My 6 and 4-year-old climbed into our car and buckled themselves into their seats. By all accounts, this was a typical pick-up from school and they eagerly ripped into the gummy fruit snacks I brought them, cheeks flushed from the end-of-day running with their friends.
Instead of turning on The Best of The Talking Heads, our current musical obsession, I took a deep breath and said, “Hey kiddos, I have something really important to tell you both. I’m not sure if you’ve heard the adults around you talking about it, but I wanted you to hear it from me directly. I was arrested at a protest where we were asking our leaders to count every vote and make sure the election was fair."
Let me provide some context. We speak to our children openly and often about race and our country’s historical and current racism, leaning on books to ground these painful and nuanced discussions. We also encourage our kids to be activists in their own right, so they’ve attended protests and planned their own actions and fundraisers.
Over the past year I was very involved in Stacey Abrams’ campaign for governor and, in many ways, so were my kids. They helped me wave signs at cars during the primary and general, met her at a volunteer event (where, to my horror, my 4 year-old nonchalantly greeted Leader Abrams with, “hey, Abrams”) and became really effective canvassers in their own right, asking nearly every adult they met if they were voting for Stacey. The political became even more personal in our household in 2018.
My kids woke up the morning after the election asking if Abrams won. We explained the team was still fighting to make sure everyone’s vote would be counted. I pulled out our books about the civil rights movement and reminded our kids about the history of voting rights and how communities of color are still impacted today. My 4 year-old wisely said, “Well, we’re just going to have to work harder.” Indeed.
Now back to the arrest.
I was arrested alongside 14 other Georgians, including a State Senator, inside our Capitol building. Hundreds of people had gathered at a protest organized by Southerners on New Ground and Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights to demand that our government count every vote in the 2018 midterm elections. The protest was lawful, peaceful and rooted in our first amendment right, but we were met with intimidation, force and ultimately denied our freedoms by Capitol police.
After I told my kids about the arrest, my 6 year-old immediately teared up.
“Are you okay, Mommy?” he asked, his voice panicked.
“Yes, baby. I am safe and I am okay,” I assured him. “Do you trust me?” He nodded.
“Why did they arrest you?” my 4 year-old wondered.
“Honestly, I’m not sure. We were not breaking the law. We were asking our leaders to be fair and make sure everyone’s vote got counted. The police were wrong.”
“Did they put you in handcuffs?” my son asked.
“Yes, they did put me in handcuffs, but not the kind you see on TV. They used black plastic zip ties that went really tightly around our wrists.”
“Did it hurt?” he asked.
“It did hurt, really badly,” I responded. “But when I asked the police officer to loosen my hand cuffs, they did. Other people begged to have their handcuffs loosened but the police didn’t listen to them.”
“Why didn’t the police listen to them?” my 6 year-old inquired.
Usually I provide explicit context for our kids about racial injustice, but when my son asked this question I was curious where his critical thinking skills would take him without my input. So I asked him back, “Why do you think they treated me differently than other people?”
“Because you’re my Mommy!” my 4 year-old suggested.
“No, there were other people arrested who were parents and they were thrown to the ground,” I shared.
“I know why,” my 6 year-old said. “It’s because you’re white.”
“Yes,” I affirmed. “I noticed I was treated much better than my friends who were Black and Brown.”
“This isn’t fair,” my littlest attested.
“You’re right, it’s not fair,” I said. “And it’s not fair that people in Georgia didn’t have their votes counted. Remember the book we read after the election about John Lewis, our Congressperson, and all the work he did to make sure Black people had the right to vote?” I asked.
“Yeah!” my 6 year-old replied. “He protested a long, long time ago!”
“Exactly. And all these years later, we’re having to fight to make sure everyone, especially Black and Brown people, have the right to vote. Our elections still aren’t fair. That’s why I went to the protest.”
“Because we care about justice!” my 4 year-old shouted.
“We do,” I agreed.
“I’m scared,” my son shared. “Were you scared, Mommy?”
“I was really, really scared, “ I said. “But I promise, I’m okay and I knew you would be okay with your Daddy. We are all safe.”
I turned on the car and we rode in silence for a moment. Then my oldest asked me to turn on The Talking Heads. “Once in a Lifetime” filled the silence.
When we got home, I asked my kids to take a break from their usual activities once more so we could read Innosanto Nagra’s The Wedding Portrait, a beautiful book about civil disobedience. The story is centered around parents talking to their child about their wedding photo, which depicts the parents, dressed in wedding attire, kissing in front of a line of police officers, about to be arrested. Other stories of protest around the world are woven into the book. The parents say to the child, “We usually follow the rules. But sometimes, if you see something is wrong — more wrong than breaking the rules and by breaking the rules you might stop it — you may need to break the rules.”
I love this book for many reasons and so do my kids. After we finished reading, I asked them if they had any more questions. My son asked me once more, “are you going to be okay?”
“Yes. I have everything I need to make sure I’m okay. Including you two!”
They smiled and said they were ready to play. Off they ran.
I have a lot of processing I still need to do about the protest, the arrests and the aftermath, specifically related to my whiteness and the disparate treatment I received throughout the experience. I have more to share and unpack with you, but I cannot until our cases are cleared. For now, I want to honor what this discussion with my kids affirmed.
My children were able to process and understand my arrest due to the on-going education they receive about race and racism. We name race. We interrupt and complicate white supremacist narratives that paint police officers as de facto heroes and people in jail as “bad guys.” We work to help our kids understand whiteness as a system and the power and privileges we receive with our skin color. We try to help our children problem solve and take action as individuals. Without this work, they could not have understood or handled the nuances of my arrest. They were prepared and proved resilient.
As my friend Beth-Ann says, the work we do in our families is the ultimate grassroots organizing. How we raise our kids to understand race and racism matters deeply. Shielding my children from the harsh and racist realities of our society preserves the status quo; it preserves white supremacy. I can raise brave and bold children who think critically about race and learn to advocate for racial justice. I already am.
Shannon Cofrin Gaggero
Shannon is a parent striving to raise socially conscious children and advocate for racial justice. She blogs at StrivingParent.com.