When the police watch your family picnic, none of the options are good

Black Philadelphians shouldn’t have to choose between having a “good day” and addressing racism.

Playing with a sparkler at a 2018 family picnic at Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park

Playing with a sparkler at a 2018 family picnic at Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park

Courtesy LaJewel Harrison
lajewelharrison

Every second Sunday of July, my relatives on my father’s side commune for family fun. It is a guaranteed good time.

Two years ago, before we had to worry about mask-wearing and social distancing, I arrived at Lemon Hill around 4 p.m. with my children in tow. My husband met me there. The weather was perfect. It was nice enough to wear shorts, but not necessary to wear shorts. It was a sunny day with a constant breeze.

Although most of my family lives in Philadelphia, adulting ensures we almost never see each other. Facebook and Instagram seem to be our major point of contact. I hugged my aunts, uncles and cousins hard and long — as if they did not live 20 minutes from me. I choose not to bemoan that fact, we just fully enjoy each other when we can.

At the park, the DJ was playing classic oldies and my dad was working the grill. My daughter and son darted from my side to greet their Pop Pop. We made plates and joined our family on blankets and fold-out chairs. After a few hours of Uno cards, football, hula hoop, and general catch-up moments, I was ready to imitate the sun and head home.

My husband loaded his car and my father walked me to mine. As I neared the parking lot, I noticed four uniformed police officers standing outside their vehicles, watching the festivities.

It was then that I recalled seeing these same officers when I arrived at the park. Between the music and the energy of kids running to the bouncy house, I must’ve chosen not to focus on them. Other than their uniforms, their presence could’ve gone unnoticed. They did not approach anyone. They just stood at the perimeter, conversing with each other. Yet I could not shake the feeling that we were being targeted.

Fairmount Park is huge. There are many gatherings on any given Sunday. Never have I seen police officers so focused on one group of people. For at least 4 hours, these officers basically attended my family’s gathering.

As if I was not already uneasy, a fifth officer, in a less formal uniform with polo shirt, exited the police wagon with a video camera. His shirt read “Audio Visual.” My blood began to boil. WHAT COULD THEY POSSIBLY BE DOING? My brain was racing. I told my dad I was going over to them to ask why they were here. I also wanted to know who sent them. What police commander gave these orders? If no orders, what policy were they following?

My father stopped me. “We had a good day,” he said. “Don’t go over there. Just let this day stay good.”

And he was right. The day was good. The food was great. There were many edible options for the non-meat eaters (a growing population in my family). There were enough play options for the children so the adults had a moment to take a break from parenting. There was even a moment where my dad captured all who listened with one of his tall tales. He told a story about how he, a man in his 60s, had stumbled upon a dance battle at a club the week before. The story was detailed and vividly told. We laughed hard until tears fell from our eyes. Having my dad tell a story is a good-time staple.

So, yes, we certainly created memories that I did not want marred. Like the others, I wanted the day to remain perfect, so I listened to my dad. I entered my car, remained silent and drove home.

A 2018 family picnic ago at Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park

A 2018 family picnic at Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park

Courtesy LaJewel Harrison

Oh, the ride home.

I experienced extreme cognitive dissonance. I could not feel good about my decision to remain silent even though I knew it was a rational choice.

During the first year dating my husband, I was pulled over by police. I may or may not have come to a complete stop at the street corner, but I thought the police officer should be focused on chasing down a real criminal like a murderer. Well, then in my early 20s, I let him know it. Me getting a parking ticket guarantees a foul mouth, a moving violation brought out bigger demons.

Once we arrived at my then-boyfriend’s mother’s house, I told her the story, thinking she would be entertained at how snarky I was with the police.

However, this typically pleasant woman was not. The story troubled her, and she told me to never do that again. She said I placed myself and her son in harm’s way. She reminded me that Black men are seen as a threat and police officers react violently toward them, even when unprompted. My now mother-in-law told me that my mouth could get someone killed and that I should be careful. I remember feeling foolish and immature. I have never forgotten that moment.

So in the park, I knew I had silenced myself to keep my dad alive. To keep my husband alive. To let the day “stay good.” And I understood that reasoning, especially with the racial treatment evident in the overwhelming number of videos posted online.

Still, what I did not say burned in my chest. My silence seemed to pave the way for the officers to repeat their behavior with another Black family in the future. If their goal was to make us feel uncomfortable and reconsider using the park, I wanted to counter that. I wanted to create a stir that would force them to change their racist policing style. Instead, here I was, in a familiar place of discomfort with limited options.

Either choice could lead to an unpleasant ending.

If I had chosen to speak with the officers, history and recent occurrences assure me that could easily have ended in an arrest or bodily harm or both. I chose to leave — and that resulted in incessant feelings of remorse, feeling like I did nothing to create a better world for my children. That remorse is palpable. It’s physical. It’s a silent drain that’s extremely unhealthy.

Although I chose not to speak up and let the day “stay good,” I’m certain my daughter in the car next to me could see the sadness moving through my body. She turned on one of my favorite songs, and unsuccessfully attempted to get me to sing along. She tried to make me laugh by showing me a silly video on Instagram. Nothing could disrupt my thoughts.

This is the cycle. Deciding when and where to push back. Steeling yourself for regret, no matter which direction you take. Choosing fight or flight — this is the Black experience.

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