The Dunn family including daughters, son and grandkids
Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Dunn
Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Dunn

White father learns lesson from black son: Keep documents at the ready for police 

Atlanta attorney Thomas Dunn became the legal guardian to Charles after teaching the teen in a law class at South Atlanta High School.

After Charles’ mother died, he became a member of the Dunn family in 2014. He joined a full house as Dunn and his wife, Millie, had six daughters and five grandchildren. 

Dunn shares a conversation this week with Charles that reflects the reality of life in America today for men and women of color.

By Thomas Dunn

Yesterday, I removed and replaced the right rear unitized wheel bearing on my son Charles’ 2004 Scion XA. I did this in the rain in our driveway with the basic tools from my collection and while the car was jacked up with the standard scissor jack.

In doing so, I saved Charles $300, and, metaphorically, I saved him from potential injury or death by making the car safe again. My wife, Millie, and I are lawyers, but also do-it-your-selfers, and she helped with this project. I had never done this before, and will likely never do it again. So, why did I take on such a challenge?

It started last week when Charles and I went out to check his car because the check engine light was on. He had not driven the car in weeks because of the COVID-19 shutdown, but I knew it needed to be dealt with, so I saw it as a teachable moment.

We started the car, and the light came on again. I opened the glove box to get the car manual to see if it would help troubleshoot the problem. To my surprise, the manual was not there. I asked Charles with more than a hint of judgment, “Where is the manual? It should always be kept in the glove box.”

He responded that it was in his backpack. With even more judgment, I asked, “Why is it in your backpack?”

“Because I only keep the registration and insurance card in the glove box, so, if I am stopped by the police, I can easily get them,” he told me.

His response took my breath away. He was right. As a young black man stopped by the police, digging through documents in the glove compartment could be a death sentence.

Once I caught my breath, I said, “You are absolutely right.” Before Charles was my son, he was a student in my law class at South Atlanta High School. After his mother passed in his senior year of high school, my wife and I obtained legal guardianship of him, and he is now a part of our family.

I taught Charles and my other students of color about their constitutional rights, and, more importantly, how to best survive an encounter with police. Charles had learned well and now taught me a lesson -– to survive an encounter with police, young black men need an empty glove box except for the registration and insurance card. 

This past weekend, police killed George Floyd for no apparent reason other than he was black. As the facts of that case unfold, Mr. Floyd did everything he could to survive that encounter with police. He submitted to be handcuffed, yet he was choked to death while handcuffed. The officers involved have been fired, but George Floyd is dead.

Another black man killed because of the color of his skin.

It could have been Charles, or my son-in-law Rhuben, or any of my former students of color who all know what to do when stopped by the police to protect their constitutional rights and their life. 

I fixed Charles’ car yesterday to make his car safe, but I am unable to keep him safe while in that car if he is stopped by the police.

As a civil rights and criminal defense counsel that pains me to say, but it is the truth. Black lives matter. Charles matters. We can no longer be satisfied with a citizenry that is not racist -– we must all become anti-racist.  

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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