It’s not a one-time thing, like the sit-down talk that some parents have with their kids about the birds and the bees.

“The conversation” that most African-American parents have with their children about interacting with the police is more of an ongoing dialogue. It’s threaded with recent and past experiences, both personal and rooted in the black community as a whole, and born from a complex mixture of common courtesy, practicality and fear.

Be polite. Don’t antagonize. And, always, make sure they can see your hands.

The conversation is a near fundamental part of raising children if you happen to be black in America, even in predominantly white, low-crime Maine.

Marion Sloan has recently found herself having discussions with her sons David Quashie, left, and Dhyomie Quashie about how to act around police officers. "I told them, 'They're not all bad. You just need to make sure your behavior is correct,' " Sloan said.

Marion Sloan has recently found herself having discussions with her sons David Quashie, left, and Dhyomie Quashie about how to act around police officers. “I told them, ‘They’re not all bad. You just need to make sure your behavior is correct,’ ” Sloan said. Photos by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Marion Sloan found herself having the conversation in recent days with her two sons, 10-year-old Dhyomie and 9-year-old David, after they saw TV news reports about the police-involved, racially charged shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas.

A 34-year-old single mom who lives in South Portland, Sloan has had mixed experiences with law enforcement and wants to make sure her boys are safe whenever they encounter police officers.

“I told them, ‘They’re not all bad. You just need to make sure your behavior is correct,’ ” Sloan said. “I do fear for my boys. They will grow up to face a certain amount of harassment. I want them to stand up for themselves, to know that you don’t have to hand over every piece of information for no reason. But they also know that we have to use our manners and don’t be rude because that’s when trouble starts.”

Unfortunately, Sloan and other African-American Mainers said, reasons to have the conversation keep happening and keep raising the fear that their children’s futures – possibly their very lives – are at stake.

“I just want my boys to behave well and hopefully they’ll be OK,” Sloan said.

THE TRUST GAP

National furor over police aggression toward black people was reignited this month following the fatal shootings by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Tensions were further inflamed when Micah Johnson, a black man who said he was seeking revenge for those shootings, gunned down 12 officers who were protecting protesters at a subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstration in Dallas. Five of them died.

While the turmoil and tragedy shocked and saddened many Mainers who witnessed from a distance, the experience for black families here was more familiar and palpable. Constant and escalating news reports over several days churned up the collective experience of African-Americans who have dealt with institutional oppression, prejudice and abuse for centuries, from the days of slavery, through the civil rights movement to the present.

Smartphones and social media have intensified that shared experience in recent years, giving people ready tools to record police encounters and give evidence to the wider public that race-related harassment and abuse continue to happen.

“In years gone by, it would have been the word of one who is in a position of authority against one who is not,” said the Rev. Kenneth Lewis, pastor of Green Memorial AME Zion Church in Portland.

Today, viral video clips have encouraged others to step forward with their own stories of negative police encounters and further validated the need for many black parents to have “the conversation.”

The latest shootings prompted South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican senator, to speak publicly last week about his experiences with what he called the “deep divide” or “trust gap” between the black community and law enforcement.

Scott said he was pulled over seven times in one year, including once when a police cruiser followed him through four left turns before the flashing lights finally came on. The officer told Scott that he had failed to use his directional lights on the fourth turn, a claim the senator disputed. “So while I thank God I have not endured bodily harm, I have, however, felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted,” Scott said Wednesday. “There’s absolutely nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul, than when you know you’re following the rules and being treated like you are not.”

White political leaders have begun to acknowledge the gap as well. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican political consultant, said after the recent shootings that white Americans don’t understand it’s “more dangerous to be black in America.”

“It took me a long time and a number of people talking to me over the years to begin to get a sense of this,” Gingrich told CNN political commentator Van Jones. “If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”

‘KEEP YOUR HANDS VISIBLE’

For many black families, staving off the potential threat of police confrontation means sharing a litany of skills and behaviors that have been tested by experience, the Rev. Lewis said.

“We were taught to respect police officers, but also not to be disrespected,” Lewis said. “It happens when you’re about 12 or 13. You’re told to be polite and keep your hands visible. Even if you’re being disrespected or offended, don’t respond. Keep calm and just say, ‘Yes, sir, No, sir.’ ”

Some families have been having the conversation for decades. For many parents, it’s based on personal experiences with police authority. Often fathers or other male elders share the information with sons, in part because black men are more often perceived as threatening and targeted as a result, Lewis said.

However, mothers and daughters are increasingly included in the process as the makeup of families evolves and young women encounter police on their own or with male friends or partners, sometimes far beyond Maine’s borders. Lewis and his wife, Ethel, both in their 50s, have had the conversation with their daughters Alyssa, 26, and Chanel, 25, for that very reason.

Lewis learned the value of having the conversation while growing up in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, where his father was an apartment building superintendent and where he first experienced aggressive police behavior at age 14. He and a buddy had been Christmas shopping at the former Filene’s and Jordan Marsh department stores when they stopped at the Tiki Inn for some takeout Chinese food.

While they were ordering, two police officers came into the restaurant and said they were looking for a suspect in a robbery, Lewis said. They rifled through Lewis’ gift-filled bags until they found the receipts. They left the gifts strewn at his feet and walked out, but not before one of the officers poked Lewis in the chest and looked him straight in the eyes. Lewis asked the restaurant owner to call a cab because he was afraid to walk home.

“I was terrified,” Lewis recalled. “I remember having to catch myself because I immediately thought, ‘What does this have to do with me?’ But I could not afford to feel indignant. I just had to relax and let them look through my bags. I felt violated, accosted, accused.”

THE RULE OF LAW

The conversation between Dennis Ross and his son, Dennis Jr., has been a running dialogue on how to succeed in life overall, not just in police encounters.

The conversation between Dennis Ross and his college-age son, Dennis Jr., has been a running dialogue on how to succeed in life, not just safety in police encounters.

The conversation between Dennis Ross and his college-age son, Dennis Jr., has been a running dialogue on how to succeed in life, not just safety in police encounters. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“It’s what works for me. I avoid controversy and try to defuse conflict when it comes up,” said the elder Ross, 52, who owns WJZP-107.9FM, Portland’s jazz, blues and soul radio station. His son, 22, is studying business at Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts.

“I tell (my son), ‘You’re in control of your own emotions. Don’t let others control how you act, because as soon as you get upset, you’ve lost.’ Never let them see you sweat, I say, because in my mind, I haven’t done anything wrong, so I have nothing to be upset about.”

A native of San Diego, Ross moved to Maine 20 years ago in part to ensure a better quality of life for his son.

“The conversation about police was a little less frequent here than it would have been in San Diego,” Ross said. “My first response when I get pulled over is to let them see my hands. It’s a natural response for me and I shared that with my son to do the same.”

Ross said he had his first negative encounter with police when he was about 13 years old. He was stopped, put in the back seat of a cruiser and taken for a ride.

“They drove around for a while and questioned me,” Ross recalled. “They said I fit the description of someone they were looking for.”

Ross kept quiet and eventually the police just let him go. It was an upsetting experience, but he took a lesson from it: “You mind your business. You don’t hang out with the wrong people. You don’t give them a reason to stop you. You make sure all your (car) lights are working all the time.”

Ross said his encounters with Portland police have been nothing but professional, but there have been times when he felt that he was stopped for minor offenses because he was “driving while black.” Ross said he believes most police officers are good.

“I realize they’re people with a lot of authority and discretionary power, so my thought process is to not aggravate things,” Ross said. “They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. Attitude is everything in those situations, whether you’re black or white. I’m not looking to rewrite history in that moment. I’m not trying to sway the officer’s way of thinking. I don’t know what kind of day he’s had.”

Dennis Ross Jr. said his father’s advice has helped him stay out of trouble with Portland police, though he believes he has been pulled over more often than his white friends and has been treated differently when stopped.

“If I get pulled over, they usually search the car, have me sit on the curb and search the grass like they’re looking for something I threw out the window,” Ross said. But like his father, he said, he stays calm and respectful because he knows he’s done nothing wrong.

“I’m a yes-sir, no-sir type of person when I get pulled over,” the younger Ross said. “I just let them do what they’re gonna do. They’re the ones with the guns and the authority and the discretion to use probable cause.”

BLUE LIVES MATTER, TOO

Richard Tarrence, 70, had the conversation many times when his children were growing up in Portland years ago, and he still has reason to on occasion. His son Richard, 40, recently retired from the Air Force and lives in Germany. His daughter Lafeesa, 30, is a social worker who lives in Lewiston.

Tarrence said he also makes a habit of keeping his hands visible when he’s pulled over.

Richard Tarrence tells his children Richard W. Tarrence and Lafeesa Tarrence to leave their identification and information out when they are driving, so they don’t have to reach for anything if a police officer pulls them over. Photo courtesy of Richard Tarrence

Richard Tarrence tells his children Richard W. Tarrence and Lafeesa Tarrence to leave their identification and information out when they are driving, so they don’t have to reach for anything if a police officer pulls them over. Photo courtesy of Richard Tarrence Photo courtesy of Richard Tarrence

“I always do that, and I tell my children to do the same,” Tarrence said. “I also tell them to have their information out, their identification and (vehicle registration), and put it on the dashboard, so you’re not reaching for anything when the police officer approaches your car. Don’t give them any reason to have an issue with you.”

Tarrence also believes that he has been stopped for “driving while black,” as recently as a few years ago near his home in Gorham. The officer said he was speeding, but Tarrence said he knows better than to drive faster than 25 mph in his town.

“I was driving through Gorham in a Lexus and I was a black man,” said Tarrence, a retired insurance claims manager. “He gave me a ticket. I didn’t challenge it. I probably should have, but I was shocked.”

A more disturbing incident happened when Tarrence was about 40, while driving on Spring Street in Portland, past what was then the Cumberland County Civic Center. An event had just let out and people were streaming into the street. He almost hit someone. A cruiser pulled him over. One of the two officers told him to get out of the car and started questioning him. He hadn’t been drinking.

“I was smoking a cigarette and he knocked it out of my mouth and he knocked the cap off my head,” Tarrence said. “He tried to provoke me, but I didn’t react. People outside the civic center noticed and spoke up for me. I had a female friend in the car who was white and she was scared to death.”

The officers eventually let Tarrence go on his way. Friends encouraged him to file a complaint, he said, but he had just started a new job and didn’t want the negative publicity.

Despite his experiences, Tarrence said he believes that blue lives matter as much as black lives. He grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a postal mechanic and a homemaker who raised him to respect police officers.

“But I also understand that the situation is much different between a black man in the inner city and a black man here,” Tarrence said. “When I would visit my brothers and sisters in Cleveland, they would remind me to watch myself, be careful, don’t create any suspicion because the police could be ‘gun happy’ there.”