He was 16 when a cop kneeled on his neck in Spokane. He’s still making sense of it.
He thought the police were going to kill him on the lawn of his friend's house. Now he's teaching the next generation that Black lives matter.
Detained, 16 years old, shoulder to shoulder with my best friend, Isaiah*. Our hands were cuffed and our cheeks were shoved against the cold dewy grass of his suburban front lawn in Spokane, Washington.
The police officers' knees were pressed to the backs of our necks, making it hard for me to breathe. Their guns were pointed at our bodies. While attempting to adjust my hands to reduce the pinching from the handcuffs, I heard the four police officers screaming obscenities at us.
“Keep your ass on the ground!”
“Stay the fuck on the ground!”
And then, ripping through the chaos, and revealing the reason for our detainment, an officer yelled:
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THIS HOUSE?”
Most days after school, Isaiah and I walked to his place, watched music videos, and did our homework together. On this particular spring day, we’d entered through the backdoor, just as we always did.
s two Black students in a large, predominantly white high school, my friendship with Isaiah emerged in the ninth grade. While in history class, Isaiah and I often made eye-contact from across the room with looks of disappointment when the teacher romanticized Thanksgiving or mispronounced the name of a prominent Black figure -- usually during Black History Month.
In those moments, we couldn’t wait to meet in the hallway after class to discuss how messed up it all was. We’d pretend that we were helping the teacher phonetically pronounce, “Maya An-gelou.”
These hallway debriefs served as a bridge to get to know Isaiah beyond our culturally incompetent history lessons. We discussed which colleges would be the best fit after graduating and shared our long-term goals.
Although our tastes differed - Isaiah preferred Biggie and the maple suede Wallabees while I preferred Tupac and the Space Jam 11s - we had an unspoken connection.
In reflecting on these seemingly simplistic elements of our friendship, I realize that our bond illuminated the resilience, strength, and beauty of Black teenagehood. At the center of our friendship was something that was intrinsically understood - our plight as Black teens in a white world.
s the officer’s knee pressed on my neck and the question “WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THIS HOUSE?” echoed in my mind, I thought of my parents.
My dad moved out West during the second Great Migration in the 1960s from Shreveport, Louisiana. He was a young Black man, like many others, who thought moving West would lead to economic opportunities and an escape from the harsh conditions of the Jim Crow South. By the end of the Great Migration, between 5 and 8 million** African-Americans had fled the South to Northern and Western states.
However, my dad quickly learned that the economic opportunities and resources in the West were also scarce, and often restricted to whites. Discrimination against African-Americans and competition between whites and European immigrants resulted in tension and only left a fraction** of skilled positions available to Black people.
The lack of opportunity and persistent racism shifted my dad’s mindset from living to surviving. He ended up serving time in San Quentin State Prison and Walla Walla State Penitentiary before I was born. While he didn’t go back to prison, the experience had hardened him and led him to mistrust the notion of pulling one’s self up by their bootstraps to live the “American Dream.”
Again, I heard, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THIS HOUSE?” but the question sounded more distant as my own questions flashed through my mind:
Was this the moment that my future would begin to replicate my dad’s past?
Or, even worse, am I going to be shot by the police on Isaiah’s front lawn?
Will they say I was reaching for a weapon?
Will they claim they feared for their lives?
These racing thoughts brought me to my mom. As a single parent raising three Black children, she relied on public assistance to make ends meet. The last week of the month was always a struggle. Being the oldest, I was often sent to our neighbor’s to “borrow” food.
If I get arrested, will she be able to pay my bail? Will this perpetuate the cycle of poverty that has crippled our family for generations?
She had taught us all to avoid run-ins with the police, and the thought of her getting a call that her son had been arrested was too much to bear. Again, but louder, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THIS HOUSE?”
till pressed against the ground, I wondered if Isaiah was also thinking of his parents. His dad was a Marine veteran who later became a mail carrier, and his mom was a senior manager at Macy’s. Both worked hard and purchased a home in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood to raise their family. They had been happily married for years. I knew then that even though Isaiah’s parents had achieved middle-class status, we were still two Black teens under the knees of police officers.
His economic privilege and two-parent home did not protect him. This suburban neighborhood was supposed to be safe — but safe for whom? As Black people in this country, no amount of professional success or social status will protect us.
I never responded to the question, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THIS HOUSE?” Instead, I implored the officers to go inside as I knew they would find family photos displayed along the staircase. I hoped they’d recognize Isaiah in the photos and let us be. Sure enough, once the officers looked inside, they promptly uncuffed us and left without any explanation or apology - leaving us to unravel the confusion for ourselves knowing that we did nothing wrong.
When we stood up, I felt both an immediate sense of relief that the police were gone, but also a keen awareness that Isaiah’s neighbors had been watching us. Had they called the police? Since then, I’ve moved through the world consciously, aware of who I truly am and how I am viewed by others.
y experience underscores a troubling reality that young Black males are often seen as suspicious and menacing. Trayvon Martin was profiled by a vigilante neighborhood watchman in his predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood who saw a Black teen in a hoodie and assumed that he did not belong. Black children are often perceived as adults by society - stripping them of their adolescence and dehumanizing them in the process. After the police shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice within two seconds of getting out of their squad car, they reported, “Shots fired. Male down. Black male, maybe 20.”
Unfortunately, schools can reinforce this through over-surveillance and disproportionate discipline for Black male students. Although some progress has been made, Black students, who make up only 14% of the Seattle Public Schools’ total enrollment, are still suspended at much higher rates than their white peers and account for half of police referrals. Seemingly “race-neutral” systems in fact perpetuate racism and the school to prison pipeline. The veiled language embedded in policies and practices - “I’m just following the intervention protocol” - obscures the visceral pain and suffering of Black youth.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THIS HOUSE?” reverberates. This question reflects the false assumption that we - Black people - don’t belong here. With that assumption comes the legitimate possibility that our lives can be taken away.
his wasn’t my only experience being profiled and mistreated by the police. The feeling of being perceived as a threat and unwelcome in this country stays with me. It becomes more visceral every time I hear of a Black person being killed by the police.
When Breonna Taylor was shot eight times and killed in her own home by the Louisville police department using a no-knock warrant, I sobbed. When George Floyd called out to his mother in his final words before being murdered by the Minneapolis police, I was brought back to Isaiah’s front lawn, my own neck underneath an officer’s knee, thinking of my parents and wondering if those were going to be my final thoughts, my final breath.
These experiences and the 2020 demonstrations for racial justice have crystalized what I’ve always known to be true; we not only belong here, but we deserve to be here.
James Baldwin once said, “When you stand up and look the world in the face like you have the right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.”
The introduction of my impermanence on Isaiah’s front lawn fueled my motivation to examine society and make a change - no matter the risk. Since then, I have been determined to not only assert my right to live, but to support Black students to do the same.
n 2019, I co-founded Seattle School for Boys, where we empower boys of color and support white students to fight injustice.
This past summer, one of my middle school students wrote and performed a poem about police brutality at the Youth Shall Lead march for Black lives in Seattle’s Central District.
He personified hope when he said:
“We shouldn’t be afraid to be Black, because my skin is beautiful and yours is too.”
This line expresses the paradox that Black people live with every day; the undercurrent of violence in response to our mere presence, and our persistence to wade through it all to live a meaningful life.
How we treat our most marginalized reflects the true character of our society. At times, it can be hard to remain hopeful. In the recent election, close to half of all voters either supported the racism of one candidate or didn’t see it as a deal breaker. And yet, when I think of my ancestors, my parents, and my students, I have to remain hopeful.
The advice I’d give to my 16-year self is the same advice I give to my students today. Progress has been slow and the odds are against us, but don’t let this deter you. Use your frustration, anger, and pain as motivation. Work in community and remember this is a lifelong process of learning, unlearning, and healing. The work doesn’t get easier, but you’ll get better.
* Isaiah’s name has been changed
**Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America's Great Migration. Penguin Random House, 2020.
Jerome Hunter is the co-founder and head of academics at Seattle School for Boys, a middle school in Seattle’s Central District rooted in problem-based learning and social-emotional growth. Jerome is a contributing member of the Institute for Connecting Neuroscience with Teaching and Learning, and he is also in his fourth year as a mentor with My Brother’s Keeper.
This essay is part of KUOW's Seattle Story Project, our series featuring bold first-person reflections on life and resilience in the Puget Sound region. If you have a brave story to tell, reach out to us. Here's how. If you have feedback on this story, we're listening. Email us at email@example.com or tag us in your tweets @KUOWengage.