‘It just keeps happening.’ NC youth speak out on killings of people of color by police

Aaron Sánchez-Guerra, Tammy Grubb, Ashad Hajela
·5 min read

As the death of George Floyd brought focus to killings of people of color by police, many Black and Latino people just saw a continuation of something long protested. The mass outrage provoked by Floyd’s murder was just recognition of a longstanding reality.

Many Black and Latino parents never even sit their sons down for “the talk” about what to do in an encounter with police, because “growing up in a Black home, you already know the talk,” said 19-year-old Michael Ndombe of Rocky Mount.

“(Your parents) just look at you, and you know what they’re going to say,” said Ndombe, a freshman at Shaw University, a historically Black institution.

In the days leading to the verdict in Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial, The News & Observer asked Black and Latino residents in the Triangle for their thoughts on law enforcement.

Do they feel safe around police? Could a killing by a law enforcement officer happen in their community? Can anything be done to end police violence?

‘Becoming desensitized to it’

Since Floyd’s death last May, many local governments have adopted reforms, like the Raleigh Police Department banning chokeholds and knee restraints last June. Yet, police officers continue to kill about three Americans each day on average, The New York Times reported last week.

People who spoke to The N&O said the ongoing incidents discourage them.

“I do hope change will come, but I don’t see it,” Ndombe said. “There’s stuff (police) could do better.”

“I feel like it’s becoming a little too normalized, I feel like I’m becoming desensitized to it,” said Aikira Dzilah, 16, who is in the 10th grade and spoke to The N&O through the Durham Children’s Initiative (DCI).

“When I see something like that happening, I’m like, ‘OK. Another one.’ It’s the same old story ... they go to court or they don’t go to court, they get off or nothing happens,” Dzilah said.

At 11 years old, Aaron Gonzáles-Calderón, a sixth-grade student who participates in the same extracurricular education at DCI as Dzilah, has already developed a negative view of law enforcement.

“The (officers) that have committed police brutality shouldn’t be put on temporary leave,” he said. “They literally use military-grade weapons at riots, on people. In my mind, that is just being stupid.”

Since the Chauvin trial began, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black adult, was fatally shot by a white police officer during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. In Chicago, a police officer fatally shot Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Latino boy who was shown with his hands up in a released body camera video.

“It just keeps happening, keeps happening,” James Martin, another Shaw student, told The N&O.

Martin, 18, says it may only be a matter of time before a death like Floyd’s or Wright’s occurs in Raleigh.

“You never know when it’s going to hit home,” he said.

Strained relationships with police

Some young people interviewed did say their parents told them to be watchful and respectful around police, and even to record their interactions with law enforcement — despite their children not having had a bad interaction with police before.

“I just try to avoid — not being around cops, but like, putting myself in situations where I will have to deal with them,” said Angel “Chava” Araiza, who is 17 and lives in Smithfield. “I guess you could say (avoid) getting into into any type of law trouble. You know, driving careful, just in case, because you never know what kind of cop could pull you over.”

Araiza, who is Mexican-American, says he fears police hold stereotypes of Black motorists having drugs on them and of Latinos driving without a license for being in the country illegally.

But for his part, Hillsborough resident Samuel Phills said he trusts police to respond appropriately when citizens are behaving responsibly with them.

“For me, for example, I know I am accountable for how I react to things, so if a police officer comes up to me, how I respond to the officer is going to make the officer feel comfortable or is going to agitate the officer,” said Phills, who is Black.“

“It’s all about people taking accountability for their actions, because you can defuse any situation,” he said.

Darryl Mayo, 54, said he recently watched as police brought a K-9 dog to search a car for drugs in a parking lot across from the Hillsborough Coin Laundry, where he works, on U.S. 70. Police also were out “in full force” about two weeks ago when somebody was shooting a gun, he said.

An incident like what happened to George Floyd could happen anywhere, although they don’t think it’s likely in Hillsborough, Mayo and other residents told The N&O.

Moment of empowerment

While current events take a mental toll, they present an opportunity for young people of color to educate others, they said.

“I went to a predominantly white school, so my friends have for the most part been predominantly white,” said Abraham Zaga Viveros, 19, of Raleigh. “Ever since everything started happening, my friends will ask me If I’m serious whenever I say, ‘chill out!’ if a cop comes up, because I’m not going to be OK with that type of stuff.”

“I’ve had to explain to them what it means to us and people of color — like, what this can mean to us or what can happen to us,” he said.

Pilar Hurtado, a 15-year-old student at DCI, said her peers have the chance to challenge perceptions and change the future,

“People say that we’re too soft, that this generation is too soft,” said Hurtado, a freshman in high school.

“The great thing about being in this generation, Generation Z ... instead of being bystanders, we are now upstanders,” she said.