A family works through racial issues with Brighton police, Penfield schools

Myles Blackwood figured at some point in his life he would have an inevitable meeting with police.

After police were called on him and his cousin last month at Indian Landing Elementary School, the 16-year-old Aquinas Institute junior, a promising basketball player, a high-honor-roll student, realized that day had arrived.

And, he admitted, when a Brighton police officer approached the car he and his cousin were in, he was a bit scared.

He has seen the news — the death of George Floyd, killed underneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day; the subsequent protests; the growing recognition that the country has often tried to ignore its legacy of racism instead of confronting it head-on.

"I was definitely a little concerned," Blackwood said. " ... I just see it in the world. I see it happening all the time."

Myles and his 20-year-old cousin were supposed to meet a basketball trainer at the school. They first approached a door that was open at the school, but saw it was for staff only. They then knocked on another door. Hearing nothing, they returned to his cousin's car to wait.

In the interim, a school employee saw the pair — they were carrying bags with gear — and told a school official, then they decided to call the police. Brighton police arrived, talked to the two youths, realized nothing was amiss, and left.

The meeting with police was over in minutes, and the trainer later arrived for what turned out to be training at an outdoors court.

 

'He's such a great kid'

When Myles' mother, Courtney Blackwood, later heard what had happened, she was incensed.

"I was just so incredibly upset," she said. "... He's such a great kid and he follows the rules."

Courtney Blackwood and her husband Marcus, who also played basketball at Aquinas, have four sons. Myles is the oldest.

She said she worries that, with Myles, there could be more incidents in his life simply because of his race. She worries that those incidents eventually coagulate into scars that are lasting.

"Myles doesn’t have any negative feelings towards police," she wrote in a widely circulated Facebook post that day. "His best friend's Dad is an officer and Myles loves him. But if this happens to him throughout his life, and to those around him you can see how microaggressions begin to take effect."

In an interview, Courtney Blackwood said she may have misspoken by calling the incident a "microaggression."

As one friend told her, "That's not even a microaggression. That's a macroaggression because the police were called."

 

The school, the police

Brighton Police Chief David Catholdi said he thinks the call to police stemmed from a sincere concern for the school facilities. But, he said, he understands how others may see it differently.

"We realize that people may be mistaken" when they make a call about something they view as suspicious, he said.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Catholdi said, residents were urged to "see something, say something" if they think they have witnessed something suspicious.

Police departments are trying to reconcile that informal directive with the understanding that police may be called for something that is completely innocent. In some cases, Catholdi conceded, those calls may be motivated by bias.

Courtney Blackwood and Penfield School Superintendent Thomas Putnam ended up talking about what happened to Myles and his cousin. (Indian Landing is a Penfield school patrolled by Brighton police.)

"Talking with Courtney, I understand how her son and his cousin may have felt," Putnam said. "I will never fully understand as a white man ... but I can empathize after speaking with Courtney about how her son and his cousin felt."

Putnam said schools and other institutions now are focused even more than in the past on "how to bridge the diversity gap" as well as how to battle racism and recognize it even in its most subtle appearances.

The school employee was surprised to see young men at an elementary school that has been closed during the pandemic, Putnam said. Also, he said, school employees have been trained to be acutely alert to intruders, given the rash of school shootings across the country in recent years.

"It is important to point out that at that time our elementary school buildings and campuses were still closed to the community," Putnam said. "I know that the young men were not privy to that information."

Putnam said he does not think race was the factor that prompted the call to police. But, he said, he understands why the Blackwood family would think differently.

 

Microaggressions

Here is the point of the short encounter, where one's world experience may dictate how this incident is perceived.

Some will see it as an innocent incident, in which a school employee was concerned about the security of the facilities.

Those who live with moments like this, that accumulate time and time again, will see it as another of a thousand paper cuts to the psyche and soul, each more painful and scarring than the last.

In her best-selling 2018 book, “So You Want to Talk about Race,” Ijeoma Oluo writes of the cumulative impact of microaggressions:

"Imagine if you were walking down the street and every few minutes someone would punch you in the arm. You don't know who will be punching you, and you don't know why. You are hurt and wary and weary. You are trying to protect yourself, but you can't get off this street.

"Then imagine somebody walks by, maybe gesticulating wildly in interesting conversation, and they punch you in the arm on accident. Now imagine this is the last straw, that this is where you scream. That person may not have meant to punch you in the arm, but the issue for you still is the fact that people keep punching you in the arm."

This is what Marcus and Courtney Blackwood fear — that no matter how successful their children are, they cannot escape the punches of racism. This is why Courtney Blackwood felt compelled to take to Facebook about the incident at Indian Landing Elementary School. She did so not only as a Black woman, but mostly as a parent.

"This happens to Black kids all over the place," she said. "It doesn't matter where they're from, what income level they are. ... I feel like a piece of innocence was lost. This is the first time this has happened to him."

Too many people are quick to ignore the microaggressions confronted regularly by Black people, she said. She and her husband have both had those encounters, and they hunger for a world in which their sons don't have the same experiences.

"I think there are even some people who don't believe racism exists," she said.

She said she had productive talks with Putnam, who discussed with her the need to ensure there is implicit bias training for all school staff.

She also met with Brighton police, who let her watch the body camera footage of the interaction. She said she was impressed with the professionalism of the police officer.

Therein, she said, are perhaps the lessons: Do not stay quiet, because to stay quiet means to accept, and to accept means that change is unlikely.

"I think just talking about it and seeing the experiences that people go through, that's one way we can start to chip away at change," Blackwood said.

"That’s one way we can start to make a difference."