NEW YORK CITY (WOMENSENEWS)— Anna Limontas-Salisbury says her son Serge Salisbury is a normal teenager in “Bed-Stuy,” the name New Yorkers commonly give to Bedford Stuyvesant, the majority black and Hispanic neighborhood in north central Brooklyn.
He plays video games; always involving sports, never first-person shooter. His mom says any sort of violence has always made him uncomfortable. He’s a quiet kid with a kind heart, she says. Just after his 12th birthday, Serge started taking the train for just over 40 minutes to school by himself. She would watch him cross the street in the morning.
“He’s the youngest, we baby him,” she says.
Through the phone, you can feel the warmth and love she feels for her son, who is now 15.
Limontas-Salisbury, a teacher and freelance journalist who contributes to Women’s eNews, among other places, laughs when she talks about her son’s wardrobe. He’s always worn hoodies to school. “My biggest problem was always, ‘my goodness, how many hoodies can we buy from Old Navy that you’re going to lose over the year?’ ”
She remembers the first moment that his wearing of the garment gave her a pang. In the spring of 2012, she watched him flip his hood on his head on his morning trek to the train stop. “I was panicking, ‘don’t put that hoodie on!’ It was kind of shocking to have that kind of reaction,” she says. “Just to see him walking across the street and thinking, he could look like anybody from behind.”
The names roll off her tongue. She knows them well.
In February 2012, a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida, shot Trayvon Martin. He was 17. His killer ignored orders from the 911 operator to not pursue, but claimed self-defense when he shot him. He was eventually charged and found not guilty. The prolonged media coverage of public outrage and the acquittal was part of the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In November 2014, two Cleveland officers responded to a police dispatch about an African-American male pointing a pistol in a park. They were not told that the original caller also said it was probably a toy and the wielder probably a child. Within two seconds of arriving on the scene, the younger officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The officer had previously been deemed unfit for duty by a police department in a Cleveland suburb. Under a legal settlement, Cleveland paid $6 million to the Rice family. The officer was not charged.
Limontas-Salisbury says black moms juggle all the daily worries of all mothers. Added to their pile is something greater though; the fear of police attention and violence.
Tara Payne agrees.
“You never really stop worrying about them,” says Payne, a senior designer of children’s clothes. She and her husband have two young girls: Perri, 6; and Priya, 4. The family lives in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City, a transient area of rising rents and rapid development.
A typical day at work for Payne is spent running around her office building on Madison Avenue, a famously high-end address in Manhattan. She’s in meetings, having fittings and visiting a library of vintage archives for inspiration.
She started in the industry when she designed her own senior prom dress as a high school student in the Bronx, the lower-income borough to the north where Payne, as a child, enjoyed something not so available to her own family in Long Island City: a close community.
When she and her sister went out to play, she recalls that her mother could trust that the neighbors would have an eye out. Everyone knew and looked out for each other. “Here, you have to arrange play dates,” she says. She can’t just go outside and see her kids playing with friends.
Limontas-Salisbury’s son still goes to the same school in Red Hook, just south of Downtown Brooklyn. Few of his classmates come from his neighborhood. He takes robotics and plays basketball. At school, teachers discuss issues of the day. The curriculum doesn’t shy away from tough topics she says.
In August 2014, they talked about Mike Brown, a young black man killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In that killing, a jury decided not to bring criminal charges against the officer (in other words, they did not indict him).
The daughter of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man choked to death by a New York City police officer, has come in to the school to speak to students.
Her son’s school has plenty of books. Projects are displayed in the hallways and hang from the ceilings, she says. Students are taught to write memoirs and the principal knows her son by name. Vitally, metal detectors are nowhere to be found. “It was important to me because that’s not the experience that I wanted my child to have,” she says. “Metal detectors say, to me, suspicion about the student.”
She says metal detectors don’t ensure safety in schools. “School should be a place where you do feel safe, but what makes it feel safe is the people who are there, not the metal detector or security guards going through your book bag.”
At the same time, whether there is a direct link or not, crime is down significantly in schools since metal detectors were installed in over 200 New York City schools in the 1990s.
“Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise,” co-founder Alicia Garza wrote for the #BlackLivesMatter website. “It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”
Movement leaders embrace all issues of marginalization, including mass incarceration.
Protests over the mistreatment of young men are often the loudest, but the movement was founded by three black women and addresses intersectional violence at every turn; how poverty exposes people to more policing, how anti-drug policies have disproportionately targeted minorities, how the brutal legacy of slavery plays out in the ongoing effects of racial segregation and discrimination.
Limontas-Salisbury is careful to debunk the misconception that Black Lives Matter is just about boys. Excluding black women from the narrative of police brutality erases the very visceral relationship black women have with the issue. “It’s not just young men, it feels like young black people are under assault in this country,” she says.
Last summer, her 23-year-old daughter went on a road trip with friends to South Carolina. It was right after the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail cell.
Footage of Breaion King’s arrest in Austin surfaced this summer. Police pulled her over for speeding and slammed her body into the ground. She was 26 and a schoolteacher. Salisbury says these are the images running through her mind.
Before she let her daughter leave, Salisbury photographed the car’s license plate, she gave her number to everyone in the car and requested they let her know any time they decided to stop. They drove through the night to the South and Salisbury said she didn’t sleep well.
The police in the United States kill at disproportionally higher rates than law enforcers in comparable countries. And when police officers shoot and kill, black Americans are 2.5 times more likely than white Americans to be the victims.
For Black Lives Matter activists, a big issue is the failure to indict police officers, which creates the sense they can break the law with impunity.
For those killed, each mother will mourn and her cries will be unheard, because the police officer will not be charged with a crime, or indicted. The greatest reprimand will be 30 days of desk duty. In New York alone, police have killed 19 people so far in 2016.
This summer, Black Lives Matter protesters have frequently occupied the park outside of City Hall to protest those killings and others around the country.
Both Limontas Salisbury and Payne feel allied to the movement.
“If we don’t have movements like Black Lives Matter and rhetoric like Donald Trump’s continues to go on, I don’t know what the future is going to hold for my kids,” Payne says.
Salisbury feels the weight of the psychological impact on the community every time a police shoots an unarmed black person. “That’s what people don’t see. If every life mattered, we wouldn’t be feeling that we’re particularly targeted.”
In Bed-Stuy, she says, plainclothes cops are her biggest concern. The first time she saw them stop a couple of men in her neighborhood, she thought they were friends running into each other. “I can imagine that the first time that happens to a young man, they don’t know what’s going on either,” she says.
A few years ago, she was going home on the train alone. She crossed over into the next car to avoid a group of rowdy men. One followed her and began to question her about where she was going and asked her to step off the train. She didn’t immediately realize he was with the New York Police Department. “When it’s plainclothes, how do you know what to do? Is it a person coming up to rob you? Because they don’t always identify themselves.”
She adds that because of her son, their whole life is going to be framed around that. “I have a friend who is a grown man in his 50s and still gets stopped by the police. It’s opened my eyes in the last few years, especially living in New York, that I shouldn’t be surprised that may happen from time to time.”
‘Not the Way I Want to Live’
She tries not to be over-occupied with thoughts of police malpractice. “I am not the spokesperson for all black people, I’m just one mother,” Salisbury says. “But that’s not the way I want to live and I don’t want him to live that way.”
Last year, a classmate of Payne’s daughter Perri told the little girl that police only arrest brown people. “I had to figure out a way to have that conversation with a 5-year-old. I don’t want her to feel like that is the case,” Payne says.
Back in Manhattan, I’m sitting with Payne in a coffee shop off Madison Avenue. She’s effortlessly chic in perfectly worn jeans and statement jewelry pieces. Her purse looks like a take-out box. It’s the definition of delightful. She flips through Facebook on her phone, showing me pictures of her daughters. In each, the girls are clad in colorful clothes, laughing with each other and their cousins.
“I don’t want them to think that they’re not beautiful,” she says. “All those princess shows and they want the dolls, so I’m always looking for that black character, who just isn’t there.”
She teaches her girls the values of self-worth and integrity. This summer, she took them to summer camp in Flushing, a major melting pot section of northeastern Queens.
It’s a long commute, but the camp is worth it. Campers and counselors are a highly diverse group, Payne says. “We want to give them that diversity,: so they don’t feel like, ‘Why am I the only one that’s brown? Why is my hair this way?’ I’m starting to get the questions from my just-turned-6-year-old.”
Maintaining the value of diversity allows her girls to know people from a variety of cultures so that they might never question their common ground with people who look different from themselves.
Donald Trump’s GOP nomination for the presidency has reinforced this as a major concern for Payne. “If they hear someone say something bad about another ethnicity, they can say, ‘oh that’s not true.’ I want them to be able to have their eyes open to what the world has to offer.”
Payne said teachers and counselors consistently say that her girls are well-behaved and sweet. Those moments make her incredibly proud. I asked her what makes her happiest. She said when she picks them up at the end of the day and they run to her with hugs, kisses and exclamations of how much they missed her. “It lets me know that I must be doing something right. Even though I may burn the food sometimes or make them wear their sneakers out.”
She laughs when she talks about her children.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing something right,” she said. “But just to have them tell me how much they love me and they tell me I’m the best mom ever, tells me that I’m doing okay. Just okay.”
In the office, I’m on the phone with Limontas-Salisbury. She reiterates the all-encompassing love that comes with motherhood. She talked to her son recently about changes the family is going through. Above all, she wants him to be happy. “I told him, ‘you are my heart and soul. I don’t care what else goes on. Your comfort and your security and your wellbeing are more important than anything else to me. Anything else.’”
Both women remind me of my own mother.
My mom and I have 70 email threads back and forth. Clicking through them, I find one she signed, “I love you more than the air in my lungs.”
She’s always sending me notes like that, attached to daily updates about the practicalities of life. Black moms can be protective to a fault because they bear the burden of history when they watch their children cross the road into the unknown. But their history also brings joy. In that joy, they find the freedom to live unapologetically. That’s what makes them so special.