Picture this: finals are in full swing. You decided to be ambitious this semester and sign up for six classes. What seemed like a smart idea now feels like the stupidest thing you’ve ever done, as you find yourself holed up in the learning commons, surrounded by books and empty coffee cups. The clock on your laptop says 11:46 p.m. In less than nine hours, you’ll have your first exam, but you’ve been at this for what feels like hours. So even though you still don’t know the difference between the hypothalamus and hippocampus, your eyes start to close.
But then you hear it. A man telling you to wake up, demanding to see your ID. Your eyes open, and you wonder if you’re still dreaming. But there stands two campus security officers right before you, their arms crossed.
Your ID? Why? You’ve been here for four years already. And besides, who would sneak into a campus library? And who would call the cops on a sleeping student? All these questions fly through your head as you fumble for proof that you truly do belong.
“But that would never happen,” you might be thinking to yourself. And maybe it wouldn’t happen to you. If you’re thinking that there’s no possible way someone would call the cops on you, out of suspicion that you’re some dangerous outsider, you could be right. Yet, it’s been happening time and time again to some, particularly to black people.
The scenario described at the onset? This actually happened. Back in May of this year, a black graduate student at Yale University named Lolade Siyonbola fell asleep in her dorm’s common room. She awoke to campus police officers demanding she provide identification. Why? Because another student called them on her, thinking that she looked out of place. In response she told them, “I deserve to be here. I pay tuition like everybody else. I’m not going to justify my existence here.”
This happened months ago, but it’s still relevant now. People of color are still having the authorities called on them for seemingly insignificant reasons. Whether it’s for barbecuing, waiting at Starbucks, golfing slowly, or even selling water, 911 is being called. These instances have been recorded on cell phones for the world to see, and then turned into hashtags to share (ex. #BBQBecky and #CouponCarl). But the scary thing is to imagine just how often this must have occurred, before it could be so easily documented.
Sometimes the callers face repercussions. For example, there was a woman dubbed “Apartment Patty” (real name Hilary Mueller) who, on October 13, tried to prevent D’Arreion Toles from entering a St. Louis apartment building where he lives. The video that Toles recorded of the harassment went viral, leading to Mueller being fired from her job. But sometimes, social media notoriety is the only consequence faced by people who deem it fit to frivolously call the cops. And when the reason behind the call is as trivial as being uncomfortable with a person’s skin color, that call can turn deadly.
There’s a clear history of police brutality when it comes to black people. According to Odis Johnson, an associate professor of education and sociology at Washington University, when it comes to encounters with police “the odds of an unarmed fatality for black Americans as a whole was a staggering 6.6-to-1, more than double the odds found in several other national studies completed in recent decades.” And according to the Mapping Police Violence website, even though black people make up just 13 percent of the population here in America, they made up 25 percent of total kills made by police in 2017.
In July of this year, a white woman named Alison Ettel called the cops on an 8-year-old black girl that was selling water in San Francisco. Later the girl’s mother, Erin Austen, remarked, “Calling the police on any person of color these days is an issue. They come, they shoot first, and they ask questions later. Knowing that, and knowing everything that’s going on in the media, why would you call the police on a child of color?”
This isn’t to say that the policy of “see something, say something” goes out the window. If someone sees something that’s genuinely suspicious or dangerous, of course they ought to call the cops. But what if the fear they feel comes from the color of that person’s skin, rather than their actions? Then, it’d be a lot wiser if they’d take the time to examine the real reasons for their “concern.”
One of the more recent incidents of an unnecessary 911 call took place in a Brooklyn neighborhood. “Cornerstore Caroline” (real name Teresa Klein) was shopping in a bodega, when she accused 9-year-old Jeremiah Harvey of groping her. She called the cops on him, but it was later revealed via the store’s surveillance tapes that it was the boy’s backpack that brushed her as he walked by. She apologized to the boy and his family, but people couldn’t help but draw parallels between that and the Emmett Till tragedy that took place in August of 1955, in Money, Mississippi. Till had been just 14-years-old when a white woman named Carolyn Bryant falsely claimed that he’d flirted with her. This led to Till being viciously attacked and killed by Bryant’s husband and her brother-in-law. This lynching garnered national attention, but despite all proof, the two men walked away scot-free.
False accusations and unnecessary calls to the authorities have proven to be fatal. Yet, they continue to occur. As a result, people have begun to push for actual deterrents to such calls. Senator Jesse Hamilton of New York is one of those people. He himself had been on the receiving end of a 911 call back in August, when a woman didn’t like that he was campaigning. This led him to introduce a bill that aims to punish people for making racially motivated police reports. This bill would require that local district attorneys investigate such reports as hate crimes, which could lead to fines or even jail time for the offender. To some, this may seem like a stretch. Why issue a fine or jail time over a simple phone call? But when you remember the tragic endings that could and have arisen from a “simple phone call,” it doesn’t seem like a stretch at all.
Photo courtesy of AP News