A couple of years ago I was working in my living room in Jersey City when I heard the repeated sound of someone being hit in the hallway outside my apartment door. The muffled moaning of a child could be heard between each concussive blow.
I opened my door to find a woman standing over a giant man-child cowering on the floor with both arms braced over his head in a futile attempt to avoid the blows. The woman was beating him on the head with the heel of her shoe. The boy was whimpering, “Mommy, stop hitting me.” I raised my voice and asked what was going on.
She hit him three more times and then turned to me and said, “I’m disciplining my child the Jamaican way. You stay out of it.” The boy looked at me with pleading in his eyes. She went back to beating him. I walked into the hallway and put myself between the woman and her son.
“This is America,” I said in a deep and menacing tone. “We don’t beat our children here.” The woman quickly spun around, put her shoe back on and tromped up the stairs.
She called back over her shoulder like one would command a dog, “Come.” The man-child gathered himself up and wiped tears from his cheeks and clambered up the stairs behind her. I called 9/11 to report the beating.
In 10 minutes an ambulance showed up. Two medics rang my bell. I showed them the giant pool of spit on the floor the woman had beaten from the head of her son. The medics told me they could only act if there was blood. They could go up to her apartment and break down the door and take the kid with them to the hospital — if there was blood.
The woman came down the stairs and asked if the ambulance was for her. I told her the ambulance was for her son and to send him down so he could get checked out. She glowered at me and said, “I was disciplining my son. You have no idea what it’s like for a Black boy out there. He will respect me. I am his mother. He does what I say or there are consequences. He will not be like the other trash on the street.
I will not allow it.” “I understand,” I told her, “but you can’t get your way by hitting him. You have to find another way to reach him.” “You all can go,” she said to the medics. “My son isn’t going anywhere. And you?” She hissed at me, “You don’t tell me how to raise my son.” She turned on her heel and was gone again.
The medics were antsy to leave but, because this was a 911 call, the police had to arrive at the scene first and then dismiss them. They called dispatch to get an update on when the police would show up. Three minutes later the man-child came down the stairs carrying a bag of empty soda cans for the recycling bin. He tentatively came over to us and said he was fine and we should all go home.
I asked him how old he was. “Eleven.” The kid was at least six feet tall and over two hundred pounds. He was a giant of a man with a child’s mentality. He inched his way over to his pool of spit on the floor and stepped in it and expertly spread it over into the runner fibers so it would dry faster and disappear.
“I did the wrong thing,” he continued by rote, “My mom was just disciplining me.” When he scratched his head you could see hundreds of little pink scars pocking his brown forearms.
They were evidence of previous beatings. You only get that kind of defensive scarring when you’re on the floor with your arms protecting your head. One medic asked the kid if he was bleeding. The man-child shook his head. The other medic noticed the harvest of scars on the boy’s forearms as the child sauntered back upstairs without dropping off his cans in the recycling bin.
“You saw his arms,” I said to the medic. “He’s been beaten multiple times.” “Blood,” the medic sighed. “We need to see blood to do anything.” “The move with the spit was slick,” the other medic said. “Yeah,” his partner answered, “His mother told him to do it.” The three of us waited an hour for the police to arrive in an ancient, white, unmarked car. Both cops were working undercover and were dressed in shabby street clothes.
Their eyes were bright and alert and gave away their true identities. They were not happy to be called here. “No blood.” The medic held out a paper for the cops to sign. One cop scribbled on the paper and, in a blur, both medics were back in the ambulance and gone up the street. The other cop looked at me and shrugged. “Okay, so?” I explained. The cops nodded and said they’d take care of it and tell the mother if they had to come back she would go to jail.
They couldn’t do anything else because, even though I witnessed the beating… there was no blood. The cops raced up four flights of stairs and I never heard from them again. Later that day my landlord knocked on my door and thanked me for caring enough to call 911 but, he said, if anything like that ever happened again I was to call him and not 911.
I told my landlord I could not do that because I taught graduate classes in Public Health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and I urged my students to care and to speak up and to be involved and to be proactive in the health and in the well-being of people. To turn my back on a beating would make me a hypocrite. “Ugh,” groaned my landlord.
“Call 911 but then call me, too.” I agreed and he left to find the mother.
The next day I was getting the mail and the man-child descended the stairs holding the same bag of soda cans for recycling. I approached him and asked for his name. He gave it to me and I provided mine. I asked him if he was okay. He nodded. I told him if he ever needed help or if he was scared or if he just needed a place to get away for awhile he could always knock on my door and I would always help him. I saw him smile for the first time.
He went back upstairs with the bag of cans. A day later he, and his mother, moved out.