An angry New Jersey mother fired off a heated speech on racism during a local board meeting last week after she says her Black daughter was racially profiled by a former council member, who freaked out simply because she was killing invasive insects.
Now, the family has demanded the town of Caldwell have a conversation about racial equity to ensure other children of color will feel safe when they step outside their homes.
“I am not here to label anyone, only to share my point of view as a Black woman, a Black mother, and a Black resident in this town,” Monique Joseph said as she stepped up to the dais during the public comments portion of a Caldwell Borough Council meeting on Nov. 1. “To bring awareness on racism and implicit bias that we experienced on the very street that we live on.”
In a story first reported by local outlet The Progress, Joseph described how her neighbor, Gordon Lawshe, called the police on her 9-year-old daughter Bobbi Wilson on Oct. 22 while Bobbi was outside trying to kill spotted lanternflies. The insect is known to be a danger to trees and other plants—so much so that scientists have recommended a myriad of ways for the public to kill them.
Joseph said she received a recording of Lawshe’s 911 call from the Caldwell Police Department.
“‘There’s a little Black woman walking, spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees. I don’t know what the hell she’s doing; it scares me though,’” Lawshe told police, according to Joseph.
“And [he] included that she’s wearing a hoodie,” she told the board meeting. “My 9-year-old daughter Bobbi had a hoodie on her person but did not have this hoodie on her head. … It is sickening and scary to hear my neighbor use triggering words that have resulted in the death of too many Black and brown children and adults at the hands of the police: Black, hoodie, ‘I’m scared.’ Those are triggered words.”
The Daily Beast has reviewed a recording of the phone call, which shows that Lawshe actually used the term “hood” instead of “hoodie” to describe the little girl’s clothing.
“There’s a little Black woman, walking, spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees on Elizabeth and Florence. I don’t know what the hell she’s doing, scares me though,” he tells police, adding that she’s a “real small woman.”
“Real tiny. She’s got a hood on. Uhh…you can’t miss her,” Lawshe adds.
While Joseph called unintentional racism “still racism,” she said Lawshe’s “ability to do something like this was not a mistake. It was intentional, and I’m here to talk about Mr. Lawshe’s intentionality. My neighbor’s words put my daughter in harm’s way. His words and actions were unconscionable, and the impact of the aftermath of this incident will not be kept secret. My 9-year-old daughter was afraid to go outside her front door the next day. She was afraid that her neighbor that she knows has a reason, unknown to her, to call the police on her.”
Lawshe’s attorney, Greg Mascera, confirmed to The Daily Beast on Wednesday that his client made a call to the police, but denied that Lawshe engaged in racial profiling.
“All the cop did was drive by, but the mother’s assertion that [her daughter is now] afraid of cops is absurd,” he said.
He claimed his client “was a good guy” and compared the situation to crying wolf. “It makes real problems not be taken seriously,” he said.
Joseph told the Caldwell Borough Council she was not trying to make a political point by calling out Lawshe, but she said she wanted to ask his party, “Do you condone his behavior? I would like to know your point of view. And I want to close by repeating my opening statement: Racism—intentional or not—is racism. That’s the dialogue I would like to have.”
Joseph, the Caldwell police, and the Caldwell Republican Party did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment Wednesday.
Joseph commended the police’s response to the incident, but didn’t specify what transpired when officers were called.
“I want this to be a teachable moment for our town on racial bias, diversity, equity, and inclusion in how we, together, can ensure that go[ing] forward, little Black and brown children in this town can feel safe in this community,” she said.
Bobbi and her older sister, Hayden Wilson, also stepped up to the dais, with Hayden telling attendees that Bobbi—who “is still under five-foot tall”—researched safe methods to get rid of spotted lanternflies using apple cider vinegar, water, and dish soap after learning about the invasive bugs at school.
In fact, an October issue of The Progress detailed Bobbi’s work attacking lanternflies.
“She was not only doing something amazing for our environment, she was doing something that made her feel like a hero,” Hayden said. “Our neighbor across the street, Mr. Gordon…decided it would be appropriate to call the police on my sister. He also claimed he was scared.”
Hayden explained that her household was the only Black family on the street and Lawshe knew who they were.
“[Bobbi] sees all these other Black children and adults on the news being killed by police officers for doing nothing wrong,” Hayden said. “So, when this car rolled up beside her, she was immediately frightened because she did nothing wrong. No kid should…be scared in their own town on their own street.”
Caldwell Mayor John Kelley apologized to the family and said he was saddened by the ordeal. “I’m glad you shared this with us, with the public,” he said. A Caldwell councilmember also thanked the family for “stepping up” and vowed that they had support from the town’s governing body.
Kelley told The Daily Beast on Thursday that he initially didn’t think racism was an issue in Caldwell.
“But clearly, I was wrong,” he said. “After reflecting on the story and learning more from the police report, it is clear that a line was crossed. My heart goes out to Monique and her two girls.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that, according to a recording of the phone call, Lawshe told police Wilson was wearing a “hood,” not a hoodie.