‘Nice Young Man. Don’t Harm.’ A black mother’s plea on Nextdoor to protect her 14-year-old son

Feature Image: Sonja Jackson and her son. Photos provided by Jackson.

Sonja Jackson’s post was prompted by the police killing of George Floyd and vigilante killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

By Peggy McKenzie, for MLK50

Sonja Jackson woke up from a nightmare Wednesday, picked up her phone and began a post on the Nextdoor.com app.

Under “general” topic, she entitled her post, “Nice Young Man. Don’t Harm.”

“Good day everyone,” she wrote. “I just wanted to say hello and ask everyone to look out for my son and keep him safe if you see him jogging, walking the dog or riding his bike. He is only 14.”

A mish mash of horrifying scenes of violence against black people had interrupted her nap, and the single mother felt an urgency to write the post. “I jumped up in desperation,” said Jackson, a special education teacher’s assistant for Shelby County Schools.

The day before, she had watched news reports and an excruciating video of a white Minneapolis policeman with his knee to the throat of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, strangling the life out of him.

It was on a back-to-back horror loop, with the video of 25-year-old black jogger Ahmaud Arbery being chased down, vigilante-style, by armed white men and shot to death in a South Georgia neighborhood in late February.

These and other frightening incidents across the country were at the back of her mind and had common elements: A white person who was suspicious of a black person, who was doing nothing wrong, and either called law enforcement or became its proxy.

She moved to the East Memphis neighborhood near Summer and Graham two years ago because it is diverse, with people from many cultures, and is near the Greenline.

Her son — her only child –– is an athlete and loves to run. He has been sheltered, though, and doesn’t yet understand the unwritten rules of survival as a black person in America, she said.

She loves the neighborhood and has made friends. They call each other to chat and many know her son by name.

“But there are many people blocks away who do not know him,” Jackson said. “There are people who do not care” that he is just a kid jogging. “Some think black people are programmed to do crimes, no matter what.”

“It is very common for someone to post about the scary brown person on the Nextdoor app.”

Before the pandemic began, she usually watched him as he jogged in the neighborhood and accompanied him when he went to the Greenline. “At the same time, I realize I have to let go and let him go jogging and let him have some freedom, since he has been locked up in the house since all of this has been going on with COVID-19.

“But he is running out of things to do, and keeps saying he wants to be free.”

So she turned to Nextdoor, sharing her post with 23 neighborhoods.

“I wanted to just put out a call, not just for (my son), but for any children of color.”

The response, she said, has been uplifting.

“I have had many people in communities on Nextdoor reach out to me to tell me they support me as a mother and that they would look out for my son” and other black children, she said.

“They said they felt it (the post) was necessary, even though they felt it was horrible I had to post it in the first place.”

Screenshot of Jackson’s post on her Nextdoor network.

Where do we go from here?

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.

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