Their original plan was to work at Six Flags.
The girls they’d meet. The fun they’d have. Free admission to the amusement park on days off. Perfect, right?
“It was the total package,” said Nolan White, 17.
Except Nolan and his friends didn’t get the jobs. Too much competition.
“So they tried something else,” said Raymond Bell, who understood the spirit of the boys’ plan and has his own plans for them. But we’ll get to that later.
See, the teens decided to make lemonade out of lemons and become entrepreneurs by selling cold, bottled water to hot tourists on a parched Mall.
“We bought the water, like 15 cases. And a cooler and two totes,” Nolan said, outlining his business plan. “We charged a dollar a bottle.” The plan gave them a significant profit margin.
Makes sense. Some of the water fountains on the Mall don’t work, vendors aren’t everywhere, and the District topped out at 95 degrees last week.
Heck, even the U.S. Park Police in the District encouraged folks to hit the water bottles with a retweet of something their New York outpost sent out: “HYDRATE, while working/exercising outdoors during hot weather. Drink water before you feel thirsty.”
So selling water during last week’s heat wave is the kind of get-up-and-go that most of America would cheer.
But instead, the D.C. Water Boys became a national story. And another clear example of the way the world continues to see them. And fear them.
Selling Water While Black was enough to get the teens — one 16 and two 17 — handcuffed and humiliated by Park Police working an undercover sting targeting illegal vendors.
Nolan and his buddies were dumping the melting ice out of their bins, about to head home, when they were surrounded by three undercover officers who pulled out their badges and cuffed the boys before questioning or conversation even began, Nolan said.
There they were, hands behind their backs, one splayed on a sidewalk, as tourists walked by and gawked.
“It was embarrassing. All these people watching us, thinking we’re just criminals,” Nolan told me. He had never been in handcuffs before. He said they hurt.
But he kept remembering what his mom told him — the mantra of every black child’s mother. “She told me to stay calm, do whatever the officer said, cooperate,” Nolan said.
It’s what black kids are used to.
“My kids sell water and everyone smiles at them,” tweeted Tim Krepp, a D.C. author and tour guide who happened upon the scene Thursday and took the photos that went viral. “These kids do it and get arrested. It IS racist.”
Why handcuffs? It was just water.
“They broke the law!” Twitter howled.
Nope. The haters and I both know this isn’t the way police would treat white kids who set up a lemonade stand without understanding the rules.
“I really didn’t know you had to have any kind of permit for it,” Nolan said. “I just thought it was something you could do.”
Here’s where we get back to the race part.
The kids were handcuffed for the “safety of the officers and of the individuals,” Park Police spokeswoman Sgt. Anna Rose said in a statement.
There you have it. Fear is what it comes down to.
Fear of Trayvon Martin’s Skittles.
Fear of Tamir Rice’s toy gun.
Fear of Michael Brown’s size.
Fear of water bottles?
Over and over again, we see non-black folks acting out of fear when they interact with black Americans.
The fear factor was firmly established last week when a Minnesota jury decided that being afraid of a black man was reason enough for a police officer to kill him.
Officer Jeronimo Yanez testified that he feared for his life when he killed Philando Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria worker who was calm and cooperative in one of the clearest videotaped police shootings America has seen. Castile’s girlfriend live-streamed his death from their car on Facebook when it happened last July, and dashboard-camera video shown at Yanez’s trial this month shows an equally devastating angle of the killing.
That officer didn’t see a beloved cafeteria worker who knew every kid’s name. He didn’t see the gun owner licensed to carry a concealed weapon. Nope. He saw danger. His fear was his license to kill.
What happened to the D.C. Water Boys obviously is different. No one was shot or killed.
I asked Nolan if his mom was mad at him — when she finally picked him up, after about an hour and a half in handcuffs in 90-degree heat. His answer was heartbreaking.
“She was happy that I was alive,” he said.
The youths were eventually uncuffed and released. But the judgment that society placed on them that day — handcuffs and public humiliation, rather than a stern warning and a reading of the rules that would be more appropriate for kids — will stay with them for a lifetime.
When all they wanted was a summer job.
Here’s where we get back to Raymond Bell.
The mother of one of the Water Boys (who also is a godmother to another) called Bell last year to ask about his job training program, the HOPE (Helping Other People Excel) Project.
Bell trains people for jobs in information technology — screen replacement techs, tech support and so forth. He has a summer program for high school students and a year-round program for adults, graduating about 150 people and placing them in jobs every year.
“I know it’s not the sexiest thing,” Bell explains. “But we need more positive images out there that are not just about rapping, singing and playing ball. It bothers me that so many kids see that as the only path to success.”
Only, the boys had the Six Flags plan. An understandable miscalculation for a teen.
“But that didn’t pan out,” Bell said.
So after someone in his social circle identified the kids from Krepp’s photo, Bell went into his files to find their information and called the mom .
Nolan walked into the HOPE offices Monday.
Bell immediately gave him a black, gold and blue HOPE Project shirt to put over his white tank top. Bell showed him a binder full of job offers for past graduates. Nolan told him about his dream of training as an electrician and carpenter and renovating and flipping old homes.
“But this,” he said, looking at the job offers to work in IT, “this would be an upgrade on my dream.”
So Bell laid out the rules and told him about all the work and training he’d be doing this summer.
“I’m ready to take on that responsibility, sir,” Nolan told him.
And then he called his friends to tell them about the job. The total package.