I wrote recently about an argument on whether to include the phrase “systems of oppression” in an equity statement being adopted by the Oak Park Village Board. In this argument, one white male board member expressed reservations over including this phrase because he said that police officers might think their department is being called a system of oppression. I believe, as I wrote, that the Oak Park Police Department is part of a system of oppression, as are the Oak Park schools, the Village Board, and other institutions here because these institutions are American institutions, in an American village which is set up to privilege white men.
Today on my way home from work, I was able to observe the system at work. I saw three police cars by the side of a street. A young man of color — maybe a high schooler — was seated on the ground near one of the police cars. Another young man and two police officers stood nearby. I stopped for a few minutes to take in the situation, noticing that a young man of color, maybe in his 20s, was standing nearby watching as well. I overheard one of the officers saying that a bike had been reported stolen and that the young man on the ground fit the description of the thief. All of them waited around for a while, until the second young man asked one of the police officers if he could go, and the police officer said yes. The officers asked the seated young man to come over to one of the police cars, he got into the back seat, and they closed the door. After some time, a white man pulled up in his car, got out, pointed at the bike, and said, “That’s it.” He had a short conversation with the two police officers, put the bike in the back of his car, and drove off. The police officers conversed briefly, got in the two police cars, and drove off with the young man in the backseat.
I tell this story not because it is remarkable, but because of how unremarkable and ambiguous it is. If this was part of a system of oppression, it was difficult for me as a middle-class white man to discern the contours of it. The police officers seemed respectful. There was no physical contact by the police, let alone any aggression. It is unclear to me whether charges will be pressed on the young man or what consequences he might face. As far as I can tell, the person whose bike was stolen got it back.
But in the end, he is one more young man of color interacting with the legal system. He is one more young man that, in this respect, we have failed. How will his life be affected? I can hear people saying that he will get whatever he deserves. And it is hard to answer that assertion without knowing this young man and what he truly did, except to say that no one deserves to have their life upended because of a youthful error.
So in the end, what is a system of oppression? It is less important to define these words than it is for us to have laws and a society that show compassion, that allow all kids to make mistakes. All the research on young adult development shows that young people’s brains are not fully developed until the age of 25. How can we allow the appropriate time, space, and freedom for all children to develop into the young adults they deserve to be, instead of those we dictate they will be? My hope is that this freedom will be allowed this young man. My responsibility is to work toward it being allowed all young people in our village and across our nation.
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