Uriah Sharp begged his mother to buy him some new wrestling action figures, but Brandie Sharp figured it was a good time for the 12-year-old to learn the value of a dollar by earning a few himself.
So she called the local newspaper office and requested a route. She planned to sit in her car and read while her two sons — the older one is 17 — dropped advertising circulars on neighbors' doorsteps.
Before their first delivery in Upper Arlington, Ohio, last week, she took a picture of her preteen. He's wearing a D.A.R.E. T-shirt, a smile and a mop of curly hair, ready for his first day of work — and a lesson in responsibility.
But when the police cruiser pulled up shortly after they started, she realized her 12-year-old black son was about to get a different kind of lesson.
Before she went to bed that Friday, she posted the picture of her son on Facebook — alongside words about her disappointment and disgust.
"Sad I cant even teach my son the value of working without someone whispering and looking at us out the side of their eye perhaps because we DON'T "look like a person that belongs in their neighborhood," Sharp said. "... Totally disgusted and disturbed that this kind of behavior still exists."
Uriah, it turns out, had gotten some of the addresses wrong. Upper Arlington has a strong anti-solicitation ordinance, and the Sharps had been warned against putting their deliveries on the steps of people who didn't want them. The 12-year-old was trying to fix his mistake.
But a woman at a park across the street — police haven't released her name or other identifying information — saw the child walk up to a house empty-handed, pick up something and leave, said Officer Bryan McKean, a spokesman for the Upper Arlington Police Department. He told The Washington Post the department is duty-bound to answer all calls, but officers are trained to treat everyone with courtesy and respect, regardless of the nature of the initial call.
"It looked like at first they were delivering newspapers or something, but I noticed they were walking up to the houses with nothing in hand and one of them came back with something," the caller told a dispatcher on the nonemergency line. "I mean, I don't want to say something was going on, but it just ... seemed kind of suspicious."
Sharp told The Post there is nothing suspicious about her son. He is polite with a quick smile, and trained to pepper his sentences with "ma'ams" and "sirs" when talking to adults. And uncles and cousins have told him of the importance of being respectful, even deferential, to police.
Also, he had a big duffel bag full of newsprint. None of the Sharps were charged with a crime.
But Sharp realized while she was talking to the police that her 12-year-old had become the latest victim of #LivingWhileBlack. Recently, African Americans engaged in benign activities have been viewed through criminal-tinted glasses by neighbors, shopkeepers or people just passing by. They find themselves suddenly making explanations to police officers and security guards who have been summoned about completely lawful activities.
Someone called the police on a black man who was reading a book about Christianity while watching the ocean. Black people have had the authorities sicced on them while going to the gym, shopping for underwear, waiting for the school bus and couponing. Many of the incidents go viral, held up as examples of insidious, everyday racism.
Some of the most recent victims have been the youngest. In June, a white woman called the police on a 12-year-old mowing grass in a neighborhood outside Cleveland. Earlier this summer, a woman whom the Internet has dubbed #PoolPatrolPaula struck a black teen who had been invited to swim at a neighborhood pool, calling him racial slurs and saying he didn't belong.
Sharp said she's well aware of other incidents and worries that her son's next interaction with suspicious neighbors could result in something much worse than hurt feelings.
She decided that Uriah's first day as a paperboy in Upper Arlington would also be his last. She's requested a route change. Until that happens, Uriah Sharp is out of the delivery business.
At home after the incident, he had two questions. The first made his mom chuckle: "Will I still get my wrestlers."
The answer was a quick yes. But his second question was much harder to answer:
"'Why would they call the cops on me?'"
"It breaks my heart," Sharp told The Post. "I'm adamant on him having a good childhood, on not having to deal with stuff like that. [My sons] were doing something positive. They weren't doing something negative. What do you tell him? What do you honestly tell him?"
First published by The Washington Post