"I don't have to be friends with everybody!"

It's so common that many people might consider it normal. A group of kids are playing with a soccer ball and one boy--a bit taller than most and with a forceful personality--gives orders. The others follow the orders gladly and one of the orders is that they don't play with "that kid." 

But common isn't necessarily okay.

I was always afraid my kids would be "that kid" because they're different from the other kids in our town, visibly and controversially. But when it happened, it was at a support group for kids like them, kids of a minority background who were supposed to be their best allies. And my kids weren't the one left out. 

Instead it was one of my people. The kid with a significant physical disability. It wasn't due to his behavior or personality. He's a fun kid. Because he was booted out of the boys' fun and he loved card games, I played Uno with him. I could wish my kids were as quick with Uno. 

And no, there is no excuse. This was not one of those situations where the child left out was too timid or too aggressive, didn't ask to be included or just felt offended and left. He was told to leave.

The others chased him with sticks because they wanted to play cops and robbers and he was handy as a robber. If he was near them the game was always everyone against that boy. It was all in fun. They never hurt him physically, but they absolutely would not play WITH him. 

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

I sat my kids down privately to understand the issue. 

"The leader doesn't want him to play," my daughter said

Why does he get to decide?

"We want him to be the leader. He knows how to make fun," she explains.

My son, younger and less verbal, just shrugs. He admits he doesn't feel great about leaving that one boy out, but he wants to play with the boys. He'll go along with whatever, even if it makes him feel a bad sometimes.

Finally, I directly witnessed the ringleader directing kids to gang up on the boy with a disability. So, I told the ringleader he was in time-out. He went to time-out but told me, "You can't make us play with him." 

The mother of the ringleader arrived shortly and took over. She told him, "That's not nice," and let him go. 

I gritted my teeth and started another Uno game. 

It wasn't really a new issue in this group, except before the issue had been me among the grown-ups. We have come to this group for four years now. During the third year, I was extremely frustrated. The same group of people met each time, and I still did not know who was who because people were never introduced again and I couldn't see their faces. When I asked, I was given awkward answers and then avoided.

Other parents formed little groups of friends within the support group and I was left on the outside. Once I was even explicitly told to give up my seat at a lunchroom table because a large group wanted to sit together and I wasn't invited. I was directed to sit outside the lunchroom in an area where there were large tables but also wasps that made the area less desirable. 

It was far from a "support group" for me. I only went for the kids to be with peers like them. But then one of the organizers decided to make the theme of this year's meeting be "the inclusion of people with disabilities," because her friend with the disabled child would be attending for the first time. 

I was asked for ideas for a disability awareness program. They wanted me to develop a blindness simulation, so people could see how rough it is to be blind. But the only ideas I am particularly interested in have to do with the social aspects of disability.

It isn't that rough to be blind. It's occasionally inconvenient. But it is rough to have people react to you being blind. 

The organizers weren't happy. My suggestions were ignored and the theme went ahead with little physical demonstrations of blindness and deafness. Gritting my teeth, I focused on the one thing I could explain in this context--that is the difficulty of recognizing faces when you are visually impaired. And somehow I managed to get through to the adults for the first time. By the end of the week, I knew everyone's name and could identify most by voice, stature or idiosyncrasies. It was a vast relief and I was even included in some conversations after that. 

Still, the child with a disability in our midst was left out and forced to play card games with the grown-ups. 

Toward the end of the week-long workshop, a guest came to give a presentation to our group. He was a man of the same minority background as the children in the group. Most of the guests to such a group are women, people in "caring" professions. So, having a male guest was a big deal.

The little boys were agog at this role model. He was buff, brash and a man. He had grown up in the ghetto and become the first minority city counsel member in his good-sized town.

He quickly noticed the disharmony among the children. As it turned out, once the disabled boy had been fully rejected from the pack of kids, the leader needed another target. And this time it was my son--quiet, not too well coordinated and younger than most. 

He joined me at the Uno table and pretended he didn't care much.

Our male guest gathered all the kids who had been involved in the shunning of the boy with a disability--and most of them were boys in this case--out on the soccer field and talked to them. The dynamics quickly became apparent. 

"I don't have to be friends with everyone," the ringleader said. "My father says I've got to be assertive. It's his problem if he's too weak to be in our club."

The man tried to reason with them and talked about compassion. He asked how they would feel if they were left out.

"I won't be left out," the ringleader said. "I'll make sure of that."

The other kids watched their leader and he did not back down. They learned. The adults were unwilling to lay down a law on this. Shunning may not be nice, but it isn't explicitly against the rules.

Creative Commons image by Duane Storey

Creative Commons image by Duane Storey

The session on the soccer field broke up without any resolution. But I held back from leaving because I wanted to get an email address from the guest, who I greatly admired, although he seemed a bit lost being called in to help mediate this conflict among the children.

As the others trailed away, the ringleader among the kids and one of his closest friends stood with the man from the ghetto, their admired role model. I waited patiently for him to finish with them, so I could ask for his contact information.

"My father says there are people called Neo-nazis who might hurt me because I'm not white," the leader of the kids' pack admitted to the man, his voice still strong but his stance clearly seeking some reassurance or support from this strong mirror of himself.

The man told him, "That's true. Some people are like that, but here is the thing you need to remember. Not many people are like that. Only a few. Most people are good."

I have a hard time with my big mouth. The man hesitated. He rocked from foot to foot, obviously struggling for words.

And the words popped out before I could stop them, "And that is a good reason, why you should be friends with as many people as you can. You never know when you'll need them at your back." 

The man jabbed his finger at me. "Yes! That is the thing! That is it!" 

He was clearly grateful to be rescued from an awkward issue of teaching morals to children--particularly a moral concept that adults don't actually observe all that well. We grinned at one another. A pact of the grown-ups with a quick comeback.

I do mean it though. Sure, no one can force you to be friends with the less cool, the ones who take a bit of extra effort--whether it's a kid on the playground who you have to work to communicate with or a grown-up who can't recognize faces. But hard times are coming and you may need just such friends. There is no friend more steadfast than those who have been on the outside.

Still. I acknowledge that mine was an easy answer, given to kids. I think back to my own childhood, when I struggled with social ostracism on a daily basis. There is a part of that memory I don't like to think on. There was a kid in my school for a time who was very strange in appearance due to a physical deformity.

He was smart and nice, but he looked strange even to my weak eyes. He was also not cool. He didn't have the kind of forceful personality that can negate physical difference. And so, even though I said "Hi" to him on the street and in the halls, I was never really friends with him. I yearned always toward the kids who were moving and doing things. Even I, who should have known better. did it. 

Now I swear I'll do better. Instead of looking around for who I want to be with, I'll look around for who is there and ready. 

Smrak 1: Screen addiction and its pushers

I joke about being a Luddite but in reality I love technology. I’m legally blind and computers really do make the difference between freedom and imprisonment for many of us with disabilities. Many technologies are also essential for increasing the ecological sustainability of our lifestyles. 

Creative Commons image by  Lars Plougmann 

Creative Commons image by  Lars Plougmann 

I even love the internet and social media. Social media is reason we have a serious presidential candidate in the United States who discusses issues of interest to people with regular incomes for the first time in my lifetime. The prevalence of social media has opened up opportunities for small businesses, homeschoolers, social justice activists and even organic farmers like never before. If we do ever find a large-scale solution to climate change, I believe it will be spread and activated through social media.

I’m not against technology. 

I’m just against kids being connected to some sort of electronic media more than SEVEN hours each day on average. That’s a staggering statistic. It’s often half of all awake time for kids. 
Yes, media is immediate, colorful, eye-catching, flexible and dynamic. It gives you the feeling of instant control. Change the channel, skip, scroll down, click a link, friend and unfriend. It’s all right there in a split second. No self-regulation necessary, no self-control required, no need to be flexible yourself and no time to notice slower things.

A terrifying phenomenon is building in this generation--people who don’t know how to deal with non-virtual reality. It isn't just the obvious stuff, like not knowing how to grow food or cook or get around without a map navigation system (although those are significant issues). It’s also the essential ability to observe the world in real time, to connect with one’s self and with the natural environment. It’s the ability to just be without the jitters reminiscent of an addict in need of a fix. 

Creative Commons image by  Devon Christopher Adams

Creative Commons image by  Devon Christopher Adams

You might say I should just manage my kids’ screen time and rest secure in the knowledge that at least my kids will gain technology skills without becoming addicted. But any of you who have actually tried this will be chuckling.

Easier said than done.

My kids are still in preschool and I am already under fierce pressure to allow them at least several hours of screen time every day. I attended a seminar on bullying prevention because my kids are in a high-risk category for being bullied, and the only concrete bit of advice the anti-bullying “expert” speaking had was: “Be sure to allow your kids to watch the fashionable TV shows and play enough video games, so they'll be up-to-date on what will be discussed at recess.” 

My kids report that some of their classmates already have smart phones. In preschool! For my second-grade ESL students, a smart phone is a basic school supply, like they used to have personal pencil sharpeners. 

Creative Commons image by  Yan Chi Vinci Chow

Creative Commons image by  Yan Chi Vinci Chow

When my kids were toddlers, I eagerly awaited the day when their friends would visit us and they could visit their friends. But now their friends don’t want to visit us because, “the TV isn’t on.” And when I check or even just ask what they are doing at a friend’s house, there is no other activity other than TV, video games or Barbie dolls in front of the TV, in the case of girls. Their reading abilities are scanty for Facebook yet, but that won’t last long.

I’m going to catch some flak for mentioning that some other parents are becoming part of the problem on this one. But the thing is that most of these parents who put the kids in front of the TV or video games will tell you they don’t like to do it. They feel pressured to do it and they are exhausted. They usually insist to themselves that they are doing it "just this once" to save their sanity. Like me, they want their kids to have friends and be happy and this seems to be the price you have to pay. 

It’s a spiral of smrak, the term I am coining for the techno-social malaise of today's world, leading to kids spending most of their time in front of screens and having few real-world interests or skills. 

I’m not judgmental so much as tearing my own hair out. We need to stand together and stand up for a healthy amount of technology and other diversified activities for kids. We can’t use electronics as a way to avoid discussing life and health with our kids “just this once”--every single day. We must band together as humans of all ages to take back our lives and our minds. 

Technology is a wonderful gift. Let’s use it wisely.

The bottom line: I don't care what she said, you don't shove... or pull guns

I can picture the scene in McKinney pretty well. The organizers promote a party on the internet. More people show up than they expect. They didn't think parts of it through, like whether or not they could invite a bunch of kids, some of whom they didn't know personally, to their gated community pool. It happens. If you've ever organized an event for more than twenty people, you know how easily things can  get misinterpreted. 

Swimming - Creative Commons image by Cal Sr

Swimming - Creative Commons image by Cal Sr

Then when neighbors get upset with the loud music and too many "guests" in the private pool, the teenagers get mouthy. I've seen it with crowds of teenagers in a dozen countries. They don't want to leave. They assume that something with fliers and on-line promotion is "official" so they have the right to be there. They came all that way. They demand their right to have what was advertised.

And crowds are hard to disperse whether you're the somewhat disorganized organizer or the police, especially when no one has a ride home yet.

Now the residents of the area are upset because the media and activists have turned it into a racial issue, because a lot of the kids who showed up for this advertised party were black and the police who came in response to calls from white neighbors were also white. And they contend that a lot of the residents there are also black, so it isn't a race issue. They just have rules about guests flooding their private pool for a public event. 

I'm an ocean away and I wasn't there, so I'm not in the business of judging what I  didn't see. But how the party was organized or why the kids were there is really not the issue.

I'm sorry about highlighting the white witness here, but white people sometimes need to hear white witnesses explain to them that racism really does exist and he says it well.  -  Teenager who shot McKinney pool party video speaks out 

There is one thing I can see. I can see the video made by a fifteen year old without an ulterior motive, a kid who was obviously a bit confused and then increasingly concerned by the reaction of a police officer. I can't hear who yelled what very well, but I can see well enough what happened and so can everyone else. 

People all over the world can see.

And we don't care what she yelled or who said what. She was fourteen and the police officer was an adult. And you don't shove a person to the ground and use a girl's hair for a handle and put her face in the dirt over words, any words. 

Sometimes I have to explain about things in America because I'm an American living in another country. It's expected. I know that although there is violence in America and police are too ready to fire their guns and especially ready if they're facing a black person, most American police officers are not out-of-control or insane and many of them are black. I've held conversations with people in Europe about this and said, "Yes, there is racism in our society and it affects the police but not all white Americans are overtly racist and not all the cops are murderers." 

But what do I say now? The police officer in the video is clearly panicked, running from one side to another, shouting orders to random groups of kids who are walking around not threatening anyone, just looking confused and trying to figure out how to get a ride home.

Was there something violent that happened before that freaked him out? According to another video, there was a scratching, slapping fight between a woman and some teenage girls. But that's all. Why is this police officer so flustered? I have yet to see any reasonable reason reported. There was a restless crowd yes. Some of them may have yelled at him. But they were children, not even older teens for the most part. You expect me to believe that the police officer was that afraid of children, so afraid that he had to yank them by their arms, shove them down, use a girl's hair as a handle to force her head down and then pull a gun?

You can say this was just a cop with a mean, aggressive personality, but it didn't look that way. He didn't look like he was just abnormally aggressive. In the video he looks confused, irritated, panicked and frustrated that his orders are not being followed. Did he receive no training for dealing with a situation like this? Wait. No, as it turns out, he was the trainer, the senior officer in charge of new guys. 

How could he not know that the first duty of a police officer is like that of a doctor. First, do not make the situation worse. 

I'm sure there are plenty of rants out there on the internet about how bad cops are. This isn't one of them. I have seen police who lived and worked by the principle of mitigating harm and keeping the peace. I organized antiwar demonstrations in a major European city for a couple of years. We never had a riot or property damage or anything that made the international news, but there was the occasional tense incident. 

I remember one in particular. It was one of the first big demonstrations, thousands of people, crammed into narrow, echoing medieval streets. We only had megaphones, no sound system. there was no question that we were going to really do crowd control. The best we as organizers could do was stay ahead of the crowd and gently guide it in the right direction. 

Emotions were running high. The war in Iraq had just begun and European public opinion was aggravated by the policies of George W. Bush. And a fourth to a third of the demonstrators were Arabs, often very emotional Middle Eastern students. Riots had broken out in some cities. The police had reason to worry.

We arrived at the US Embassy to deliver our petition for peace and found that instead of the usual line of relatively friendly looking cops, we were facing a phalanx of riot police with shields and tasers, and no doubt, tear gas. The street was blocked with a barricade some distance before the Embassy. I definitely felt a bit nervous walking up to that in the front line of the march. I couldn't see it with my bad eyesight but others could see US Marines standing in the windows of the Embassy with guns.

Once we got the crowd stopped, we were negotiating with the police to let one of our organizers through the barricade, so that he could personally deliver our signed petition to the Embassy. A police officer asked him to take his backpack off and just as he was putting it down there was a deafening "bang!"  It must have been a cherry-bomb-type firecracker, the type that could blind you if it went off in your face.

I was sure that things were about to go to pieces. I ducked down against the police barricade, hoping against hope that when the police charged they'd just somehow go over me. There were screams and yells of anger from the crowd. But the police didn't come. 

Instead I heard a firm, loud voice of command moving down the line of police. "Everyone okay? Everyone okay?"  The police commander was checking with every section of the line to make sure no one had been hurt by the explosion.

Slowly I stood up and looked back at the police. They hadn't moved. 

I learned to respect the local police that day. They had trained to control their reflexes and not to panic in the face of a emotive and angry crowd. Over the next couple of years I was involved with several negotiations between them and demonstrators and we were always able to work things out. Not every city is that lucky. 

And what happened in McKinney isn't unique. It is only in the news because a fifteen-year-old shot a video of it. Things like that happen all the time - worse things, incidents where people end up hurt or dead. And we usually only hear about it when it is so well-documented that there is no way to escape the truth. 

I am not against police officers. I have deep respect for the job. I'm an activist but I don't believe that "the man"  is all bad and we don't need any law enforcement. All you need to do to see how bullies and mobsters rule when there are no police is to look at the international scene where the one with the biggest military calls the shots. 

But that does not mean that the police should become just another bully with a bigger stick and a readier gun. Just because someone wears the badge does not mean they are in any way outside either the law or basic ethics. 

If I've told my kids once, I've told them a thousand times.  I don't care what your sister said. I don't care if your brother spit at you. You don't shove. You don't yank hair. That's not okay. If you do it is the job of the police to come and stop you and put you in time-out. The police in your case being Mama. And Mama will be firm, but Mama won't swing you by your arm or use your hair as a handle to force your head down or scream profanity at you or bring out the big guns. Because the job of police (and of Mamas) is to mitigate strife and protect and to not make things worse.

The original video of the incident in McKinney: Worth watching if you haven't seen it.

As far as McKinney goes, I've heard the various accounts of the context. But just as when my kids squabble, context only matters so much.

Here's the bottom line. There's a fourteen-year-old girl and there's an armed adult. The adult has no reason to be afraid. She was not a threat. The guys who approached the police officer were not a threat. Drawing his gun was an escalation. It made things worse... much much worse than a crowd of young teens ever needs to be.

As to the racial tension inherent in the situation. How can that possible NOT come up? You have a white police officer attacking a black girl in a bathing suit, clearly treating her as a violent threat. He had just told a dozen or more black kids to sit down and ignored the white kid. Sure, the crowd was unhappy and milling in chaos. But no one with a day of crowd control training should expect any less. The kids weren't armed, and yet the police officer was panicked. 

And that is where it seems racial. 

The mayor and police chief of McKinney, Texas commented on Cpl. Eric Casebolt's resignation, calling his actions "out of control", referring to Casebolt throwing a teen girl on the ground during a pool party incident.

How might that officer might have acted if faced with a crowd of white seventh, eighth and ninth graders who were confused because they showed up for a party and it turned out to be a problem and they don't have a ride home right now?

I am pretty sure what he would have done. He would have asked them if they had phones to call their parents. He would have asked them in a concerned tone to move a bit away from whatever altercation was going on nearby, if there was one. I've seen officers do this in similar situations. 

But instead this officer panicked and went out of control. He didn't see those kids as reasonable or potentially in need of his protection and it's only chance that no one got shot. 

Such things are not made by just one bad, overly aggressive, poorly trained cop. It takes a society that views black teenagers as dangerous, hostile and potentially armed to do this. And in this case they were quite the opposite. Given the chaos, I'd say he was getting a fair amount of compliance. The kids close by sat down and did as he said. It was unclear what he was saying to those further away, but the fact is that legally you are not required to sit down or come hither when a police officer says so unless you are under arrest or there is a state of emergency. 

And so when European friends ask me about this I feel a sinking inside because I know this isn't just a bad cop. I know we've got problems far beyond that.

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