Pink Hats, Police and Pipelines: Parenting with Hope in an Age of Fear

pink stuffed unicorn wearing one of the women's march pink hats

I have this kid who needs to know everything about everything. He hates injustice, and he’s going to change the world. At five, he started asking questions about politics. At six, he refused to trick-or-treat at a home with a Romney sign in the yard. Naturally, at ten, he has been following the political events in this country almost as closely as I have, so when the Women’s March was announced, he was even more sure than I was that we needed to attend.

Still, parenting is a constant balancing act between opportunity and safety, allowing risk and predicting every possible circumstance. In the days leading up to the event, as the reality of what was (is) happening began to set in, I started to get more and more anxious. What if the protests become violent? What if he can’t handle the crowds? What if I can’t handle the crowds? What if the noise and activity and emotion is too much and he melts down and we can’t get to a safer space in time? What if things don’t go as planned? I suspect that these are regular parent worries, amplified by my child’s experience of  autism.

M(om)*A(utism)+a(nxiety)=P(anic)

In Portland, the March was preceded by a “Family” rally, so we eventually decided to start with that, and just see what happened. That morning, it was raining, I woke up with a sore throat, and he wanted to stay home and play. It was tempting to just let it go. But I opened Facebook and saw picture after picture of crowds of people standing up for the rights of women and other marginalized people, and I thought about the hopelessness that I’d felt since the election, and the importance of doing something, and the ways I’d reassured my child that we, being part of a democracy, have the power to stand up to oppressive forces, and I didn’t want him to miss the opportunity to be part of it- to see the power of passionate humans firsthand.

We got to the train stop and there was a group of women wearing pink hats. I explained what they meant (although he believed that every “pussy” reference was about cats), and he complimented the women and said he wished he had a hat. When one of them said she had an extra, he beamed. It fit perfectly over the unicorn horn on his sweatshirt. He knew he was a part of something very powerful as the train filled with more and more pink hats. We reached the rally and couldn’t see where the crowd ended. We wove our way through it to see what was happening. We tried to listen to the speaker, with little success. We looked at signs, and he made up a song about impeachment. After a half hour or so, the crowd became more than he could handle, and he said he needed to get out. He stayed calm, though, and I held his hand as we wove our way back out to open air. He took a deep breath and said he was done.

illustration of a purple my little piny wearing one of the women's march pink hats
Art by JA Laflin

Although I would have chosen to stay, I was prepared to leave. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking downtown. We visited a bookstore and drank hot chocolate. The train was too crowded on the way home. He covered his head and crouched at my feet, but the people around us, all in pink hats, understood. We didn’t march, but we were there. We were part of history, even if it was just a small part.

And for days afterwards, we felt empowered. Maybe we really could resist. Maybe the passion and the numbers of people who don’t want to see this country controlled by hate would be enough. Maybe the administration would see that passion and not follow through with their threats/promises. But in the weeks since, it has begun to feel that our optimism was misguided. That was a good day. There are lots of good days. But the days that aren’t good, are really, really not good, and I’m scared. I’m overwhelmed. I’m angry. I’m sad.

We live in a world that doesn’t understand differences, and doesn’t like things it doesn’t understand. My son, well, he doesn’t always understand differences either, and sometimes they are his differences. Sometimes he can’t maintain, and he can’t keep his body safe. He’s surrounded by people who know him and have his best interests in mind, but sometimes they can’t keep him safe, either. My greatest fear is that he’ll go too far and someone, probably at school, will call the police. And the police won’t “serve and protect,” they’ll just react, as they have been known to do. And they won’t see my beautiful, compassionate child- the child that everyone loves as soon as they meet, that makes people laugh and then blows them away with his knowledge or his questions. They won’t see the young soul who cared so much about people being treated unfairly that he faced a terrifying crowd and charmed a stranger out of a hat. Instead, they’ll see a boy- a not-quite-white boy, an against-the grain boy, a violent, defiant, disrespectful being, and he will get hurt.

cartoon of Calvin screaming
Artist’s rendering of an autistic meltdown.

And he’ll keep getting pushed around in a system that wasn’t made for him. Except it was. But that’s the school-to-prison pipeline, and I don’t want him there. And the “alternative room,” where he is placed to keep him safe when he can’t be safe on his own, is just getting him used to being locked in a cell.

And the way things are looking right now, with the current administration and leaders who don’t even like schools and leaders who operate solely on power and hate, it’s not going to get better. And I’m working my hardest so I can advocate, not just for him, but for other kids like him, and for kids who are nothing like him. I started this with the intention being inspiring and hopeful, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to protect my own heart, my own child, let alone anyone else’s. How do we harness the passion and the unity that we experienced a month ago (only a month!) and make sure that all of the amazing, caring, empowered children who are watching our every step don’t see our defeat, that they only see how they can continue to change the world?

Portrait of Malala Yousafzai with text that reads "One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world."

Additional Resources:

The School to Prison Pipeline, Explained: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoKkasEyDOI

One of way too many stories: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/kids-cuffs-why-handcuff-8-year-old-student-disability-n722451

One possible step to prevent police-related injuries for people with disabilities? https://www.portlandoregon.gov/police/article/141124

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