BLACK IN AMERICA
When Calling 911 Makes the Emergency
The ability to call in armed guards in an attempt to police black behavior is a form and direct expression of white power and privilege in America.
Dear White People,
I’m scared of you.
Almost all of you have a superpower that I’m in fear of. You have the power to call the police and be automatically believed. Even if I’m in a suit, whiteness gets the benefit of the doubt. And you have this power available to you all the time, regardless of what I’m doing. Even if I’m not committing a crime you can call the police and be believed and put my life in danger.
I could be calmly sitting in a Starbucks, or quietly sleeping in a common area at Yale, or having a barbecue in a public park. Yet, no matter where I am and how many laws I’m not breaking, you could call the police. A whiff of your white fear will ignite them to action, leaving me to defend myself even if no crime was witnessed.
I obviously respect every citizen’s right—slash duty—to engage the police when there’s actual danger or when there’s a real crime taking place. But some white people are wearing crime glasses that make normal actions by black people like walking, sitting, or sleeping appear criminal. Before calling the police ask yourself, “If the people involved were white would I call the police?” as my friend Rinku Sen does in her amazing piece. If you think someone being black somehow justifies expecting criminality from them then you are a part of the problem. Keep this in mind: The overwhelming majority of black people have never and will never commit a crime. It’s crazy that I have to say that, but I do.
But white fear is only part of the story. I think sometimes there’s something more pernicious at play. I think sometimes some white people call the police when they know that there isn’t a clear and present danger. I think in some cases people leap to call the police as an expression of dominance.
At Yale last week, a white graduate student called campus police to report a black person sleeping in a common area. That black person was an undergraduate student. After calling police, the white student was unrepentant—“I have every right to call the police,” she said. “You cannot sleep in that room.” She was wrong, and this seems like an Onion headline—“White Woman Calls Police On Black Student Who Was Sleeping, Says ‘I Thought They Were Supposed To Stay Woke’”—but it’s real. And the black student had to live through a traumatic interaction with police. In Oakland recently a white woman called the police to report a black family barbecuing in a public park in an area where it is allowed. I’m not even sure what she said to the dispatcher because she never even saw a crime.
Allow me to reclaim the term white power—I don’t mean it in any Klanish sort of way but in this sense: to use law enforcement in this way in an attempt to police black behavior is a form and direct expression of white power and privilege in America. The ability to call in armed guards to remind someone that white privilege means being able to call the cops and be automatically believed and even lie and get away with it is an exercise in that power.
In 2014 in an Ohio Walmart, a white patron named Ronald Ritchie called 911 and lied, claiming a black man was pointing a gun at people and at children walking by. He has since admitted that, “At no point did he shoulder the rifle and point it at somebody” as proven by the store’s surveillance cameras. John Crawford, a 22-year-old who was holding a BB gun that he’d picked up in the same store and was planning to buy, ended up as a casualty of Ritchie’s lie. When police rushed in, they shot and killed Crawford within seconds. A special prosecutor decided not to charge Ritchie with providing false information to police.
These sorts of overzealous 911 calls are far too common. I have witnessed a white person in my neighborhood call the police on a black person over a slight disagreement where there was no threat involved. It was more of a desire to pull rank. In a piece by professor Jason Johnson he notes several times when he’s had police called on him when it was totally unwarranted. He says a white woman at a Red Roof Inn outside of Pittsburgh called authorities because he asked to speak to a manager in the midst of a polite dispute about a charge on his bill. I guess she decided to show him who the real manager is. You can see why I’m afraid.
In spite of the occasional pernicious streak, I think sometimes the issue is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the police function. Most white people’s experience of policing is entirely different from most black people’s. Cops have repeatedly told me that policing in white areas is far different from policing in black ones. If you think the police tend to show up and calmly assess the situation and foment peace and smile and leave, well, you may need to remember that’s not usually the black experience. All too common is for police interactions to go haywire like this infamous 2015 pool party incident or this incident where a police officer slammed a high school student in her classroom to the ground or this horrific recent Waffle House choking.
Black interactions with police can too easily lead to trauma or death. In many situations, calling the police on a black person can be like tossing a grenade at them.
If at any point you’re thinking, well if black people were just cool to the police then there’d be no problems then you are also part of the problem and mistaken. In many cases people stay calm and get shot—I think of Philando Castile in his car beside his wife and baby, politely and thoughtfully informing the officer that he was a licensed gun owner. Seconds later he was dead.
That said, if a black person is not committing a crime and they have to stop and explain to a police officer who they are and why they’re there, I can understand why they might lose their cool. It’s frightening to have the police question you, even if you’ve done nothing wrong, especially when you’re black and you know doing nothing wrong isn’t necessarily the end of the story. Not only is it frightening, but it’s frustrating, enraging, insulting, and triggering—I can understand why someone would be indignant about having to prove their innocence or their right to be there. It’s enraging to have a law-abiding existence interrupted by police officers who are demanding that you defend your right to be in that space while performing a basic, legal human activity. And sometimes you just don’t have the energy to kowtow, even for the police. And black indignance is read by some officers as disrespect. And that can lead to an horrific scene.
The police are not a precise, surgical tool that can be trusted to ignore bias and always make the right decision. When black people are involved the police are an unpredictable, chaotic weapon that could end a life, like Eric Garner’s or Tamir Rice’s or Sean Bell’s. I could go on.
I live in Brooklyn. I don’t fear the Klan. I don’t worry about no Proud Boys. I fear the random white person who calls the police when I’m doing nothing. I also fear the police. I also fear someone will call the police because they’re offended about me writing this. I shouldn’t have to be afraid but I am.