Black Twitter recently (and hilariously) highlighted a frequent source of 911 calls: annoyed white people. Concerned neighbors called police on a Black woman checking into her Airbnb because she did not smile or wave at them. A Starbucks manager called police on two Black men waiting for a colleague (who were then arrested and jailed). An environmental scientist called police on Black people for barbecuing in a park (and “BBQ Becky” monitored the pair for two hours until the police showed).
These calls resonate for two reasons: First, since the 1400s, white people have legally and socially restricted the movement of Blacks, Native people and poorer whites. Slavers loathed runaways and feared uprisings. States passed laws requiring white people to monitor, track, capture and beat people who escaped their captors. As free and enslaved Black populations increased, states and cities developed police departments to patrol and punish them, with the help of white civilians. White people reported or detained Black people for vagrancy, minor permit issues or neglecting racial etiquette (like stepping off of a sidewalk when passing whites). Police then essentially leased Black detainees back to whites for slave labor.
Second, law enforcement and white civilians still share legal and social power to control and kill Black people. In 2013, a jury acquitted George Zimmerman under Florida law after he stalked and killed Trayvon Martin. “These assholes … always get away,” Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher. In states where the law requires someone to flee a potentially violent encounter rather than “stand your ground,” white people are 250 percent more likely to be deemed justified in the “self-defense” killing of a Black person than a white person. In “stand your ground” states, that number jumps to 354 percent. Black people are almost never found legally justified in the self-defense killing of a white person. If Martin, rather than Zimmerman, had survived, he would likely be in prison.
Black people rightly fear dual policing by civilians and cops. On June 23, “Permit Patty” hotlined 8-year-old Jordan Rodgers for selling water without a permit. To quote Rodgers’ mother: “To call [the police] on a child of color, knowing that people have been killing black kids? That says, to me, you don’t care about my child’s life.” Consequently, these incidents have gone viral to try to shame the callers. The goal is to limit 911 calls to “real emergencies” and avoid needlessly putting Black lives in danger.
While, yes, shaming these callers can reduce harm, it should only be the first step toward more radical organizing projects. An abolitionist response goes further, pushing the public to face the root causes of harm and work toward a future that does not rely on police to solve problems. For example, Starbucks conducted a single diversity session with employees in response to a boycott after the manager called 911 on two Black men who asked to use a bathroom while waiting for a friend. Starbucks has regained public favor but police power has not changed. Instead, organizers could have demanded the city decriminalize trespassing and increase public bathrooms, and for Starbucks to redistribute one week’s profits annually to co-op coffee shops. Meanwhile, Hasta Muerte Coffee, a worker-of-color-owned coffee shop and community space that does not serve uniformed police officers, received backlash against their attempts to keep vulnerable groups safe from police. The shop is also radically organizing against gentrification and faces eviction. Hasta Muerte is a mile from where Bay Area transit police killed Oscar Grant.
Framing the question solely around “white people calling the police” also ignores the way much of policing actually occurs. In my Southeast D.C. neighborhood, there are cops and cameras aplenty, regardless of calls. Of any U.S. city, D.C. has the highest police-to-population ratio, the fifth-largest transit police department and the most police surveillance cameras. That’s in addition to 20 federal law enforcement agencies and six university police departments. Without anyone calling in, cops still lurk. Focusing on when to call the police also narrows the conversation about what violence our society considers worthy of state intervention. Try calling the police about the routine violence that happens in the halls of power, like when Michigan agents decided to funnel Flint’s drinking water through corrosive lead pipes (causing fetal deaths), and see what happens.
The lasting effect of these “real emergency” narratives is that police will continue to use force against poor Black people. Hundreds of studies have found that street violence can be virtually eliminated by providing people with quality education, economic opportunity, accessible housing and guaranteed healthcare. Instead of making these investments, the state continues to expand police presence, hire more prosecutors and build more prisons to capture, cage and kill the most vulnerable. The only way to stop police from potentially killing Black people is to reduce their encounters with police, reduce the ranks of police and work towards a society that does not need police at all.