The death of Korryn Gaines is now under the microscope of official investigation and social media deconstruction. But I have been drawn to one aspect of what is now known about the 23-year-old mother of two who held Baltimore County police officers at bay for seven hours last week before they gunned her down and wounded her 5-year-old son.
She instructed her son, Kodi, to view police as enemies who must be resisted: "You fight them. They are not for us."
When I think about motherly advice, I think of "Mother to Son," the Langston Hughes poem from the 1920s that begins, "Well, son, I'll tell you: Life for me ain't been no crystal stair." It goes on to say, in Hughes' rendition of Southern dialect:
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now—
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
I also think of Mary McLeod Bethune's "Last Will and Testament" from the mid-1950s, which begins, "I leave you love." It goes on to bequeath hope, confidence in one another, thirst for education, respect for the uses of power, faith, racial dignity, a desire to live harmoniously with one's fellow man, and "finally, a responsibility to our young people."
These strong black women — one imagined, the other an educator and presidential adviser — were preparing the next generation for a world that would not welcome them with open arms. I do believe that, in her own twisted way of thinking, Korryn Gaines was doing the same. How she did so, as much as the unanswered questions about her death, is troubling.
With her son watching nearby and countless people following from afar through her live broadcasts on Facebook and Instagram, Gaines was killed in her Randallstown home after police tried to serve an arrest warrant stemming from her failure to show up in court for a March traffic-stop case. She met them with a shotgun she dubbed Big Girl. Debate now rages about the tactics deployed by police dealing with a woman who was clearly not in her right mind and whose 5-year-old son was in the line of fire. At rallies protesting her death, we are hearing the words of Assata Shakur, a fugitive to law enforcement but a revolutionary hero to her followers. Ms. Shakur's advice is recited like a mantra: "It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains."
Was Gaines courting suicide by police, as some have asserted, in a bid to become a martyr in the social justice movement to elevate black lives? Was she driven to a form of insanity by the regularity of police-involved slayings of black men captured on video that she said had become all too familiar to her little boy? Was she doomed because of the lingering effects of lead poisoning? Whatever the reason, I am wrestling with what she thought her son needed to know about life, her version of mother-to-son advice.
During a drawn out encounter with Baltimore County police officers who stopped Gaines' car on March 10 because it did not have a license plate, the officers engaged with her as she raged against an unlawful, criminal government that was out to kidnap her and her children and to steal her automobile. The cops were "pigs" and her children were "rebels" through whom she vowed that her spirit would live forever.
Gaines recorded much of the incident:
Mother to an obviously frightened son: You see what they do to us, right? You fight them.
Mother: They are not for us.
Mother: They want to kill us. You never, ever, back down from them.
During the standoff last week, as a SWAT team approached, Gaines once again schooled Kodi and recorded it.
Mother: Who's outside?
Son: The police.
Mother: And what are they trying to do?
Son: They're trying to kill us.
Later coached on camera by a relative who distributed his recollection of what had happened, Kodi offered an understandably confused but nevertheless harrowing account. After a few rambling, heartbreaking minutes, he says: "And then she died. The end."
We must not let this be the end for Kodi or for other children whose worldview is being shaped by adults who have given up on this society without offering a viable alternative. We must not permit Kodi's lasting lesson, mother to son, to be one of nihilism.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.