me afraid for young black women to walk in white neighborhoods, I am told “Stop being dramatic. These cases are rare.
And why is it that those of us who use our eyes and our brains to connect stories of young black lives being thoughtlessly snuffed out all across the country are accused of “trying to paint a dishonest picture of race in America with a few isolated incidents”? (that’s a real quote from a commenter).
This isn’t just a picture of race in America. This is also a picture of basic public safety and humanity. As Americans – as sons and daughters and mothers and fathers – we should all be grieved, outraged and afraid.
Do we believe that teenagers deserve to not live in fear of being “accidentally” killed? Are we – all of us – willing to do whatever it takes to keep them safe?
If the answer is yes, we must respond and change the status quo. Swift prosecution, fair trials and harsh sentencing of the killers is a good start. Ending Stand Your Ground or “Shoot First” laws is another.
Stop trying to convince a generation of black boys and girls that everything is fine. They are crying “I am Renisha” just as I cried “I am Polly” 20 years ago. They too believe that if they can make America understand who they are and how unsafe they feel, we will do something to protect them. And we should. So if you respect their lives, if you love them like you say you do, stop challenging their fear. Shut up, get up, and help me lock their windows.