I think about their children.
Police murdered my father three decades ago, when I was 8. As his son, I know firsthand how losing a parent this way can derail a family for generations. I can still see these deaths through the eyes of the youngest victims.
I grew up in North Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1970s. Back then, in the projects known as George Legare, our community was tight-knit. If there were hungry kids in the area, my mother and great-grandmother fed them.
Ours was a world of contradictions. We saw violence every day on the streets, but we were protected. If the grown-ups were conducting business inside — legal or otherwise — we kids went outside. We would come back in when they were done.
My father went to prison for dealing drugs when I was very small. I have vague memories of visiting him and being terrified. He was huge! Larger than life, and twice as loud.
The first time I saw him in prison, I wouldn’t go to him. He left the visiting room, unable to handle his disappointment. But my mom was committed to helping my sister and me love our father, so she kept bringing us back.
After prison, dad did his best to make up for lost time. My sister and I spent every weekend with him, and some weeknights, after our homework was done. He was a loving father; firm, but willing to get down on his knees to wrestle with me. I loved those moments best of all.
My father was a well-known member of the local Black Panther Party, and he often took us with him when he went into the streets to help our community. We saw our dad as the big man in the neighborhood. Our Superman. He’d say to the guys on the streets, “If you’re gonna sell drugs, make sure you invest back into the communities. Do what you’re gonna do, but do it with respect.”
And then it happened.
One night, when I was 8 years old, a bunch of people started showing up at my house. Too many people, was all I knew at first. Then I saw my mom and sister sobbing. I noticed that even the men — tough men raised to show no emotions — had tears in their eyes.
When my mother spotted me, she picked me up and said the words that changed me forever: “They killed your dad.” There was no need to define “they.” They were the police.
Here’s the story I heard: Dad was sitting on the curb with his friends when two White cops arrived wanting to search everyone. They knew who my dad was and what he was known for: community organizing and petty drug sales. In his big, deep voice, my dad told the cops no, that they had no cause to search him and his friends.
A scuffle ensued. The police were able to cuff some of the guys, but not my dad. The cops called for backup, and with the help of two more officers, they beat my father into submission. They wrestled him into handcuffs, then shoved him into the car.
The police left our neighborhood and pulled over in another. They yanked my dad out of the car and beat him again. At the county jail, my dad told anyone who could hear him that his head hurt, but no one listened.
He eventually collapsed, and never woke up again.
Newspaper articles about my father’s death tell a different story. While the headlines point out that my dad was the third man to die in police custody in a five-week period, the articles themselves downplay how he was beaten. It was a seizure, officials said. A fall. A freak accident.
In an article published in the Post & Courier, the coroner was quoted as saying, “Fields has a long medical history, including problems with high blood pressure and drug withdrawal. Autopsy tests for the presence of drugs in the system are not complete.” The implication was that my father was at fault for his own death.
We can’t say with 100% accuracy what happened. This was decades before police-worn body cameras and cell phones. My mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit based on the stories we heard, but nothing came of it.
I know what I believed, though: The police killed my father. My Superman.
And if they could do that, their rules didn’t matter to me anymore. No one’s rules did. I hated them all. Especially White people.
I spent the next decade wreaking havoc in my community. I stopped going to school. I lied. I stole. My friends and I beat up White students leaving local college campuses for the simple pleasure of hurting them.
My rage was unchecked. Septic. Eventually, I killed someone and spent 17 years in prison. It was an accident, but I live with what I did every day.
And while my three children were lucky to have a remarkable mother to guide them, I, like so many Black fathers, was gone.
It took me a long time to face the pain of losing my dad. In prison, I started doing the work that would eventually enable me to become a productive member of society. I took classes, mentored other prisoners and learned how to really listen. I also realized that if I wanted to get out of prison and live the life I wanted, I had to work within the boundaries of the system I spent most of my life thinking betrayed me. I’ve only recently been able to trust White people again. That process began with a woman at a local re-entry program who showed me unconditional support.
I don’t know what my life story would have been if cops hadn’t killed my Superman. But I don’t think I would have grown up with such distorted views about society, White people and police.
Any killing has ripple effects. A single death at the hands of law enforcement can influence an entire population’s view of those tasked with protecting them. Especially if you’re a child like I was.
I think about George Floyd’s five children, especially Gianna, who was only 6 when her dad was murdered. I think of Walter Scott’s four and Alton Sterling’s five. We don’t know how their fathers’ killings have changed their lives. Their stories are still being written.
Aulzue “Blue” Fields serves as implementation specialist of Turning Leaf, a Charleston, South Carolina, nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a post-prison path to success for men at the highest risk of re-arrest. As the first graduate of the program hired to the staff, Blue mentors men recently released from incarceration. Three years after his release from prison, he remains sober and without re-offending.
Leah Rhyne is the director of communications at Turning Leaf.