Recently, several black people whom bystanders have reported to the police for engaging in “suspicious activity” — such as taking a nap, moving into their home, and leaving their Airbnb — made waves when they announced that they were forming a collective. A few days later, they were joined by the mother of two Native American teenagers who were detained by police because someone told 911 it seemed the boys didn’t “belong” on a campus tour.
The growing group is demanding that Congress pass the End Racial Profiling Act and strengthen it to keep private citizens from weaponizing the police. They also want legislators to hold hearings to address the ridiculous 911 calls that people of color endure.
As an ACLU lawyer, I applaud their courage. And as a black man in America, I feel their fury.
To demonstrate the extent of the problem, and make it harder for the public to move on to the next story, the ACLU launched an open call for people of color to share their experiences with being the target of unreasonable 911 calls. When I started my career in Seattle as a public defender, prosecutors and clerks would ask me if I had a lawyer.
When I told them I was a lawyer, rather than a person charged with a crime, they would rarely even be embarrassed. Wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase wasn’t enough to overcome my blackness. At least the cops were not called.
My vulnerability to the whims of white suspicion has led me to start thinking more about self-defense. In my case, that doesn’t mean firearms. I do not own a gun and don’t want to carry one — even with a permit to do so. (Remember, it didn't work out so well for Philando Castile). I do, however, carry a cellphone so I can make a record of what happens if my blackness makes a white person nervous enough to call police.
I am not naïve enough to think any camera will actually keep me safe — cameras did not do much for the gentlemen in Starbucks or for Sterling Brown in Milwaukee. But a camera may prove that I was not behaving outrageously. It could show that I was not the one who started any physical confrontation, or going for something in my pocket, or doing anything to justify my being injured or worse. Sometimes your dignity is the only thing you can maintain.
This is what it feels like to walk around in America today if you are black.
I can’t shake the recent racial profiling story out of Memphis, Tennessee. A white woman called the police on Michael Hayes, a black man she did not want in her neighborhood — even though he showed her paperwork proving he was an investor viewing a house he had under contract.
Hayes immediately turned on his camera. He was nervous while waiting for officers to arrive — not because he was breaking any laws, but because he is black in America and a white person had called the police. Although the arriving officers stood up for Hayes, it speaks volumes that the white woman felt empowered to continue demanding that he “just hurry up and finish” and that she expected the police to be on her side.
If you are white in America please realize that if you call for the police on someone like me, it may end up tragically. I am not asking anyone to ignore criminal or suspicious behaviors, but could you at least ask yourself if your fear would be the same if the person was white? Could officers who get called to a situation that ends up being “suspicious because black” tell the black person stopped that they are sorry for intruding on the person’s day? Could the officer tell the person that called police, in the presence of the black person, that the call was unjustified?
The right answers to these questions could quite frankly save someone’s life.
Jeffery Robinson is the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Trone Center for Justice & Equality.