In the past week alone, there was the 4-year-old girl in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, who was captured on video consoling her mother after they watched a police officer shoot the mother’s boyfriend through the window of a car. And there was the 15-year-old boy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who sobbed uncontrollably in front of television cameras after the similar shooting death of his father.
Then there were the four brothers, ages 12 to 17, whose mother was shot by the sniper who opened fire on officers in Dallas on Thursday night while the family was protesting police violence against blacks. The mother, who survived, threw herself atop one boy, as the others ran for their lives.
Again and again, children are finding themselves enmeshed in the country’s roiling debate over police treatment of African-Americans. The close-up views of violence, obviously traumatizing, are giving rise to a generation of young people who distrust authority, grow up well before their time and suffer nightmares that seem too real.
“As a mother, I have now been forced to raise a son who is going to remember what happened to his father,” said Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of the boy in Louisiana who sobbed over the death of his father, Alton Sterling. “That I can’t take away from him.”
While adults around them protest and demand criminal justice reform, young witnesses of the carnage are reeling from their losses and harboring pent-up depression that often comes pouring out in panic attacks and breakdowns, relatives say.
The list of young people burdened by these tumultuous times includes Tamir Rice’s teenage sister, who lost 50 pounds after watching the police shoot him in 2014; the daughter of Oscar Grant III, killed by a transit officer while lying down on a California train platform in 2009, who as a 5-year-old would ask playmates to duck when she saw the police; and the 9-year-old nephew of Sandra Bland, who began sleeping in his mother’s room after Bland’s death last year in a jail cell.
“They are aware of what’s going in the world, of how you can leave your house and you can very well end up in a body bag,” said a sister of Bland’s, Shante Needham, whose four children continue to struggle with the death of their aunt. “They watch the news. They see all the stuff going on on Facebook. And it’s sad that kids even have to think like that, that if I get stopped by the police, I may not make it home.”
Bland, 28, was arrested after being pulled over for failing to signal a lane change in Waller County, Texas, and was later found hanged in her cell. Her family has questioned the ruling of her death as a suicide and believes that the arresting officer made up an accusation after she refused to put out her cigarette.
One of Needham’s sons, now 17, tried to hold in his grief but ended up sobbing and punching a hole in a wall three days after his aunt’s death. Needham’s 18-year-old daughter usually cannot sleep more than five hours a night. And her 9-year-old son has taken to sleeping in her room at night out of fear of being alone.
“He was sleeping in his own bed for a little while, and then one day he came up to me and said, ‘Listen, Mom, I can’t sleep,’” said Needham, of Naperville, Illinois. He said he could not stop thinking of his aunt.
Trauma is also rippling through the children of the officers killed and injured during the Dallas shooting. The widow of one slain officer lamented on Facebook that her children would now endure a lifetime without their father. The 10-year-old daughter of an officer who was wounded by the sniper told reporters she was just glad her mother had survived.
Denise Jones, the sister-in-law of Corey Jones, a black man who was shot in October by a plainclothes officer in Florida while waiting for a tow truck, also sees trauma in her daughters, Tyrina, 13, and Nariyah, 10.
For some time, Nariyah was terrified of the family being separated. Now she checks her parents’ gas gauge and insists that they buy fuel if she thinks it is too low.
“She is afraid we are going to break down, and if the police come we could be killed,” said Jones, who is married to Corey Jones’ brother. “I worry about how it is going to affect them in the long run. Things like this keep happening, and I don’t want them to be fearful, but I am afraid they will live in fear for the rest of their lives.”
Tyrina said that while her younger sister cried often, she tried to put on a brave face.
“I try to hold it in and be strong and everything, but sometimes I can’t,” she said. “I don’t like police. They say there is always good police and bad police, but you just never know. They can change in a quick second.”
Samaria Rice understands that pain well. Her 12-year-old son, Tamir, was fatally shot in front of his sister Tajai by a Cleveland police officer. Tajai, now 16, spent most of her days playing video games and sports with Tamir. She has since lost more than 50 pounds from stress and has missed about 100 days from school, her mother said.
“She has suffered with breakdowns and crying. She can’t sleep,” Rice said. “She’s having panic attacks, anxiety attacks. It’s terrible. It is the worst trauma that anybody can experience.”
Rice and her two other children, Tasheona, 20, and Tavon, 18, cannot escape the haunting spectacle of Tamir’s shooting, either. The scene was caught on camera and has been broadcast repeatedly. This week was especially tough, she said, because of the deaths of Sterling, a CD vendor who was fatally shot by police in Louisiana, and Philando Castile, who was shot by an officer in Minnesota and whose girlfriend captured his death by streaming video on Facebook.
“This is an open wound because my son was killed by the police,” Rice said. “It was like they put salt in my wound with Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.”