When Darren Martin found himself facing a half-dozen armed police officers summoned by a new neighbor who thought he was an armed robber, his dominant emotion was fear — of not being able to explain himself in time, of making the wrong move, of getting shot while doing absolutely nothing wrong.
Trying to turn their bad moments into a national call for action, Martin and several other black people who’ve had police sicced on them while they’ve been doing innocuous things — a meme-able phenomenon hashtagged #LivingWhileBlack — are asking for a congressional hearing on the issue.
On Monday, they sent a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, asking for a hearing on racial profiling before the August recess.
“These egregious affronts on human rights, eerily reminiscent of some of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history, are the sad reality for Black people in America,” the letter says. “We would request that this new hearing widen the focus from just the police, as in previous hearings, to addressing prejudice and profiling from public companies to private citizens, as well.”
The signers shared the letter with The Washington Post before sending it to Congress.
The other unexpectedly viral stars who’ve signed the letter have their own horror stories: Lolade Siyonbola, the Yale graduate student who was #NappingWhileBlack when a fellow student dialed 911, and Donisha Pendergast, the Bob Marley granddaughter of #AirBnBingWhileBlack fame.
The request for a congressional hearing is an attempt to use their sudden celebrity to combat a culture they say too often looks at the actions of black people with criminal-tinted glasses.
Martin said the notion of a congressional hearing was obvious, given his political background. Then he reached out to Siyonbola, Pendergast and others, hoping their collective voices would spur legislative action.
Policymakers in the past have held hearings to address racial profiling by police, but Martin said legislators should do something to combat unnecessary and outrageous calls by the people who summon officers in the first place.
Martin said he’s not promoting a specific policy position or piece of legislation, but rather would like to hear what a collection of experts, victims and legislators has to say about potential solutions to the issue.
“If it’s a conversation about an American problem, we want to have solutions for that,” he told The Washington Post. “Why don’t we formalize that?
“This is something that [black people have] talked about in our community for a long time. It’s finally getting out to other people. Everyday racism is sort of getting out there. It’s like ‘now y’all have seen something, let’s do something about it.’ ”
The “do something,” of course, is the hard part. Calling the police on people who are doing nothing except being black is an affront to an innocent person’s dignity and, Martin argued, a possible threat to their safety. But should it also be a crime?
“I think it’s an important question. I don’t think there’s an easy answer,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity, a nonprofit that promotes police transparency and accountability. “If you fine people for things like that, you’re creating a huge moral hazard where people who are most likely to need to call law enforcement are hesitant to do so.”
“But if you fail to regulate [the calls], you’re doing nothing to punish the racist decisions of the citizens who weaponize law enforcement.”
In the letter, Martin says the issue of the assumed criminality of black people is something that has haunted black people in America since black people have been in America.
Still, he told The Post that he realizes that his moment of fame is as fleeting as the #LivingWhileBlack hashtag, and he wants to seize the moment.
When he hit record on his phone that Friday night in Manhattan, “I did it for my safety first. I didn’t know when I shared it that it would go viral. … Now it’s a real opportunity for us to have a real conversation.”