If there’s one thing white people seem to love, it’s calling the police on black people who are just going about their daily lives.
On Oct. 8, Corey Lewis was stopped by police in Cobb County, Georgia, as he was babysitting two of his friend’s children after a white woman called 911 accusing him of committing a crime. A few days later, D’Arreon Coles was blocked from entering his St. Louis apartment building by a white resident who demanded to see his identification and key despite having no authority to do so. Although the woman followed Coles to his apartment and watched him open his door with a key, police were still dispatched to the building to question him.
And just last week, Teresa Klein frantically called the police on Jeremiah Harvey, a 9-year-old black boy. Klein told police that Harvey had sexually assaulted her. Video footage later revealed that Harvey’s backpack had lightly grazed Klein, now known on the internet as “Corner Store Caroline,” as he walked by her.
While the media and the public may be fascinated with such stories (and their corresponding hashtags), white people calling the police on black people isn’t a new phenomenon at all. What’s new is the consistent use of cellphone cameras to record and publicly distribute these incidents within their proper context.
White people have the legal right to call the police. But doing so for innocent, victimless actions not only inconveniences black people, but places our very lives on the line.
Ten years ago, there was often no way to know ― other than, of course, the often-dismissed firsthand accounts of black people themselves ― whether white people’s stories of black misconduct were accurate. The technological shift, however, has revealed what black people have known and said for years: that white people often call the police for no good reason at all.
The use of police as a first (and unnecessary) response to conflict is reflective of a larger American trend toward criminalization. In all aspects of social life, the prison and its various apparatuses have become the go-to solution for problems, particularly those related to black, brown, and poor people.
From drug addiction to homelessness to mental illness, we have collectively decided to invest in the criminal justice system as a means to address and hide our social failings. In urban schools, discipline that used to be handled by administrators has been outsourced to law enforcement. As a society, we have decided to arrest our way out of problems. Within this context, it is hardly surprising that people use the police to manage even the most minor of conflicts.
We also cannot reduce these incidents to misunderstandings or even overreactions. Rather, we must acknowledge them for what they are: acts of white supremacist violence.
Through their unnecessary phone calls to police, white people are reinforcing a sense of “heightened citizenship” in relation to black people. Like a modern reenactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, ordinary white citizens often feel empowered to stop and question black people about their whereabouts and determine whether their bodies are appropriately located.
This is why Hilary Brooke Mueller felt empowered to ask D’Arreion Toles what he was doing in her building, even though she was merely a resident just like him. This same sense of authority is what prompted George Zimmerman to ask Trayvon to explain why he was walking through his own neighborhood. Even when they theoretically concede that black people are full citizens, white people’s police calls reveal a sense of civic, moral, and physical authority over black bodies.
Many white people are not calling the police out of fear, but to exert their authority and privilege.
Some people will say that white people call the police on black people out of “legitimate” suspicion and fear. In some cases, it is undoubtedly true that they are afraid. The problem is that the fear itself is often rooted largely in anti-black racism.
There was nothing inherently dangerous about Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson sitting in a Starbucks, Lolade Siyonbola sleeping in a dorm, Trayvon Martin walking in the suburbs, or Renisha McBride standing on a porch. After all, white people somehow manage to perform these activities on a daily basis without being accosted by fellow citizens or engaged by law enforcement. It’s blackness that animates white fear and prompts hasty calls to the police.
If police legitimize this fear by running whenever a white person calls, they further normalize irrational white supremacist anxieties about black bodies.
It is also important to note that many white people are not calling the police out of fear, but to exert their authority and privilege. For example, Alison “Permit Patty” Ettel was not worried about her safety when she called the San Francisco police on an 8-year-old black girl selling water on the street. Jennifer “Barbeque Becky” Schulte did not fear for her life when she contacted Oakland police about a group of black people using charcoal versus gas grills. Teresa “Corner Store Caroline” Klein even acknowledged that she called the police because she was upset at the “aggressive” way that Jeremiah Harvey’s mother spoke to her.
By using the police as a customer service hotline for their encounters with black people, white people are engaging in a vindictive paternalism that they believe gives them the power to punish blacks for “bad” behavior.
By calling the police in non-emergency situations, white people are not merely being petty. They are invoking the presence and threat of the state, whose law enforcement agencies over-arrest, over-charge and over-execute black bodies. Encounters often begin with a black person being stopped by police for a nonviolent or victimless act, like selling CDs (Alton Sterling) or loosie cigarettes (Eric Garner) without a permit. And they often end with the black person killed.
When white people call (or threaten to call) the police on black people, they are flexing the power to possibly determine whether a black person lives or dies.
White people have the legal right to call the police. But in doing so for innocent, victimless, or relatively insignificant actions, they are choosing to flaunt their power and privilege in ways that not only inconvenience black people, but place our very lives on the line. In making that 911 call, they are expressing an indifference to our safety and well being. To ignore this reality is but another act of white supremacy.
Marc Lamont Hill is the Steve Charles Professor of Media, Cities, and Solutions at Temple University, a CNN political commentator and a former host of HuffPost Live.