I saw a kid get arrested the other day. And I mean a kid. He was 14. Round cheeks and hair only kept in check by number two clippers, covered in a red camo pullover, he was huddled in the corner of a booth at McDonald’s like he was waiting for his mom, tapping out a level of Candy Crush on his phone or maybe watching YouTube. You know the kid. Put him in the leather chairs of the mall concourse with a pair of skinny jeans or in the library with a textbook on the table or at Panera with a laptop and headphones over both ears. Can you see him now? He’s all over the city if you’re looking for him.
He stole a bike, used it to dodge class. The school called in both counts, and a cop marched in to pick him up. The cuffs were out before any words were. “You stole that bike out there. You’re under arrest.” The kid’s responses from this point forward mostly involved combinations of “F— you” and “don’t touch me!” “I don’t want to fight you,” the cop said with his hand gripping the kid’s collar. They didn’t fight. The kid squirmed into the corner, screaming his anger and frustration as the cop attempted to wrestle him out. Another young man in the restaurant tried to talk sense into the kid, to get the cop to back down, but it was a futile gesture; neither party wanted to hear it. Finally, a partner arrived, and the two men forced the kid onto the table, cuffing his hands and leading him to the swarm of police cars gathering in the parking lot.
I couldn’t work for the rest of my lunch. The scene disturbed me. This wasn’t a case of injustice, nor would I call it brutality. You won’t hear about it in a lawsuit or count it in any fancy statistics. It was just one of those routine cases where everyone failed everyone. The kid committed a crime and deserved to be punished commensurately. The cop had a job to do and the kid made it difficult. The cop failed the kid and the kid failed the cop. And I failed them both as we all watched in silence this collision of our collective authority and our collective son. I’m afraid none of us will walk away unharmed.
Some damages are more apparent than others. Whoever owned the bike lost it for a while. The cop lost his time—and the city, money—to the altercation and the pursuant paperwork. The kid lost his day and whatever he forfeits as punishment. But those are negligible compared to the long-term costs. For in addition to the bike, the owner lost some bit of trust in his fellow classmate, in the safety and community of his school. In addition to his time, the cop lost some chance of hope in future encounters, which will more and more seem to inevitably go the way of this one. And in addition to his freedom, the kid lost some portion of whatever faith he had left (if he ever had any at all) that authority will treat him fairly, with respect and dignity, even in his worst moments. Shortly, he lost faith that we care.
That is not an inconsequential lesson for a young kid to learn. Nor for an old man. As a result of this encounter, is the kid any less likely to steal? Is he any more likely to cooperate? Is there any hope the next encounter will be any different? Or has it merely reinforced the fear and animosity felt by both sides which, when left uncleared, hardens into contempt and rebellion and oppression? Have we continued the cycle or broken it?
But whose responsibility is it to make things better? The kid’s not to steal? Fair enough, but assuming small crimes will still happen, that the police will still have a reason for existence, what then should we do? Only what we would do for our own son. Not avoid confrontation. Certainly not forgo punishment. The kid is sitting in the corner of a booth, wedged against the wall. There is no escape path, no fighting chance, no potential weapon. Take a seat. Get a name. Ask a question. Talk, explain, and listen. Endure the insults, if need be. A simple conversation might have avoided a struggle. Or it might not have. Maybe nothing would have changed that day, but that does not alleviate our responsibility. And perhaps then the next encounter would be different. Perhaps the next time the kid sees a cop he will not be quite so struck with fear and contempt, and a fight will become a little less inevitable. But even if that does not occur, it does not absolve us from the effort. Our authority must bear the weight. The kid’s positive response would change little except to make the cop’s day a little easier, a pleasant anomaly, but the cop’s loving response could potentially change an entire life, could potentially change every life he comes in contact with, in ways large and small. Grace has that power.
But we don’t often give that grace, either to our own sons or to others’, and I fear in this case it was because, like me as a parent, the cop believed he had a job to do, a job that involves enforcing rules, busting delinquents, stomping out bad behavior, rather than safeguarding society in all its components, an end to which the law is only one blunt instrument. In this posture, any resistance to our authority ceases to be about adherence to standards or higher ideals, about the behavior and wellbeing of the child in need of correction and the community in need of preservation, and becomes an inconvenience to ourselves and an hindrance to our necessary work. But parenting cannot be about the comfort of the parent, nor police work about the security of the officer. The nature of babies and bad guys does not allow it. Instead it must be undertaken with a posture of unlimited patience, bearing all insult and injury and inconvenience, an effort which springs from only one source: unconditional love for that which is in our care only because it is ours to care for.
I do not mean to be naive. This will not stop crime nor heal all the wounds caused by authority and rebellion. We don’t love our children to make them perfect. They need our love because they are imperfect. And there is a time for tough action, when the needs of prudence and caution outweigh the desire to engage. But if we don’t love and care for our own children in their worst moments, how can we expect them to respect us as adults? Why should they?
But that where we find ourselves, with one more wounded son and one more cynical father joining the battlelines of a broken generation. It’s a sad thing to witness at its birth, when there is still some chance of change left. So I hope that kid is doing all right, wherever he ended up. I would have given him the bike if I could have. Because I can’t help but feel that something was stolen from all of us that day. Something much more valuable than a bike.