Shaming white people might stop some of them from calling 911 on us
Revealing their names in the media might make them think twice
In the adjoining apartment, I could hear him beating her through the thin walls in the triplex apartment building I lived in a few years ago. I then dialed 911 for the first and only time in my life. The decision was easy; a real emergency transpired. That’s the threshold for when one should call the cops — an emergency.
But last month, a white woman called the cops on black people for barbecuing with a charcoal grill in Lake Merritt Park in Oakland, California. Although this happened in April, the ordeal went viral within the past week, another event in a distressing string of frivolous calls to the police that garnered national attention.
That incident, like the others, reveals how some white folk imagine the police as their protectors from the unwanted presence of black people, that the cops partially serve as guardians of their right to their white enclave. In that vein, the white woman from Oakland told her black victims that “she knows her rights, that the rights state if she tells the police if she has a problem with us, then we are going to go to jail.” This statement provides a window into the soul of many white folk, exposing a disturbing image that lays bare the idea that police should detain any black person whose mere existence causes them discomfort.
Cat Brooks, an Oakland mayoral candidate, spoke truth in saying, “When you engage law enforcement in these kinds of things, you are opening the door for things to go very wrong, the potential for arrests like in Philadelphia with those two black men or worse physical assault or death, and I don’t believe in this day and age that white folks don’t know that.” They do indeed know, and inviting the opportunity for a deadly encounter through the anonymity of a phone call harks back to the days of the white hoods, days uncomfortably recent, as Spike Lee’s upcoming film BlacKkKlansman recounts.
I’ve been reflecting on how society should respond to prevent these events from recurring, and I keep returning to the same word: shame.
White folk must fear that calling the police frivolously will result in their name being printed in the media and forever associated with the social stigma of calling the cops to harass black people.
I think this, using social stigma to stamp out unwanted behavior, affords us the best way to address their behavior. People will fret at the prospects of their names being connected with these tales.
For this reason, I believe the name of the Oakland white woman remains unknown even though she has had every opportunity to identify herself. She will never come forward and release her name because she understands she would be forced to shoulder unbearable social stigma. In a world where unlimited information sits one internet search away, people don’t want to be known as the bigot who called the cops on black people for having the nerve to barbecue in a public park.
At Yale, a white woman called the cops on a black classmate, Lolade Siyonbola, for sleeping in the common room of a graduate student dorm. Soon thereafter, the name of the white woman, Sarah Braasch, appeared in the student newspaper. National journalists then uncovered problematic writings of hers where she remarked that “I love hate speech” and that some “slaves didn’t want to stop being slaves.” Braasch, who is pursuing a doctorate in philosophy, will one day seek employment. This will follow her wherever she goes. I find this fitting, a punishment well-deserved.
Society can counteract this dilemma by strategically wielding social stigma as a weapon. I think one of the reasons white people call the police in these circumstances is that employing the police to harass black folk gives them some sense of pleasure. The white woman from Oakland called the police and proceeded to wait two hours until they showed up. One does not willingly wait for two hours without deriving some sort of emotional satisfaction. If that’s true, we need a counterbalance, something to offset that feeling of joy.
The social stigma of being deemed a bigot will be hefty enough to dissuade some from using the cops as agents of harassment.
Others might believe that “police callers” in these situations should face legal sanction. I’m wary of this idea. For one, I seriously doubt the law would be changed to punish white people for this iteration of racial abuse. In the unlikely event that some jurisdictions might prosecute these matters under existing law, wrongdoers would likely never face consequences. America can’t punish police officers for killing unarmed black people on camera. The idea that a white woman claiming to have been frightened by the presence of black people will suffer punishment for calling the cops seems laughable.
This situation, rather, calls for average Americans, especially white Americans, to heap scorn on transgressors with the message that this behavior is to never be repeated. We should want to empower our fellow Americans to address this problem through the communal tools of shame and stigma. I don’t think we can stop this from ever happening. But before people dial 911, if they worry that they might be the ones who suffer in the end, some will just hang up instead.