“Right off the cuff I need to tell you this circle is a safe circle,” Victoria Abdulla, an Oneida Middle School English teacher, told a group of seventh graders. “We know we all have viewpoints and this is a controversial topic and we’ll have strong emotions.”
With that warning a group of around 13 students, streaming in after picking up lunch and joining a voluntary book club, dove right in to the book. The novel, All-American Boys, tells the story of a brutal police beating and the fallout that ensues. White cop beats black teenager. Class full of black, white, Hispanic and Asian seventh graders: ready, set, discuss.
In the build up to the beating, Rashad, a high schooler, drop by a convenience store for a bag of chips. He reaches into a bag for his phone, accidentally knocks into an older woman, sparking a cop in the store to think he is attempting to steal. The cop slams him to ground and hits him repeatedly, sending Rashad to the hospital.
“Some white cops stereotype black guys: he’s gonna steal and all of that,” said seventh grader Angelique Smith. “If it was a white guy, he would have acted different – it’s just racism.”
And just like that they had arrived at the crux of the story. All-American Boys builds quickly in its first 20 pages to an explosion that in an instant changes the lives of the story’s characters.
“A lot just came out there,” Abdulla said of Angelique’s comments.
“Ohhh….” Angelique said apologetically.
“No, I wanted to go there,” Abdulla said. “Angelique bravely came out and said I think this was a racist cop. What do you think motivated the cop?”
“The cop felt threatened,” seventh grader Donovan Rowley said.
But why did the cop feel threatened, Abdulla asked, prodding the students to think from the perspective of the beaten teen and that of the cop. How do stereotypes work? And why do we have them?
The questions kept coming but one perspective and voice was notably absent – that of the police. The following week, the discussion reached a new level when a group of three Schenectady police officers – read up and ready to go – joined the class conversation. Again, Angelique wasn’t afraid to dive right to the heart of the matter.
“My view on police is not all are bad but some bring stereotypes about people into different situations,” Angelique said, wading only slightly more carefully than when the cops weren’t present.
The cops dismissed the book’s assault as plainly wrong – something the likes of which they said they had not experienced in Schenectady. They also described how a similar situation should be and regularly is handled.
“What this cop did – first and foremost – was completely wrong, and the way he handled himself was completely wrong,” said Detective Michael Crownse, a 14-year veteran of the department who focuses on youth-involved crimes.
Handled correctly, the officer would have slowed down and investigated what had happened, Crownse told the students. He would have interviewed Rashad and the store clerk and the woman he accidentally knocked into. “If that had happened, it would have been all cleared up.”
But the officers were also forced to confront the fears, anxieties and misunderstandings of a class full of Schenectady seventh graders. Those students bring with them personal experiences with the police as well as an awareness of police killings across the country and the political movements that have grown up in response.
“A lot of stereotypes are made because of the police brutality that has been occurring,” seventh grader Shamiah Walker said. “It’s not like those feelings are coming out of nowhere.”
“This book would not have been written has this not been an issue,” Lt. Ryan Macherone said.
The books authors agree the book would not have been written if police brutality was not a reality. They joked that things are “American as police brutality,” during an interview last week.
The authors – who will be visiting Schenectady on Tuesday, including a public event at 6:30 p.m. at the Schenectady High School Black Box Theater – sparked a friendship and working relationship while promoting other books during a string of highly-publicized police incidents. And the Mike Brown incident in Ferguson, Missouri, was the one that solidified in their minds the need for a book like All-American Boys.
The book’s structure unfolds through dual narratives told by Rashad and Quinn, a white student who witnesses the assault and was personally close to the officer involved. Jason Reynolds, who is black, wrote Rashad’s story, while Brendan Kiely, who is white, wrote Quinn’s section.
The divided the story that way to write the characters “authentically,” the authors said.
“As a black man who grew up in an urban environment, this is part of my normal life, it’s at the forefront of my psyche,” Reynolds said of police brutality and fear of police black communities. “This was normal life, this is what we were used to.”
Kiely brings a more privileged background to the table, but said he recognizes that you don’t have to be the one throwing a punch to be complicit in the “normalized” trauma of entire communities.
“What kind of society do I live in if I continue to accept this as normal?” Kiely said. “What kind of human being am I if I continue to accept this as normal.”
The authors said they have talked to as many as 50,000 people about the books – students, teachers, librarians and countless cops as well. Some of the best conversations they have witnessed are when they cops hear from students.
“Sometimes cops come in and are like let me debunk this (story)… instead police officers should sit and list to what kids have to say,” Reynolds said. “Listen to young people’s questions and their fear and you see this isn’t something we made up, this isn’t pretend.”
In Schenectady, it’s been a hit as clubs have popped up throughout the district’s three middle schools and the high school. Over 900 students total participated in one of over 50 clubs, which were led by English, social studies and art teachers.
“I was surprised so many of our kids are interested in all reading the same thing,” said Kerri Messler, who oversees the district English and reading initiatives. “We are constantly in search of book our kids can relate to.”