A 6-Year-Old Black Boy Arrested for Picking a Tulip Proves We Need Criminal Justice Reform Now

Systemic racism robs children of their innocence

Photo: Earl Wilcox/Unsplash

In North Carolina, officers arrested a six-year-old Black boy for picking a tulip near his bus stop. The aftermath of this flower-picking incident shows racism can blossom at any time. Inequality doesn’t wait until a Black person reaches a particular age or milestone. Rather, systemic racism starts impacting children at a young age and never stops. It seems Black innocence is like petals, lost to the wind.

Currently, America doesn’t have a federal law that protects children as young as six from arrest. Each state decides at what age a person can stand trial. To me, this lack of a federal policy is problematic, especially for Black children already overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

Just because North Carolina law permitted officers to arrest a six-year-old doesn’t mean we should accept it within our society. Accepting unjust laws cradles an unjust system. We need to start evaluating how apathy impacts children. Surely future generations will judge us on how we protect or neglect our most vulnerable population.

As people debate this case, they should consider the mental and psychological consequences of incarcerating a child. Unlike adults, children are mentally and physically underdeveloped. Their bodies grow taller and stronger as they age. Also, their decision-making abilities improve as they grow from a toddler to a child and progress up to preteen years, teenage years, and then young adulthood.

It seems Black innocence is like petals, lost to the wind.

Picking a tulip is a natural childhood desire regardless of where the flowers are located. That’s because children do not understand our complex legal system of property ownership. They attend kindergarten and first-grade classes where themes like “sharing” and “caring” are pumped into their psyche.

Imagine being told that everyone shares, cares, and works together only to learn that picking a flower can land you in the criminal justice system.

What happened to the young child was horrible all by itself, but we cannot avoid the racial undertones of this story. We know that a little six-year-old White boy would not be arrested for picking a single tulip near his bus stop in America. Arresting the Black child for the infraction seems to drive home the idea that these flowers belong here, but you certainly don’t.

Whenever a Black person experiences racism — particularly a child who cannot speak for himself — there will always be some White person claiming “no harm, no foul.” However, the impacts of racism can have long-term impacts on Black people. And no one should try to minimize the lasting stain of injustice.

Pediatric research, for example, shows that children can face long-term effects from run-ins with the justice system. Now imagine that the incarceration was triggered by something like picking a tulip while you wait for your school bus.

According to a study published in the International Journal of Prisoner Health:

Individuals incarcerated as children had worse adult health outcomes, including general health, functional limitations (climbing stairs), depressive symptoms, and suicidality, than those first incarcerated at older ages or never incarcerated.

American society insists that putting rule-breakers in jail creates a safe community for everyone to enjoy. Society insists that arrests can scare some kids straight. However, can you honestly say that arresting a child for picking flowers protects anyone at all? And does “scared straight” promote love and equity or even the rule of law? While it’s true that laws help to facilitate a standard of behavior, rigidly following those statutes takes the humanity out of a system which needs to engage with people.

Systemic racism robs Black children of their innocence. We can never forget 14-year-old George Stinney. He was accused of killing two White girls and sentenced to death by electric chair in 1944. Posthumously, the state exonerated him. But his innocence could not save him that day. An all-White jury made up their mind in 10 minutes. He became the youngest person executed by electric chair.

“Johnny, why do they want to kill me for something I didn’t do? Why?

He was a child begging for his life because of racism. Sadly, the killer remained free. The justice system took 70 years to recognize the innocence of a young boy. And while the federal government now bars the execution of persons under the age of 15, we have yet to address the lack of a national age limit for arrest.

As a child, I often made flower crowns with my big sister. Children soak up the natural outside world like little sponges. Having an interest in nature sometimes means taking a hands-on approach. At that age, I couldn’t tell you who owned the flowers.

According to the Winston-Salem Journal, Julie Boyer, the boy’s attorney, said his attention span was short, so she had him color a picture during court proceedings.

Like any child, he needed help from the adults to stay focused on the matter at hand. But any person who’s fit to stand trial should have the “mental ability to participate in proceedings.” Yet he needed a coloring book to occupy him. He wasn’t engaged in his own defense. That, in and of itself, should concern even the harshest critic. Six years is too young. Society shouldn’t expect a little Black boy to understand the gravity of his actions or the potential consequences.

According to a fact sheet by the Sentencing Project, Black children are five times more likely than White youth to be incarcerated. This disparity, similar to the one amongst the adult population, reflects a justice system blighted with systemic racism. If not now, then when shall Americans collectively commit to criminal justice reform?

Essayist, Poet, Activist, and Scholar, EIC of CULTURED, Founder of #WEOC, with bylines at Momentum & ZORA ♥︎ www.allisonthedailywriter.com

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