Spilt Milk, award-winning writer Courtney Zoffness’s widely acclaimed essay collection on motherhood, culpability, pain, faith, and so much more, is now available in paperback. Today, we’re proud to offer an excerpt from this amazing book.
Boy in Blue
Most mornings, my four-year-old arrests me. Usually he’s in uniform, a blue jacket with yellow buttons and a matching peaked cap.
I saw you stealing, he’ll say, nose crumpled like he smells trash. He yanks toy handcuffs out of his pocket and jiggles them. You’re going to jail.
The narrative plays out a number of ways depending on how much coffee I’ve had, how committed I am to role-playing at 7 a.m.
For how long? I might say.
Five minutes, he’ll reply, or else something more cryptic and unsettling: nineteen.
I resist, say, It wasn’t me, Officer. You’re mistaken!
Sometimes his brother, Oliver, age six, is my alibi. It wasn’t Mommy!
Officer Leo squints, shifts his lower jaw from side to side, mumbles something to headquarters on his faux walkie-talkie. His superiors are surprisingly flexible.
I’m sorry, ma’am, he says finally, and unfastens my binds. It wasn’t you. It was someone who looked like you.
Which is to say, a woman whom the world sees as white.
I ascribe Leo’s fixation to geography. We live two doors down from a New York City precinct station. Before we moved in, my thoughts on the apartment’s location were comprehensible. I disliked how the huge municipal building sapped the block of charm. Wondered if we’d be less likely to have our bikes stolen off our front patio? (Nope.) If we’d have ready access to help? (Yep; officers have twice given our dead car engine a jump.) What I didn’t account for were the effects of my sons’ exposure to law enforcement. How after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck, our block would be cordoned off for weeks to prevent citizens from demonstrating their rightful outrage, and come nightfall would serve as a headquarters for state police and ICE officers in combat gear. I didn’t consider that a dozen times a day, all year long, we’d walk past men and women in uniform on our shared sidewalk. Sometimes they’re in bulletproof vests. Sometimes they’re gathered ceremoniously on the precinct steps. Sometimes they’re leading a person in handcuffs out of the backseat of a cruiser and across our path into the station. My children study their equipment belts, which are at their eye level, look back and forth between the arrestee and the officers clutching their elbows.
Leo will want to know things when we get home. What the bad guy did. (I’m not sure.) How the officers caught him. (I don’t know.) If the handcuffs lock, since his do not, and what kind of food they serve in jail, and if the person will be imprisoned for one or eleven days and what do the officers do if he escapes? Leo will want me to know that when he’s a cop, he will be the best bad-guy-getter in Brooklyn. My toes curl. I will wonder, What would he dress like if we lived on a different block? In a different city? In a different country?
Sometimes I push other outfits. Want to be a superhero today? I say. Or a sea creature? I dig out a squid hat.
My suggestions confuse him. No, he says, clipping a ring of keys onto his belt loop. I told you, I want to be an officer. Also, he says, he’s missing something that all real officers have. A gun. Can’t he get a toy one?
Dramatic play, experts say, can help children sort out fantasy from reality. Can help them learn about symbols. What, I’d like to know, does a lethal weapon symbolize?
One morning, while Officer Leo patrols the living room, Oliver sidles up to me in his pajamas. He is quiet, checking to see if any of his teeth are loose, eager to have a jack-o’-lantern mouth like the other kids in second grade. He’s one of the youngest in his class. Nothing moves. He sighs, starts to speak, stops.
Most people we see in handcuffs, he says, have brown skin. He holds my gaze, scans it for something. Opinion. Emotion. He wants to know what this means, how to feel about it.
They do, I say, gut seizing. I sustain wide eye contact, an attempt to buy time. I think, This is how the association coalesces: the good/bad with the cop/criminal with the white/brown.
I mutter something about how Black and Latinx folks make up less than a third of the population but more than half of those imprisoned. That criminality and law enforcement are complicated, that people with white skin break just as many laws. Everything feels inadequate. Opaque.
Oliver sucks his thumb.
Sometimes, I say, officers make mistakes.
This is also not an answer. Systemic racism is not a mistake. Nor is an inequitable status quo that officers must uphold. Where to begin? What’s the beginning?
I say, Someone can make a bad choice, and it doesn’t mean they’re a bad guy. I do not know if I am talking about the arrestee or the officer. What’s a good guy?
I say, Not all people are treated equally.
A Saturday. Leo stares into his bowl of Cheerios as if decoding a pattern. The visor of his police hat obscures his face. Behind us, Oliver plays with LEGOs: good guys versus bad guys.
Where do officers bring criminals, Leo asks, if the prison is full?
That’s a problem, I say. America has too many prisoners.
He chews, frowns. Last week, he wanted to know what America was. It’s a country, I said, a big piece of land.
But what is it? he asked. He did not understand the profundity of his question. Did not know it stoked in me notions of nationalism and sameness and difference, conjured the current president’s solution to making America “great”: giant, xenophobic walls at the country’s borders. That America, to Donald Trump and so many politicians alongside him and before him, is a place for people who look like he does. A place for people who look like my sons.
I say, America has way more prisoners than any other country, and it’s not because people here behave extra badly. There are whole schools of people in lockup, I say. Entire cities. Maybe, I say, too many things count as crimes?
Maybe, I say, there’s a better solution than prison when people don’t follow the little rules?
Leo wipes his milk mustache with his uniform sleeve. Then he hops off the counter stool. I wonder if he’s going to shed his costume and rejoin the civilian population of his family. I want him to say, The only fight worth having is one for civil rights! Instead, he cuffs me.
You’re unarrested, he says, his misunderstanding of under arrest.
In my bedroom, a.k.a. the precinct station, he tells me to have a seat. The stock narrative resumes.
I saw you stealing, he says, voice rugged with faux fury. Why did you steal?
I’m sorry, Officer, I say. I lost my job and my children were hungry. I needed money to feed them.
He is quiet. Unmoved by my oversimplification, maybe. Your kids are hungry? he says.
Why didn’t you just ask me for money?
Yes! I have tons of money. I’m a police officer. Here, take some. He puts his hand in mine. Invisible currency. Take it, he says. You’re free to go.
What I say when my four-year-old asks if I’ve ever been arrested for real: Yes.
What did you do? he asks.
I say I stole clothes. That I was sixteen and made a harebrained decision. That I didn’t want to spend my babysitting money. That I wanted to get merchandise for free.
I don’t say that I also wanted to impress two blonder, cooler high school classmates with whom I was vacationing in Vermont, girls who flicked price tags off blazers as effortlessly as they flipped their hair. That I developed a fail-safe plan to carry an armload of clothes out the store’s front door because who would suspect such a brazen move? I’d be hidden in plain sight.
Leo asks what happened next.
I got caught, I say.
I nod, say there were witnesses, that a cashier called the cops.
I don’t say that fifteen minutes into our escape, Ace of Base blasting from the car stereo, a corporal in a wide-brimmed hat pulled us over on the interstate, that I sobbed and begged while he summoned me out of the backseat and cuffed me against the trunk, that I was taken to the station and fingerprinted and mug-shot, that panic crept into my lungs and capillaries and my nose bled all over my shirt. That my biggest concern was not getting punished or hurt or killed, but not getting into college.
Did you go to jail? Leo asks. Did you escape?
How to explain that I was promptly released, despite committing felony retail theft, a charge determined by the value of the merchandise ($196 in 1994)? That the corporal said he could tell I came from a “good” family? That he recommended the district attorney consider me for a first-time offenders’ program, and that the program for felons cost $100, which we could afford? That the program required that I purchase $196 of clothing for a teen in foster care, which we could also afford? That I listed the dozens of hours of requisite volunteer work on my college applications under “extracurricular activities”—the same application on which I checked the box saying no, I’d never been convicted of a crime? Because there was no crime? Because my criminal record had been expunged? How to explain that I got into the Ivy League college of my choice?
A playdate at our place. The other boy’s mom lingers at drop-off, wanting to make sure her son is comfortable. We hardly know each other. She scans our apartment.
I have a few errands to run, she says, and then I’ll be back.
No worries, I say. Leo already has his arms full of cop costume.
Dramatic play, experts say, can help with a child’s social interaction skills.
My mom was arrested, he announces. She broke the law.
The other mom lifts her eyebrows, grins at me with uncertain teeth.
Shoplifting, I say. High school.
She laughs. I laugh.
This will be Leo’s broadcast for weeks. He will tell my in-laws, and my colleagues who come over for dinner, and the plumber who attempts to wrench out a toothbrush that’s been flushed down the toilet. Is it a novelty just because I’m his mom? Clearly he doesn’t know what to make of this information. I watch him say it aloud—Police put her in handcuffs—watch him gauge others’ reactions and, by turn, modulate his own. I wonder if I confessed too soon.
One weekend morning in March, fourteen months before the murder of George Floyd, Leo declares that he wants to report for duty. Maybe he’s sick of arresting his parents. Maybe he wants to be among his own kind. He’s already in uniform.
You want to go to the precinct? I ask.
He nods, says, The real one.
I hem and haw and acquiesce. He adjusts the ID card on which he’s scrawled “LEO” in blue ink and which he’s clipped to his chest. Together we march next door, past the line of patrol cars and up the steps and through the double doors. Leo pauses in the entryway, hands on hips, either waiting to be noticed or suddenly intimidated by his fantasy-turned-reality. Perhaps a bit of both. Behind a large elevated desk along the right-hand wall, two cops are chatting. No one looks up. The vending machines buzz.
I say, Officer Leo, reporting for duty!
A Latinx woman in uniform approaches, bends over, shakes his hand. She admires his tools. You have a whistle, she says, and a radio! She taps his walkie-talkie. Lets him hold her handcuffs. I wonder what it’s like to be a woman on the force.
What else do you have? Leo asks, eyeing all the bulges in her duty belt. What’s that?
Pepper spray, she says, rubbing the black leather lump with a manicured hand. We spray it in the bad guys’ eyes.
Leo’s pupils enlarge. He’s not heard of such a thing. Later, he’ll want to know why he doesn’t have pepper spray.
His eyes flick to her holster. I half wait for him to ask her if he can touch it, half fear she will agree. Why do you have a gun? he asks.
She pats the grip, says, In case the bad guy has a gun.
I hear Wayne LaPierre’s voice—and that of every other NRA apologist—emerge from her mouth. I detest that she’s armed. I detest more that she has to be. Doesn’t she?
Leo follows the officer into a side room with two empty holding cells. The air smells rank. Body odor, maybe. Mildew.
Want to see where we put the bad guys? she says.
The holding cells are empty. On a future visit, they won’t be. On a future visit, as Leo struts through the precinct like a captain, all long strides and stiff arms, I will notice a thin man with dark hair in the cell. Leo will have trouble averting his eyes. I will yank his wrist, tell him that it’s impolite to stare. Instead he will be ushered to the center of the precinct, where an officer will flank him and call to me—Take a photo, Mom!—and behind my wide-smiling son, through the glass, the man will have his head in his hands, and my mouth will go dry.
Today, though, nobody’s caged. The officer tugs one of the heavy doors, ushers Leo inside, pulls it shut.
Whaddya think? she says.
He grips the metal bars, peers out, awestruck. A cop in the clink.
I want to tell my sons about the extreme rarity of police convictions, even amid video evidence of guilt. How there’s still no singular, legal definition of excessive force. How officers are three times more likely to kill Black people than white people, even though white people are more likely to be armed, a reality that America’s chief law enforcement officer, Bill Barr, blames on “a few bad apples.” How Trump has made armored vehicles and grenade launchers and bayonets accessible to police. I want to explain machismo, how domestic abuse is more common among law enforcement officers than NFL players, how battering a spouse seldom results in punishment, let alone a lost job. At the same time, I don’t want to taint their opinion of the officers we see daily, the ones who have been kind to us, who, when a coronavirus demands that New Yorkers shelter in place, still answer 911 calls and put themselves at risk. I don’t want my kids to generalize, to make personal an issue that’s institutional. So I do what I often do when unsure of something. I read.
Where to begin? What’s the beginning?
I look up the history of policing in America, learn that our first official force was established in Boston in 1838, something I vaguely knew. I also discover something I didn’t know, but that shouldn’t have surprised me: that modern policing grew out of practices established in the Colonial South. There, the aim was not to catch criminals but to oppress slaves. As far back as the early 1700s, a legally sanctioned, organized network of “patrollers” surveilled their assigned “beats” to apprehend runaways, terrorize workers, and prevent revolts. Slave patrols typically comprised white men on horseback armed with whips, guns, and ropes.
Sometimes when Leo walks around our Brooklyn neighborhood in uniform, he earns greetings from passersby—What up, Chief!—that seem to surprise him. It’s as if his persona resides so deeply in his imagination that he forgets others can see it too. There’s a fume in the air after these comments, one that’s almost too subtle to notice: the heraldry of dominance and toughness that my boys can’t help but inhale.
Leo twirls a whistle on a rope, says, Mom, see any crooks?
I remind him that his job is not just to catch criminals but to help people. Someone might be lost, I say, or need assistance crossing the street. Leo entertains this—Maybe their cat ran away?—but not for long. The oppositional narrative, the binary, is much more exciting.
Let me know if you spot anyone suspicious, he says.
It is a privilege, I think, that he wants to play Officer Leo, a privilege that he still associates the uniform with undiluted goodness because he’s never been warned otherwise, never been told to take precautions to protect himself. A privilege, and a concern, that his small, white body so easily inhabits
My Bronx-born father was a police officer, or at least he played one in the 1980s. For a few years in my early childhood, Dad joined the auxiliary force as a part-time volunteer. We had moved to a new town in Westchester County, New York, adjacent to where he taught public elementary school, and he wanted to connect to the community. To help out, he said. Make friends. After a brief training course, the particulars of which he can’t recall, he received an official uniform, one indistinct from that of professional officers. I have fleeting memories of him walking through the kitchen wearing it, then trundling down to the basement.
Dad welcomed the menial assignments, like supervising church crossings and redirecting traffic. He’s still proud of his scheme the evening before Halloween, a.k.a. “mischief night.” How he stationed himself at the supermarket’s exit and intercepted reams of unsuspecting teenage boys. How he seized dozens of cartons of eggs (Were they all making omelets?) and cans of shaving cream (Their faces had no hair!).
But he was also assigned the kind of work for which he needed to complete a firearms training course and carry a gun. He performed after-hours “door checks” of local businesses and patrolled neighborhoods after dark. He didn’t like the gun part, which I knew, but felt reassured to hear. (Dad and I don’t always see eye to eye on politics.) I asked him why not.
How many times have you gotten into an argument and said things you’ll regret? he says. Can you imagine a hothead with a weapon?
Leo points a stick at me, cocks his head as if aiming.
Put that down, I say.
He fires anyway. He has been doing this a lot lately, making guns with branches and LEGOs and his fingers, incorporating them into games. I denied his request for a police gun, repeating what I said to his appeal for a Nerf Blaster and X-Shot Water Warfare Pressure Jet: real guns hurt people; I don’t think it’s fun to pretend to hurt people; there are more firearms than people in the US; one hundred people die in our country from guns every single day.
Put that down, I shout. My firearms kibosh is failing. Making them more desirable, the way my parents’ television embargo made me salivate at the sight of one. It is not that I think Nerf guns are a gateway to violence. It is more that I can’t abide the sight of them. I am too enraged, too upset. In our house, I think, there will be gun control.
Officer Leo wants to know what to do if the bad guy has a gun. What then?
I say, Call for backup.
But the police officer said—
Listen to your mother.
Dad didn’t like that he had to go to so many meetings as a squad member, a chore he already felt burdened by as an educator. The last one he attended before he quit the corps was for all the professional and auxiliary officers in the area. The topic? The use of force. Dad recalls a high-ranking official explaining the Constitution and applicable laws, clarifying citizens’ rights, insisting that officers not use their weapons unless their lives were in imminent danger.
Of course, the officer said, if the suspect is a scumbag, be rough.
The room snickered.
And if the suspect is an asshole, he said, be rougher.
Just be careful, the officer said, because you don’t want to turn the scumbag into an asshole.
You know, says Dad, that was thirty-five years ago. A different time. Things have changed.
The Fraternal Order of Police, ostensibly the largest police union in the world, endorsed Donald Trump for president in 2016. Trump, they said, “understands and supports our priorities, and our members believe he will make America safe again.”
A year later, in July 2017, President Trump gave a speech to a large law enforcement crowd in Long Island, not far from where I live with my children. He lamented the mistreatment of police, decried how for years, laws have protected criminals instead of officers.
“If you do something wrong, you’re in more jeopardy than they are,” Trump said. “These laws are stacked against you.” When apprehending people, Trump told the cops, “please don’t be too nice.”
According to the experts, dramatic play lets children helpfully imitate what they see and hear. You may catch words, say the experts, that your children have picked up from you or their teachers or others in charge.
Leo is making pepper spray from a toilet paper roll. Can I help him cut out cardboard circles for the top and bottom? he asks. Color his creation with a black Sharpie so it looks like the real thing?
I take a deep breath, hold steady. Why don’t we try something that doesn’t hurt people’s bodies? I say.
He whines, stamps his feet, then stops. An idea. What about a dog? he says. He has seen them, the police dogs. Their heft. Their teeth.
I guess? I say. At least nobody will go temporarily blind?
He ties a rope around the neck of a stuffed animal, pulls it around the living room, pats its head. Then he spots an outlaw. His brother.
Doggie, he shouts, attack!
Was it obvious? It wasn’t to me, not for a while. How Leo’s the youngest, the least in charge, the most defiant, the most likely to wind up in time out; how he needs to dramatize the rules and consequences of life in a way that his milder-mannered older brother, who has no interest in officering, never did. In a way the other costumes in his dress-up bin—doctor, polar bear, astronaut—don’t permit. In a way that his parents’ professional roles—college professor and nonprofit executive—don’t encourage, either.
Dramatic play, experts say, can offer a child relief from emotional tension.
How eager Leo is to be an authority instead of an underling, I think now. How helpful it is that play lets him say and do things that he cannot express otherwise, to work out the anxieties endemic to littleness. It’s not that Leo necessarily wants to be a cop. Leo, I think, wants power.
What else wasn’t obvious: that that’s what I want too. When I see Leo jiggle handcuffs and aim his finger gun, I feel a surge of helplessness. What these tools symbolize to me is all that my sons will assimilate before my husband and I can run proper interference and how long we will have to wait to thoroughly explain privilege and history and brutality and misogyny and the racism that lives in them, that lives in us, the kind we inherit without knowing it, the damage we do without meaning to. How large is the gulf, I want to know, between what a parent knows and what a child cannot understand? How vast is the harm society will do to my sons and the harm they will inevitably do in return while their mother waits for them to grow up?
At five, Leo will still have a post in law enforcement, will hide handcuffs and a badge in his kindergarten backpack because, he’ll say, he’s undercover. Teachers will refer to him as “sheriff,” a nickname he’ll wear like a badge of honor.
Just after his sixth birthday, in May 2020, the uniform largely forgotten in its bin, Leo will join me in squeezing past the barrier and the row of officers at the end of our block to accompany hundreds of protesters gathered on the other side. He will hold a Black Lives Matter sign high above his head while seated on my husband’s shoulders and participate in chants decrying police brutality. For days he will repeat what he’s heard us say in response to a sign in a window across the street: that all lives won’t matter until Black lives matter. At the same time, his comprehension half-baked, he will build jail cells and police cars out of LEGOs nearly every afternoon.
My son still misunderstands what officers say when taking people into custody.
You’re unarrested, the LEGO officer in his left hand says to a LEGO wrongdoer in his right. You were speeding; you were robbing; you hurt someone; I saw you.
Dramatic play, experts say, helps children understand the power of language.
We’ve yet to correct him. In Leo’s linguistic reality, freedom rules. Nobody suffers. Everyone is equal. Everyone is blameless.
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