PHILADELPHIA — Javon Grant has come up with a plan for what to do should he cross paths with a police officer: Get as far away as possible.
“People are getting shot every day,” says Javon, 14. “I’ll walk on the other side of the street. I will run. I don’t know what they’re gonna do.”
The impact of the constant drumbeat of police shootings of black men and boys — many of them unarmed and killed at the hands of white officers — has left many black youngsters wondering how they can keep from becoming the next social media hashtag.
Javon and his peers are coming of age in the era of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown. They do not know if they will be next.
At the start of what would be a week of violence ending with two black men shot dead by police on video and five Dallas police officers killed by a sniper, about a group of black boys met with their mentors in Philadelphia in an intervention and diversion program where they learn critical thinking, accountability, goal— setting and other skills. Together, they watched a video of Alton Sterling, who was shot several times July 5 while being held down by Baton Rouge police officers in front of a convenience store where he was selling CDs.
Slouched in his chair in jeans, a black T-shirt and a pair of Michael Jordan Nike tennis shoes, Javon shook his head and sat quietly, staring ahead for several moments before speaking.
“He was just trying to hustle,” Javon said. “He was probably selling CDs because he can’t get no job. That’s messed up.”
And it reinforced his plan to distance himself from law enforcement as a way to stay alive.
Across the room, Nahkai Wright nodded. “I gotta make sure I don’t die.”
“Stay out of their way, that’s what I think about,” said Nahkai, a soft-spoken 15-year-old. “Be ready to leave.”
The boys and their mentors, mostly black men, discussed the shooting and those that preceded it, without surprise and with little expectation of fairness or change.
Xavier Revell is 15 but with his frame could be mistaken for a young man. It’s an error that has cost other black teenage boys. A 2014 study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that black boys as young as 10 are more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.
“Cops be making mistakes all the time,” Xavier said before telling a story about a time his older brother had been stopped by police because of how he looked. “I try to keep cool. If the cops come, keep my mouth closed. Say, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ If they put their hands on you, don’t attack …”
“That’s how some of them end up dead,” he said. “They don’t do nothing.”
Present in the room was an understanding the burden was on them — not the police — to preserve their lives, even as they pondered how little control they felt in such an exchange.
“I’ve never got time to get pulled over, but I always have time to survive,” said Joseph Douglas, 41, one of the mentors. “The more I talk, the greater chance I got that something bad is going to happen to me. My thing is: ‘How can I get this cop away from me as fast as possible? What can I do to minimize this interaction?’“
Vince Carter agreed. The 32-year-old black man said he has been stopped numerous times by police while driving in Philadelphia. At times, his frustration threatens to get the best of him.
“There’s been some cases where I was already not in the mood,” Carter said. “I always think about the larger picture.”
Some of the mentors say their role is to impart their experience to save lives.
“In their mind, it’s like, ‘I’m right, and I’m going to stand on this principle if I gotta die,’“ said Reuben Jones, a program mentor. “They’re so adamant … It puts in perspective why so many young black men are dying.”
For some black men, that can mean swallowing their pride to get through the moment, a lesson that often comes with age.
“They need to know how to live today, while we try to figure out what things we can change in the future,” Douglas said. “They need to be able to have an encounter with a police officer and walk away alive.”