MEMPHIS — Sitting in his car outside a boarded-up house on a recent Saturday morning, Michael Hayes went through the mental checklist of things he does to make sure suspicious people know he is an enterprising young real estate investor, not a burglar or a drug addict.
None of it was enough.
Before that afternoon was over, Hayes — a 31-year-old father, former teacher and an entrepreneur with a growing portfolio of rehabbed homes for sale — would have to justify his presence to a screaming neighbor and the police officers summoned to the scene.
He had committed no crime, and the police did not arrest him. But many of the millions of people who saw the video he recorded of the conflict say his transgression wasn’t what he did, but who he is: He was real estate investing while black.
“You know why the lady called the police on me,” he said, looking directly into the camera. “I don’t look threatening.”
In recent weeks, a host of viral videos have shown black Americans engaged in innocuous activities that led to 911 calls. On May 12, members of a black sorority were questioned by a state trooper while picking up litter on a Pennsylvania highway. Four days earlier, a Yale University student was interrogated by police after her dorm neighbor called the police because she was napping in a common area. And a week before that, a neighbor reported a burglary in progress as a group of black women left their Airbnb in Rialto, Calif.
The incidents have given rise to the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack and often end with a black person being interrogated by police or being carted off in handcuffs. In the worst cases, the incidents have escalated to body slams or even gunshots.
Starbucks shut down 8,000 U.S. stores on Tuesday afternoon to engage employees in discussions about racial bias after a manager at a Philadelphia Starbucks last month called police on two black men who were waiting for a friend before ordering. A viral video shot by another customer showed police removing the men in handcuffs.
While cellphone videos have raised the profile of such incidents, they’re not a new phenomenon: In 2009, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested after a neighbor saw him attempting to enter his own home when he was locked out. President Barack Obama, who would later hold what some called “a beer summit” with Gates and the arresting officer, said he didn’t know whether race played a role in the incident. But, he added, “There’s a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”
When they have spoken publicly, the 911 callers and responding police departments typically have denied that their suspicion was racially motivated.
Tiffiany Albert said race played no role in her decision to confront Hayes, the black real estate investor. Albert, who identifies as Spanish and has a black boyfriend, said her reaction was reasonable, given crime in the neighborhood.
Phillip Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity, a nonprofit that promotes police transparency and accountability, said that many people see the police as more than just instruments for enforcing the law. They use them as enforcers of unwritten social rules, which can be steeped in discriminatory thinking.
“The issue is that, for many folks, law enforcement has been seen as their own racism valet,” Goff said.
“We talk about not just crime, we talk about disorder — anything that makes folks feel uncomfortable or says that the social norms that we’ve all agreed to are being violated,” he said. “And the problem is that black skin frequently violates the social order.”
'You're going to jail'
Hayes does not consider himself particularly intimidating. He’s a 5-foot-9 Memphis native with a master’s degree who taught English-as-a-second-language classes. Soft-spoken and introverted, he seasons his sentences with “yes, ma’am” and “I appreciate it.”
He started investing in real estate three years ago as a means of “keeping my family from punching a 9-to-5 clock.” He finds cheap houses whose owners have an incentive to sell — recently inherited properties or homes nearing foreclosure — fixes them up and offers them to investors.
On May 5, he was prying the boards off an abandoned home when he came across Albert, 49. Albert, who had watched the house become a hub for prostitution, drug dealing and other crimes, demanded that Hayes leave and threatened to call the police. Another neighbor who saw their squabble did it for her.
Hayes pondered leaving. But he had a legal reason for being there, and he thought turning tail would have validated Albert’s groundless suspicions. So he took out his cellphone and began recording.
“For one, I need this on record, just in case anything happens,” he reasoned. “Two, this footage needs to be seen.”
He stared into the camera and spoke to what would ultimately balloon to more than 3.4 million viewers: “A young black man out here trying to do what’s right, and we get the police called on us,” he said. “This hasn’t been the first time I done seen this.”
Recalling the incident later, Albert defended her behavior. She and her neighbors had lobbied the city for two years to board up the abandoned house and eventually did it themselves. Still, someone broke her back windows and twice broke into her shed, she said, “stealing all the tools and even the gas can.”
So when she heard the boards being pried off that day, she ran outside to confront Hayes.
She asked him for paperwork; he pointed to his sign in the front yard and mentioned paperwork on his phone. Albert was not convinced.
“I said, ‘You’re going to be trespassing,’ ” she told The Washington Post. “I told him I was going to call the police.”
Hayes knew he had done nothing wrong — a conviction that was confirmed when two officers arrived, one white and one black. They checked his paperwork and found that he had a legal right to be there.
That didn’t sit well with Albert. In the video, she glowers from the porch, then yells that she is a friend of the sheriff.
“I don’t care if you’re friends with the president,” the white officer says. “If you try to do anything to stop him, you’re going to jail.”
Albert then turned her attention to Hayes: “Hurry up and do it and get out!”
“No. No. He can take all day,” the officer responded. “He’s in control. He’s got a contract.”
The officers then waited outside the abandoned house while Hayes took pictures.
“I feel like I got two of the best police officers in all of Memphis,” Hayes said later.
Police and implicit bias
Memphis Police declined to make the officers involved in the call available for an interview. In a statement, the department said: “The Memphis police officers who were captured on video while on the scene of a complaint call that has now gone viral are examples of the vast majority of all MPD officers. Our officers . . . are trained and expected to respond in a professional manner.”
The statement thanked Hayes for recording and sharing the interaction.
But Memphis police have not always come off so well in interactions with black residents. In April, Hayes had an unsettling encounter with an officer who berated him aggressively after accusing him of running a stop sign. The officer did not give him a ticket, but Hayes drove away shaken.
Over the years, the department has been accused of brutality in several high-profile cases, charges that rarely result in punishment. Between 2011 and 2017, police officials determined that evidence supported only 33 of the 359 allegations of brutality, according to Memphis NBC-affiliate WMCA.
“Here, police can do what they want. You can file a complaint, but nothing is going to happen, because you’re black,” said Brad Watkins, executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, a grass-roots social justice organization.
Goff, the researcher, said he was struck by an exchange near the end of Hayes’s video, when Hayes tells the officers he believes the call was racially motivated.
The white officer concurs.
“The white officer knows that this is racial,” Goff said. “He’s got a sense of how racism functions in Memphis.”
While training would help, Goff said, “there’s no chief that’s going to last very long that trains officers to respond to complaints by saying: ‘Mrs. Smith, you’re probably just racist.’ ”
Hayes himself hesitates to use the word when recounting the incident, in part because he doesn’t want to impugn his city. Memphis is his home. It’s where he’s building a business he hopes will serve people of all races and backgrounds. It’s where he’s raising a 10-month-old son who took his first steps this month.
“I don’t understand that mind-set, where you want to play with someone’s life like that,” he said of Albert’s decision to call police.
Still, he said, “at no point was I a danger to that lady.”