Calling the police often has very different connotations for Black Americans than it does for their white counterparts: fear of death. However, as LeRon L. Barton writes, it’s control, not fear that drives that call to 911 to people who are simply “Living While Black”
It’s happened yet again. When I read the story of Jermaine Massey, the Black man who the Portland Doubletree hotel staff called the police on, my body immediately stiffened up.
Massey, who was simply talking on the phone in the hotel lobby, was approached by a security guard asking him if he was staying there. Irritated by the question, Massey told the guard that he was a hotel guest and had his room key in his hand, but could not remember his room number. The security guard asked the hotel manager to call the police on Massey for loitering.
Never mind the fact that white guests were going in and out of the hotel freely and were not asked if they were staying there. No, Massey the lone Black man dressed in a Black hoodie, talking to his mother on the phone, was deemed enough of a threat that warranted a call to the police.
From the Starbucks manager in Philadelphia, BBQ Becky in Oakland, Permit Patty in San Francisco, Corner store Caroline from New York, and now Hotel Earl in Portland, many white people have called the police on Black folks for simply “existing.” To some, being Black is immediately looked at as criminal, dangerous, and devious. We have to be “up to something” and the best way to “prevent” a crime or violence from occurring is to call the police.
“When a Black person hears these seven words “I am going to call the police,” your whole life can flash before your eyes. To most African Americans, the police mean brutality, oppression, imprisonment, and death”
And why not call? Dialling 911 about African-Americans works. Deemed “White people’s customer service” by those on Twitter, these phone calls are used whenever many white people feel they are in danger -because a child selling lemonade on the street is a cause for concern – are in an uncomfortable situation, or just plain don’t like what they are witnessing.
When a Black person hears these seven words “I am going to call the police,” your whole life can flash before your eyes. To most African Americans, the police mean brutality, oppression, imprisonment, and death. There does not have to be a crime committed in order for us to be in fear of law enforcement, their sheer presence could mean we live or die.
For the white person dialling 911, knowing that you can call the police on Black people and they will legitimise your claim is incredible! It is like having a Trump card (pun intended) that white people can pull out whenever they are down, and automatically win the game.
And why wouldn’t you call the police on Black people, it works. Statistics show that even as African Americans make up 13% of the population, we are 9 times more likely to be arrested, make up 34% of the prison population, and comprise 30% of all people shot by the police. Sounds like a no-brainer if you are afraid of the “big bad scary Black man” right?
However, I don’t think these calls are from fear, but rather control. Since our time here, there has been a desire to tell Black people what to do. From slavery to the Black codes and the Civil Rights Movement, white people have dictated what Black people can do, where we can go, and how we can live. And if we were “uppity”, then there would be discipline. How dare a nigger raise his voice at a white person? Who do they think they are, free?
“While I am seething with anger, I know that if I raise my voice, seem upset, or even come off a little big aggressive, he or she will utter those seven words and my life can change”
Even though these calls are becoming common place, I still get a visceral reaction to them. I have been in Massey’s shoes a couple of times, mad and upset that I am a being questioned, followed, and interrogated because I am “Living While Black.” While I am seething with anger, I know that if I raise my voice, seem upset, or even come off a little big aggressive, he or she will utter those seven words and my life can change.
So what do I do? I grit my teeth, try and defuse the situation, and leave. It is a pride swallowing exercise, because I know I didn’t do a thing, but I also know that I am a Black man. It is almost as if I piss a white person off or just breathe the wrong way, I could get a visit from the police, and coming in contact with the cops while Black and walking away is like the luck of the draw. If I win, I live, and if I lose… well. I wonder what it is like to have that much power over people’s lives, that the police is your personal racist attack dog, at your command any time you want it? Black life, so divine, yet so uncertain.
LeRon L. Barton is a writer in San Francisco. His book All We Really Need Is Love: Stories of Dating, Relationships, Divorce, and Marriage is available at Amazon.com. You can view his TEDx speech – How I overcame my stutter and also visit his website