These Black Teens Are Turning 18 In Tamir Rice’s America

The island gifted him his passion for art, he says. When he returned home to Brooklyn, he continued his photography. Later, he wrote essays about Malcolm X and slam poems for his 10th-grade English class. 
In time, Taylor developed his own style: unnamed poems, often about the Black experience, with the first letters of each word capitalized.

Me Low Enough ...
Taylor’s family has always emphasized education as a way to a better life. When his relatives came to America and didn’t speak a word of English, education unlocked pathways to jobs and citizenship. Today, it is his safeguard against becoming a statistic.
“I don't want to be dead or in a jail cell because of my skin color,” he says.
It was the best day of Taylor’s life when he found out he was accepted to his dream school, Morehouse. His older sister cried at work when she heard the news, and his mother couldn’t stop telling him how proud she was. 
“One thing racist people don’t like to see is an educated Black man,” Taylor says. “I am an educated Black man.”
Xavien Reid wanted to buy barbecue chips, a Snickers bar and AriZona iced tea from a corner store. It was past midnight in his hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and he noticed a parked police car. 
“Just remember, you’re Black,’’ he told himself. Keep cool. 
He went inside and got his snacks. But as he left to walk to a friend's place, the police officer turned on the vehicle siren. The officer stepped out of the car with his hand on his gun, handcuffed Reid and made him sit on the sidewalk in the rain as he called for a description of a suspect who had stolen a car seat. When the call came back clean, the officer dismissed Reid without an apology.
The encounter last month marred his new chapter into adulthood, just weeks after his 18th birthday in April.
“I don’t understand,’’ he thought as he ran to a friend’s house. “Why it’s got to be that way?”

The police are supposed to protect us. Now I can’t trust the law.
Reid, a rising senior at Warren Harding High School, had witnessed unfairness and violence before. Some friends didn’t make it to 18. One was shot three times in February outside a corner store. 
He had pushed back peer pressure to join gangs and sell drugs, instead turning to football and track. He was co-captain with his twin brother, Xavier, of the wrestling team. He boxed at a local gym.
Reid, who has dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, is considering vocational schools to become a plumber or engineer. He likes to write poetry about love and what’s going on in the world. He wonders if he should go to college and pursue a career in journalism.  
He remembers being angry as a young child, feeling as if he didn’t get enough attention. His grandmother and aunt helped raise him in between homes in Connecticut and Georgia. At one point, his family was homeless and lived in a car.
Reid acted out by stealing, talking back. He says “through the grace of God’’ and family he stayed out of the juvenile system.
“I grew up really fast,’’ he says. “I was a boy doing grown-man stuff.’’
Floyd’s death made him cry. He saw himself under the policeman’s knee. He saw his cousins there, too. 
“The police are supposed to protect us," he says. "Now I can’t trust the law.”
Reid wants to use his pen to help others. He’s a representative on the Bridgeport Junior City Council and will spend his third summer in a writing program. In April, he started his first full-time job doing housekeeping at a nursing home. 
He plans to one day start a mentoring program for children. 
“I don’t want them to feel alone ... To feel like there’s nothing out there for them,” he says.
– Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY

At Warren Barnes Jr.'s elementary school in Houston, the light-skinned students would gather on one side of the playground for recess, while the dark-skinned students were on the other. 
Later, when he was home, he would look at himself in the mirror. His skin tone reminded him of the Black men, women and children he’d see on the news in stories about police violence. 
“I’d see that those people’s skin color looked like mine,” he recalls. “So I thought people would hate me without even getting to know me.”
When Floyd died, it seemed to confirm his childhood fears. As he watches protesters carry signs with Floyd’s last words – “I Can’t Breathe” – Barnes wonders if that could have been him.
He sends out petitions with hashtags #DefundThePolice and #BLMinSchool. He posts resources about anti-racism and police accountability. He wants to protest, but he’s worried about bringing his 3-year-old sister, whom he babysits during the day. 
“When have we ever come together like this?” he says. “This is going to be in history books. And if it’s not, we’ll protest that too.”
Barnes loves Color Guard and dance. His family could never afford dance lessons, but now he plans to major in dance at Sam Houston State University. Later, he’ll open his own nonprofit dance studio with free lessons.
“I want to give people the opportunities I didn't have growing up,” he says. “And walking into a dance studio and calling it my own, that’s heaven.”
Months ago, Barnes, a Cypress Park High School student, waited in the dark at a city bus stop with his Color Guard rifle and flag in his arms. A police car stopped in front of him.
“Sir, I need you to step onto the sidewalk,” the police officer told him.
Barnes was already on the sidewalk. He took a few steps back.
Minutes later, the police officer got out of the car, walked up to Barnes and repeated, “Get on the sidewalk.”
Barnes froze and stepped back even further. He said nothing until the officer left.
“It was like the world was lifted off my shoulders,” he says. “I was holding my breath the whole time, and then finally I could breathe.”
Barnes never rode the school bus again.
– Christine Fernando, USA TODAY
Mother of Tamir Rice says moving on has been painful
For his 18th birthday, Ryan Williams got a tattoo stretching down his left forearm. At the top is a hand of cards, all spades, then a rose with petals made of $100 bills. Then there are the words: ”Respect the past. Create the future.” 
The cards, he says, represent the chances he took in the past. The rose symbolizes the success he wants as an adult.
It took a lot for Williams to grow up, he says. In November 2019, he drove his grandmother’s car without permission while she was out of town and crashed it into another car. He was charged with careless driving, not carrying a license and driving without insurance, but ultimately wasn’t convicted. 
It was a moment of reckoning. He told himself, “'Oh, you’ve got to act like an adult now.'"
Williams lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, with his parents, siblings and grandmother. He’s interested in working as a professional YouTuber, filming and producing his own videos. This summer, he’s taking online classes so he can graduate from high school next year. He has three jobs: He works for Chick-fil-a, Wawa and the city of St. Petersburg as a canvasser to pay his bills and save for filming equipment. 
Williams’ family has moved around the St. Petersburg area since he was 2. He wants to buy his mother and grandmother their own houses. Once he does that, he’ll feel successful. 
“I'm trying to get the things I want and trying to get to where I want to be in life,” he says. 
– Ellen Hine, USA TODAY
Eric Sykes stands at the end of a checkout counter wearing black slip-on Vans, a Nike jacket and a black apron that says Publix. 
Past him flow folks who ended up in Clearwater, Florida, from the Midwest, the Northeast,  the Caribbean and elsewhere to start over, or relax, or disappear. He carefully packs their frozen pizza and chicken wings and Budweiser into plastic sacks.
“Have a great day, Honey,” says an older white woman, as he hands her groceries. 
“Thank you,” he replies. “You, too.”
A month shy of his 18th birthday, Eric is working 20 hours a week, tucking $100 into his savings account each month for tuition. 
As a young child, he dreamed of becoming a Secret Service agent or a criminal justice lawyer. This year, his senior year at Clearwater High, a friend pulled him into an elective called Freedom Ambassadors. The group visited Southern cities, the settings for key Civil Rights movements of the 1960s. They studied lesser known characters from that era, such as Ella Baker, an organizer who worked in the shadows of the movement’s lions.

In January, the class commemorated the march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery with a Unity Walk. Sykes and 800 other students marched over the Memorial Causeway Bridge in Clearwater under a bright blue sky. There were no dogs, no police with batons.
In May, after Floyd died, Eric went with his friend and his sister to a march in Clearwater. The sky was cloudy, foreboding. He wasn’t sure what to expect. The scenes from other protests were dramatic. In nearby Tampa, police doused protesters with pepper spray.
But there was no resistance. When Eric and the other protesters marched through the streets, locals came out of their houses and cheered.
“I thought, ‘Wow, you all agree,’” Eric says. “Finally, we are being heard.”
Eric is quiet by nature, and he isn’t sure he belongs on the front lines. He no longer dreams of protecting the president or fighting for justice in a court of law.  For now, the revolution sounds like the beep-beep of the Publix checkout line so a young man can save for community college. 
He has decided he wants to become a speech therapist. He’ll help others find their voices.
– Asher Montgomery, USA TODAY
The air felt thick when Cameron Gray jumped out of his stepfather's old Ford truck, planting his feet on Johnsonville, Alabama, soil. This was what Southerners called country; where paved roads ran until they turned into dirt and flies as big as bumble bees jostled you as they passed by.
Gray and his family had traveled 90 miles south from their hometown of Montgomery for his stepfather's family reunion. About 30 people were gathered at the family matriarch’s house, a ranch-style home with a large patio.  
"It’s nothing but heat, bugs and woods out there,” Gray says of the small unincorporated town. 
Cameron GrayMickey Welsh, Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY Network
Gray fetched his brother and cousins. They grabbed their bikes and skidded off, in a hurry to get away from the adults. Johnsonville wasn’t a big city like Montgomery. There wasn’t much to do for entertainment. They coasted down a big sloping hill and turned left toward a giant stadium with a tennis court where they kicked around, drawing circles with their bikes.  
Soon, they found a ramp that led to a ditch and a dried out open sewer. They dropped down into it. Gray heard yells and advanced, curious to see what all the commotion was about. Gray saw a long black snake coiled and waiting. He wasn’t afraid like the others, he was intrigued.  
Gray likes the idea of a little adventure. After graduating from Park Crossing High School on June 4, all Gray will need to join the city’s firefighter training program is the arrival of his 18th birthday in July. Being a firefighter is the only job he’s ever wanted.  
“When everyone is running away, you have to run toward danger,” he says.  
But some things do scare him.  
When he was in middle school, Gray’s father bought him an airsoft gun. It was long and black, with an orange tip. After Tamir was killed, his mother threw it in the trash.  
“I’m glad we got rid of it. I didn't want my mom to be sad because she lost one of her sons,” he says.  
– Safiya Charles, The Montgomery Advertiser
Erick Kamanzi had never been camping. He’d never considered it, really, because people like him didn’t go camping.
“I used to think that was some white people stuff,” says Kamanzi, who lives in San Antonio. 
It wasn’t until Kamanzi joined Black Outside, a local group that aims to spark a love for the outdoors in black youth, that he found his love for camping. Being out in the woods away from his phone, being able to leave his problems in the outside world, felt like spiritual healing, he says. Nature is one of the few places where it’s quiet enough that he can hear himself think.
He learned about the group from a Black teacher at his school when he was a sophomore. Since then, Kamanzi always asks the teacher whenever they talk: When is the next trip?
One of Kamanzi’s favorite memories is the first time he rode a horse. He went with a friend, and his friend’s horse stopped to eat grass every few minutes and held up the group. His friend grew frustrated, but Kamanzi couldn’t stop laughing.
Kamanzi will attend Texas Southern University in the fall, where he’ll study psychology. He doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do, but he knows he wants to work with children. He wants to help them find interests that bring them happiness and help them feel like they belong, like Black Outside did for him.
In May, after Floyd died, Kamanzi felt the anger he’d felt before, the anger he felt each time he learned of a white police officer killing someone who looked like him. 
As protests spread across the country, a few of his white friends posted “All Lives Matter” on their social media accounts. But he also watched many more of his white friends who had long been silent on racism and police brutality post about the Black Lives Matter social justice movement.
Maybe this time, he thought to himself, things will be different.
– Christine Stephenson, USA TODAY
Police lights flashed in Bryce Tarver’s rearview mirror. He looked nervously at his mom in the passenger seat.
“Bryce, it’s OK,” Whitney Tarver said. “Calm down. We haven’t done anything wrong.”
Tarver had just gotten his learner’s permit and was logging driving hours with his mother. As he pulled over, his palms were sweaty and clenched onto the steering wheel.
He remembered what his parents taught him. Don’t wear your hoodie in public. Don’t let your pants sag. Don’t blast music. Always show your face. When a police officer speaks to you, say “Yes, sir. No, sir.”
“Do you know why I pulled you over?” the police officer asked.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Tarver said. “I don’t know.”
When he was younger, Tarver worried people didn’t see him as Black enough. In middle school, he struggled to fit in with other Black students after going to a majority-white elementary school.
“I felt uncultured,” he says. “When I was around a lot of people of my own race, I didn’t speak their language or lingo.”
He wanted a cellphone to help him fit in better. He sold leftover Skittles, Snickers, Twix and Orbit Gum his dad brought home from work meetings at $1 a piece to save up for an Android.
He graduated this spring from Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The public school named after the famous abolitionist was the first high school for African Americans in the county. When he walked through its halls, he could feel history looming over him.
Tarver was an honor roll student in the International Baccalaureate program for most of high school and a member of the National Honor Society. At home, he cares for his sisters, washes dishes, cleans the bathrooms, mows the lawn, cooks dinner. His mother  always told him he came from good stock. His great-grandfather had a master’s degree from Columbia University. His grandparents had advanced degrees. 
“It’s in you, Bryce,” she’d tell him.
Once, Tarver stopped at a 7/11 for a Slurpee after swim practice. His mother’s face filled with fear. Take off your hoodie before you go into the store, she told him. She worried he looked too much like the young Black men on the news, the ones who had been shot by police officers. 
“They explained to me how my skin color looked to the rest of the world,” Tarver says of his parents. “They told me how there would always be some sort of hidden target on my back.”
Tarver was accepted to the honors program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically Black university. For graduation, his parents bought him a 2019 Toyota Camry. Tarver wanted tinted windows, but his parents worried that would make him more of a target for police. They opted to leave the windows alone.
– Christine Fernando, USA TODAY
This story was produced in partnership with the Media School at Indiana University.
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