Inside a high school classroom on a bleary Saturday morning in Buffalo sat 12 young men – all of them black, mid- to late teens – listening to the day’s lesson:
How to survive police encounters.
It’s a hard but important lesson to learn for boys and men of color at a time when tensions are high across the United States over police shootings.
Leading the class on Saturday at Bennett High School was John V. Elmore, a former member of the State Police and a lawyer for more than 30 years. He’s also African-American.
Elmore, 59, used his years of experience in the criminal justice system to write a 2004 book entitled “Fighting for Your Life: The African-American Criminal Justice Survival Guide.” These days, he is asked to speak at events and workshops like this one about what to do when stopped by the police.
“How do you react?” Elmore asked the class. “How does it make you feel?”
“Nervous,” one boy responded.
“Anyone else? Nervous?” Elmore asked.
Others in the room raised their hands.
“A lot of times a police officer might come at us in an aggressive way and we don’t understand why,” Elmore said. “He doesn’t know who you are. You don’t know what he’s thinking or why he’s stopping you.”
“What we have to do is try to de-escalate the situation,” Elmore said.
Elmore’s audience was attentive, but maybe a little skeptical.
The boys are all too familiar with the images and the aftermath of the deadly police encounters, whether it’s Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., or Eric Garner in Staten Island or Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minn.
“It’s wrong to say all cops are bad,” Elmore told them. “Most cops are good people.”
But Elmore understands its hard to be respectful to police, if they’re not respectful in return. Nonetheless, he beseeched the boys not to take up that fight in the street or they could end up arrested or hurt – even dead.
“You don’t want to be the mistake that ends up on YouTube,” Elmore told them. “You want to go home.”
The workshop was part of a larger event sponsored by the Buffalo alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and geared toward helping boys and men of color, said Lorenda Chisolm, chair of the event. More than 125 people were registered for the event at Bennett High School, where they attended other workshops on issues such as education and health and money matters.
“With everything going on with the whole Black Lives Matter movement, how more timely can something like this be?” Chisolm said.
Elmore was among the presenters.
Inside one of the classrooms, he passed around sheets of paper with 30 tips for the boys to remember if stopped by the police.
One by one, he went through them:
• Always be polite and respectful when talking with police.
“Say, ‘Please.’ ‘May I.’ ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ You learned that before you went to kindergarten,” Elmore said. “If you’re going to say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ to your kindergarten teacher why not say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ to a police officer with a gun?”
• Always keep your hands still and visible.
“Why do you always want to keep your hands still and visible?” Elmore asked the class.
One boy answered inaudibly.
“Say it louder so everyone can hear,” Elmore told him.
“So they don’t think that you’re pulling out a weapon,” the boy repeated.
• A big mouth and a screw face will get you arrested.
“When police pull up to a corner,” Elmore told them, “it’s the one that’s the loudest that gets locked up.”
• Never put your hands on an officer.
“As much as what happened in Ferguson bothers me because an unarmed man got shot and killed, he put his hands on that police officer first,” Elmore said. “If Michael Brown was in this workshop today, Michael Brown wouldn’t be dead.”
At one point, Elmore asked if anyone had any comments or questions.
One boy raised his hand.
“Tips like these,” the boy asked, “wouldn’t that destroy a man’s pride?”
“A lot of it will,” Elmore acknowledged.
“I would feel belittled and less of a man and want to do something about it,” the boy continued. “It would probably devastate me.”
“But let me tell you something,” Elmore said. “You ever been to a funeral?”
“Yes,” the boy said.
“Do you want people to come to your funeral?” Elmore asked.
“No,” the boy said.
At the back of the room listening sat Pamela Acker, director of the Masten Boys & Girls Club.
She brought several of the boys from the club, located in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of gang and drug activity. This was something they needed to hear, she said.
“Most of them are gang-related but they’re transitioning out. That’s why they’re here,” Acker said. “They have a lot of stereotypes and negativity of police and they don’t have a lot of role models.”
At one point another boy raised his hand and asked Elmore about the case in Minnesota involving Castile, who was shot several times by an officer while Castile was reaching for his wallet.
What about that? the boy asked.
Elmore didn’t have an answer.
“Some of these police killings were just wrong and senseless,” Elmore said. “There wasn’t anything a person could have done.”
A women with Delta Sigma Theta opened the door to the classroom and gave Elmore the signal. His hour was up.
He gave the boys a few parting pieces of advice and thanked them for coming.
The boys got out of their chairs, walked out the door and into the world.