As a mother of two boys, and after decades of teaching and living in the Mission, I consider all the neighborhood youth my responsibility. Lately, I am profoundly preoccupied with the safety of immigrant children and children of color given the constant demonstration of their disposability at the hands of ICE, of the police, of white supremacy. The constant reminder that our children are under attack fills me with terror, and also, compels me to respond in every way I can. As a Central American, I carry the importance and power of witness in my bones.
When Netflix recently aired the series about the Exonerated Five, “When They See Us,” I had a lot of conversations with mothers about our sons. Recently, I sat with two educator friends, a Yemeni Muslim mother and an African American auntie of boys, and together we held the weight of our shared fears for them. We admitted that we don’t want to let our boys ride public transportation, drive alone in cars, and yet we know we have to let them. We have to let them live their lives. We must insist that they are free.
The other night in the Mission, I watched as nine police officers showed up for one intoxicated Latina youth. She previously caused a disruption in a restaurant and then two middle-aged white male diners followed her intent on her punishment. The men took it upon themselves to pursue this young woman who had, admittedly, behaved badly and then left. According to witnesses, these men were dining and drinking in the restaurant, but were not directly involved with the initial incident. They left the restaurant shortly after the young woman did. A young Latino, walking down the street, passed her as she was running from the men. He stayed around until he could tell the police what he saw: the young woman tried to get away as the men followed her and instigated conflict.
A friend and I passed by the scene when police officers began to arrive. We had just left an event (calling the community to action to stop family separation and the caging of children.) There was some back and forth between the youth and the men as officers began investigating. One of the men yelled out, “I want to press charges, she’s a menace to society.” When my friend and I challenged such a ferocious verbal attack by an adult male stranger of a young Latina, we became the next target. As the man proceeded to swiftly call us vulgar names, an officer approached us and directed us not to instigate. Luckily, he wasn’t threatening or rude, so we agreed to stay quiet. On the heels of our agreeable response, the officer asked if we would leave. We politely declined to give up our legal right to observe, and stayed until the youth was finally and safely taken in for public intoxication. No other charges were presented, and she was told she would be out in four hours.
Neither the restaurant, nor the young women’s behavior, however, are what compelled me to write this commentary. As we all try to recover from the grief of three mass shootings within one month, a Latina who has the audacity to cause some trouble on a Saturday night, hardly constitutes the menace in our society. The scene of so many cops for an entitled patron’s right to play in our neighborhood demonstrates some of the less visible ways gentrification impacts Latinx youth and residents. Sadly, the treatment of this young person fails to surprise me given the treatment of Black and Brown children in public education, in the prison industrial complex, and given the current caging of migrant children.
The menace here in the Mission is the continuous rise of robotic-looking buildings all around us, the mass dissemination of eviction notices, aided and abetted by mysterious arson and police assasination. The menace rearing its head on this evening was the hydra of white entitlement and privilege. Instead of considering the context that frames this youth’s choices; considering that she is someone’s child; instead of wondering what help or resources she might need as a young person; instead of leading with humility, compassion, maturity, or leading at all; the immediate instinct was to control, to punish, to harm. Many Latinx Mission residents fight on multiple levels for the right to dignity.
What of these men who also behaved badly? What of so many techies and visitors who stumble drunk down Mission streets after a night out? These white men followed a youth, taunted her, called us names, demonstrated public intoxication, but only the Latinas in the situation were corrected or removed.
I arrived on this scene feeling overwhelmed by the abominable crisis of the camps, by the nightmare of so many mass shootings. I arrived there trying to hold a slippery hope in my hands as I had just read poetry with my two sons backing me up with art and music. The severity of the response to this Latinx youth who didn’t resist or even say very much, kept saying she wanted to go home, felt like the universe just piling on. The cooperating systems that put the Exonerated Five in prison, allow the caging of children, murdered Alex Nieto and too many others here in the Mission foster a society where police and mass shootings are normalized, and make Latinx and people of color, afraid, first and foremost, for our children. I continually wonder about the shift that occurs when an adult, be it an entitled consumer or a culturally incompetent teacher, responds to children’s behaviour by erasing their humanity. That is the ultimate menace––the stripping of our humanity; our right to dignity and humanity trumped by the privilege and entitlement of those in power. I, nonetheless, will continue to demand dignity for all our children. I will continue to insist that they are free.
Story by: Leticia Hernández-Linares