When white callers dial 911 and report that black people are engaged in what they report as untoward behavior, the worst-case scenario is that the police will show up with guns blazing. Even in the best-case scenario, black folks will probably have to deal with the trauma of having been placed in mortal fear.
But most of the time, there is no consequence for the people who weaponize their fear and use the police as an extension of their whiteness. There should be. If it wasn’t so easy to blithely call the authorities and report the mere presence of a black person, there would be fewer incidents of dangerous police overreaction — and black people wouldn’t have to bear quite so much of the burden of American racism on their own.
Over the past few years, the country has started to realize how police too often respond to black people who haven’t committed a crime: as if they were a deadly threat. But focusing only on police conduct lets everyone else involved in these incidents off the hook.
As the political commentator Jason Johnson noted recently, “calling the police is the epitome of escalation, and calling the police on black people for non-crimes is a step away from asking for a tax-funded beatdown, if not an execution.” Johnson argues that these callers aren’t expecting cops to treat black folks politely, but instead to remind them that the consequences for making white people angry or uncomfortable could be harassment, unfair prosecution or death.
These incidents are not new. Blackness was a crime, a conviction and a life sentence for most of our history. From 1619 to the late 1960s, blackness was as much an endless subjection to humiliating and impoverishing legal controls as it was a color. What we’re witnessing today is the continuation of a racist American tradition with deep historical roots: Private citizens and police using feckless interpretations of the law to convert blackness into criminal trespass. This is about repression, projection, the sublime pleasure of anti-black racism, and the result, too often, looks like a return to the Jim Crow era. For these callers, as for many white people during segregation, racism is a great source of enjoyment, from voter suppression to mass lynchings. These callers are absolutely not afraid and they are not making a mistake. They are amused. They knowingly enjoy tormenting black people under the guise of their own trumped-up fear.
Before the civil rights movement, of course, there were laws allowing or mandating racial segregation in places of public accommodation. A store or restaurant owner could call the police to have black people removed. In fact, when segregation was mandated, those owners were obligated to call the police to remove black would-be customers or face possible criminal charges themselves. That’s not the law anymore. But retail establishments may, of course, call the police to remove unruly or disorderly customers.
Calling the police to remove people from where they are, in other words, was and remains legal. What’s changed is that simply being black is no longer a legally sufficient reason for removal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, upheld by the Supreme Court in the Heart of Atlanta Motel Inc. v. U.S. decision of the same year, forbids racial discrimination in places of public accommodation. If a business invites the public in, then it is legally obligated to follow the rules regarding places of public accommodation and welcome all races as invitees.
If overt legal segregation ended with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, it began again that same year, this time calling itself “law and order” and crushing all protests to the contrary. Our prisons have geometrically increased their hold on black bodies since the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King. This is not simply a matter of totalitarian control from above. It is a matter of fear and desire, a white racist 911 confederacy looking to restore the past as a way of avoiding their own issues, again.
But places of public accommodation — whether it’s a Philadelphia Starbucks or a Yale dorm — may neither bar nor eject people based on race. It is absolutely not trespass to stand one’s ground against a race-based ejection from a place of public accommodation. It is, by definition, false arrest to remove or detain a non-trespasser for the crime of trespass. This extends to colleges, Airbnbs, golf courses, apartment complexes and most of the other spaces that have been in the news lately. If a person has a right to be in these places, that right cannot be withdrawn by owners, property managers, neighbors or anyone else because of race.
And in fact, existing laws could be used to prevent people from making these kinds of calls.
It is a crime to file a false police report. When places of public accommodation enlist the police to remove people based on race, the owners and managers should be investigated and prosecuted for filing false police reports. At the Philly Starbucks, the Yale dorm, the golf course or the Oakland park, the police investigation should have focused on the frivolous and possibly criminal abuses of the 911 emergency system rather than on the people who were doing nothing wrong when someone called about them.
Civil law also provides ways to strike back at those who make 911 calls just to report the presence of a black person. Black people could sue callers for defamation or malicious prosecution — for reporting to the authorities that they’re “threatening” or somehow don’t belong in a space they have a right to be in.
In some cases, lawsuits could be filed for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Many state and municipal laws protect civil rights better than their federal equivalents; suits could be brought under these laws in some cases, too.
Right now, calling 911 on innocent black people is a costless form of indulgence in racialized fear — or worse, racist amusement. But lawsuits and publicity might make callers think twice and decrease the danger of false arrest and death.
Of course, people who observe true emergencies — cases where someone’s life is in danger — should still call 911. But often, there’s nothing even approaching a real crisis in these situations. Blackness should not be treated as a synonym for danger.
In late April, five white men approached a group of black women golfers and told them to remove themselves from “our” premises before finally calling the cops to complain that the women were “golfing too slow.”
Protecting “our” space is often the point of these calls. “You’re making me uncomfortable. I don’t feel safe around you. You’re an intruder. You need to leave, you need to get out,” a white Yale University student reportedly said to Lolade Siyonbola, a black African-studies graduate student who fell asleep in the common area of their dorm last week.
It is naive to believe that white callers are not aware of their race privileges when they call the cops on “suspicious” black people. They are weaponizing their fears in a form of violence that buttresses a white-supremacist system. When white people see black people doing exactly the same sort of daily activities that they are doing, especially in spaces that they deem to be theirs, it frightens them so badly that they call 911.
But what’s really happening is that these trembling callers are looking into a mirror and seeing a ghost.
That ghost is our terrible history of slavery and segregation. It tells them that something is not right. At the deepest level, the callers and their enablers seem to feel black people do not belong, that we should not be allowed to be as free as whites.
This is their vision of America: calling 911, again and again and again, perpetually policing and controlling black bodies, forever haunted by a horrific black presence that is in fact nothing more than their own history, their own horror and their own desire, projected onto black lives.