His Name in Vain
New York magazine|May 24 - June 06, 2021
We can choose to be sated by more cops in jail. Or we can insist that bargaining for mere survival is not enough.
ZAK CHENEY-RICE

One year later, America is struggling to REFORM and reimagine the AGENCIES that have been licensed to KILL us.

MOST OF THEM DON’T DIE. It’s easy to mistake the worst outcome for the most urgent crisis, but the reality is that the vast majority of people who have violent encounters with the police live to tell about it.

Meralyn Kirkland has been telling about it, and what it cost her family, since September 19, 2019—when her manager pulled her aside and told her, sorry, there’s someone from your granddaughter’s school on the phone. It had been five years since she’d moved from the Bahamas into a 1,000-square-foot apartment in Orlando, Florida, and six years since Kaia Rolle, all eight gray-blue pounds of her, struggling to breathe, felt her grandmother stroke her shoulder and made her first “funny little squeak sound.” And it was eight months before George Floyd’s last breath knocked America on its back.

When Kirkland answered the phone that day, she was put on hold. “Hello,” said the man who finally picked up. “This is Officer Turner. I’m calling to tell you that Kaia’s been arrested. She’s on her way to the juvenile center.”

Kaia was an exuberant 6-year-old, the type who kept her grandparents on their toes but entertained. She struck up conversation with strangers everywhere, gave them hugs. They often joked that if Kirkland wasn’t careful, someone was going to “run away with her.” “I was trying to teach her the meaning of garrulous because that’s what she is,” says Kirkland. Kaia would turn their commutes into showcases for her singing. “She’d have the entire bus eating out of her hands.”

At age 4, Kaia began falling asleep at strange times—in the middle of sentences, during meals. Kirkland tells me there are photos of Kaia in her high chair with her mouth full of food and eyes shut. Her prekindergarten teachers said she would knock out during class as well, and her schoolwork was suffering because of it. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong until one physician asked Kirkland about Kaia’s breathing and a light bulb flickered on. “I told the doctor how Kaia really snores,” says Kirkland, “and then in the middle of snoring, she would just cut out and I wouldn’t hear anything. And then she’d go into snorting, gasping, and she would start snoring again.” A sleep test confirmed that Kaia had pediatric obstructive sleep apnea.

When Kirkland dropped Kaia off at school the morning of September 19, she gave administrators a version of the same spiel she’d been giving them for weeks. There were side effects to Kaia’s condition: Sleep-deprived children can be irritable and prone to tantrums. And sure enough, within hours of arriving at school, Kaia started running with a pair of sunglasses that were part of a show-and-tell event. Her teacher chased her into another room. Kaia threw a tantrum—“screaming and rolling over and flailing her arms and legs,” says Kirkland. The teacher tried to restrain her—something else the doctors had said not to do and that Kirkland had relayed to the school. “She’ll scream, she’ll maybe run around, which is going to exhaust her more. And she’ll probably drop wherever she is and sleep.” At some point during the fracas, Kaia kicked her teacher—by accident, Kaia said later. Kirkland isn’t sure who summoned the officers who patrol the campus, or at what point Officer Dennis Turner entered the room, or exactly why he zip-tied Kaia’s hands behind her back and led her off school grounds. Body-camera footage of the incident, which was released in February 2020, shows the child begging her hulking captor to be freed. “Help me,” she sobs. “I don’t want to go to the police car. Please, please, please. Please let me go.”

Kirkland didn’t fully comprehend it at the time, but she and her granddaughter were in the introductory course of a sort of reeducation. She was an immigrant. Kaia was a child. Neither had interacted with the police in any meaningful way before that day. Neither had been given a concrete reason to be wary of law enforcement.

Kirkland could not have predicted that a similar civics lesson would grip the nation a few months later. Millions of Americans have spent the past year reassessing their relationship with their country through the prism of law enforcement, often inspired by teachers who did not set out to be teachers: Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020, hunted and gunned down in Georgia by vigilantes who were cozy with the police; Breonna Taylor in March, her home raided and her body riddled with police bullets in Kentucky; George Floyd in May, choked to death by police in Minnesota. Their lessons have been received at different frequencies and motivated different conclusions but point to a common understanding: The violence of American law enforcement degrades the lives of countless people, especially poor Black people, through its peculiar appetite for their death.

But that was still months away. When Kirkland picked Kaia up from the Juvenile Assessment Center, she was “shaking like a leaf” and repeating her grandmother’s phone number like an incantation. Her eyes were red from crying, and her wrists were abraded. Police cars don’t come with booster seats, so Kaia had been strapped into the back seat like an adult, with the restraints digging into her wrists every time the vehicle rounded a corner or stopped at a traffic light. “Grandma,” Kaia said when she saw Kirkland, “I told them to call you. I told them to call you.”

Kirkland was told that Kaia had been charged with simple battery. They said she would be rearrested if she didn’t show up for court. One of the women who worked at the center was crying. A special step stool had to be brought in for Kaia’s mug shot. The same regretful sentiment united the people who had facilitated the event: the workers who processed Kaia at the center, Officer Turner’s partner, the police chief who eventually fired Officer Turner for not seeking his approval before the arrest, and the prosecutor who, the following Monday, dropped the charges. All felt Kaia’s arrest was a travesty and should never have happened. And yet, while it was happening, nobody stepped forward to stop it.

When Kirkland later tried enrolling Kaia in a different public school, her enthusiasm for a return to familiar routine died at the curb. As Kirkland pulled up to campus, Kaia saw a police car parked out front and reacted as though she had just seen an unusually sadistic bully. “She was crying and screaming and got down on the floor,” Kirkland says. “I’m like, ‘Kaia, what’s going on? You wanted to go to school.’ She’s like, ‘No, no, the officer was waiting for me.’” It had been months since she’d been inside a classroom, and she was often afraid to leave her grandmother’s side. Sirens started to make her skittish, afraid she was being pursued. She had night terrors and wet the bed. When she saw a cousin who worked as a correction officer in his uniform at a family gathering, she “started to go ballistic.”

Eventually, Kaia was diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress disorder and started seeing a therapist. “The therapist is showing her videos of police playing ball with kids, rescuing kittens from trees, pushing kids on bikes,” says Kirkland. The idea they are trying to convey to Kaia is “that a uniformed police officer does not need to be associated with fear or bad emotions,” Kirkland explains. “They can be your friend.”

The real concern is not Kaia’s reintegration into schools. It’s how her fear of the police manifests “15 years from now—she could have an encounter with a police officer that triggers her.” Kirkland has seen the videos of police slayings flooding social media in recent years. “The police could pull her over for running a stop sign. And it could cause her to speed off or something that could cause her to be shot.”

The therapist is reprogramming Kaia to associate the police with a belief that she can “trust them,” despite her hard-earned knowledge to the contrary. If adult Kaia is stopped by the police and doesn’t get shot, perhaps she’ll be considered a success story.

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