Why do white people keep calling the cops?

May 30, 2018

What do the viral videos showing angry white people trying to police people of color tell us about racism and anti-racism today? Khury Petersen-Smith has some answers.

VIRAL CELL-phone videos of police officers and security guards brutalizing and murdering Black people have become so prevalent in recent years that the reality of racist police violence is impossible to ignore.

But this spring, cell phone video of a slightly different kind is revealing something else that’s impossible to ignore: White people calling the cops — or threatening to — on people of color.

At Starbucks. In public parks. At restaurants. In Ivy League university dorms. Everywhere.

The hours of videos showing police assaulting victims of color have been horrifying, but we’re now getting to see the moments beforehand — typically involving worked-up white people on their phones while people of color are doing precisely what their location would suggest: eating at a restaurant, sitting at a café, enjoying a lakeside park with friends and family.

Protesters outside a Starbucks in Philadelphia
Protesters outside a Starbucks in Philadelphia

These videos show — if there was any doubt left — that the problem with people of color in these places isn’t our behavior. It’s our very presence.

There is a common message being sent by the Philadelphia Starbucks manager who targeted two Black men; by a white Yale graduate student who called campus police after a Black grad student fell asleep in a common space; and the white lawyer at a Manhattan restaurant who threatened to call ICE when he heard customers and workers speaking Spanish.

That message is: You don’t belong here because of who you are.

Each of the incidents has its own irony. Aaron Schlossberg, the Trump-supporting lawyer who threatened to call ICE in New York — declared that the restaurant employees should speak English because “I pay for their welfare, I pay for their ability to be here.”

Actually, the targets of his rant were literally at work, very much paying for their own “ability to be here.”

If that wasn’t twisted enough, Deena Suazo, the customer who ordered her food in Spanish and thus began the dialogue that set off Schlossberg, is actually Puerto Rican.

Though racists in particular seem to have a hard time grasping this, Puerto Ricans like Suazo are actually U.S. citizens — because the U.S. holds Puerto Rico as a colony.

Another episode of this spring’s spate of angry white people reporting people of color for the “crime” of being present in public spaces came when a woman with her child on a campus tour at Colorado State University called 911 about two Native American brothers.

When Thomas Kanewakeron Gray and Lloyd Skanahwati Gray arrived for a tour that they drove seven hours to be at, the parent told the 911 operator about “two young men that joined our tour who weren’t part of the tour” — and added that they “really stand out.”

BUT CALLING on armed state agents to deal with Indigenous people because “they don’t belong” goes beyond the irony of Native Americans arguably having more right to belong anywhere in this country than anyone else. Like so many of the daily horrors of life in the Trump era, this incident — and all of the similar ones — is revealing.

After all, a central part of the U.S. project, from the beginning, was not just the rule of a minority of elites, but the enlistment of white citizens — or at least a section of them — in the policing of others.

This began well before the declaration of the United States as an independent nation.

In the English colonies that would become the U.S., the British crown and settlers formed militias, in which armed civilians could be mobilized for formal wars, but were also part of the constant theft of land from Indigenous inhabitants.

So while forces composed of professional soldiers were important in establishing European settlement in North America, armed civilian men, acting as private citizens, also fought against Native people as a regular feature of the era.

As historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, “During nearly two centuries of British colonization, generations of settlers, mostly farmers, gained experience as ‘Indian fighters’ outside any organized military institution.”

U.S. history has other examples of state institutions looking to ordinary citizens to enforce white supremacy and promote U.S. empire.

During the years before the Civil War, laws effectively deputized whites to capture Black people escaping slavery in the South. As historian John Hope Franklin wrote in Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, “During the late 18th and 19th centuries, every Southern state passed laws concerning runaways...Any white person could apprehend the slave and return him or her over to a justice of the peace.”

There is also the history of vigilante violence to uphold white supremacy, in the form of lynching. Thousands of lynchings took place around the country between the Civil War and the mid-20th century.

More recently, the decades after the social protest movements of the 1960s — including the Black Power revolt — witnessed mass incarceration and “tough on crime” laws. The notion that Black people are criminals to be policed has become part of the daily diet of American life, even in the post-civil rights era.

TWO RECENT developments updated the historic involvement of people policing each other for the 21st century.

The first was the “war on terror” declared during the Bush years and ongoing ever since. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, federal police agencies called on people to report “suspicious activity” by calling terrorism hotlines.

In 2002, Congress passed a law that created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which grouped together existing and new law enforcement agencies under its umbrella.

But a primary feature of DHS’s activity from the start has been the cultivation of public participation in the racist policing of ordinary people — usually Muslims and people of color, of course — by other ordinary people. This involved absurd measures such as the color-coded “Homeland Security Advisory System” to indicate to the public just how fearful we should be of a terror attack on any given day.

For years now, every major urban transit system in the country has subjected passengers to a version of the “See something, say something” campaign first rolled out in New York City.

The point of all this was to promote “informing” on our neighbors and fellow community members as an act of “good citizenship” to accompany the state’s own formal surveillance systems.

The second, even more recent development is the rise of Trump.

In the years leading up to Trump, an increasingly open and unabashedly bigoted right-wing current — involving vigilante violence against Muslims, Black people, immigrants and others — grew visibly. But now that current has a supporter in the highest office of the land.

The result is that, in addition to heavy-handed police forces — whose hands gets heavier each day — there is a toxic stew of racism, bigotry and state-promoted panic within the general population and egged on by the president.

For individuals motivated to play this role in upholding racism and class power in the U.S., it’s easy and convenient to do so: Just call the cops.

This isn’t about fear, but confidence. For people like Aaron Schlossberg in Manhattan and or Sarah Braasch — the Yale student who called police on fellow Yale student Lolade Siyonbola, and who is otherwise known for having published rabidly Islamophobic writing — the Trump era is the moment they’ve been waiting for: a time when being openly racist and calling on the state to repress people of color is accepted as being “a good American.”

SO THESE videos of Angry White People Calling the Cops therefore reveal a vile and dangerous current in the U.S. population.

But they reveal something else, too. In the footage of police arresting two Black men at the Philadelphia Starbucks, a white man — the friend of the two men — confronts the cops and challenges the arrest, along with the woman, also white, who was taking the video.

In the cell-phone footage of the white woman calling the cops on Black people having a cookout at Lake Merritt in Oakland, another white woman — again, the person taking the video — joins people of color in confronting the racist.

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So the racists are emboldened. But more and more anti-racists are compelled to take a stand as well. Millions of people have gone to their first-ever protest in the past year and a half — and they’ve seen the ongoing racist assault by police and horrific white supremacist attacks as in Charlottesville.

An anti-racist resistance is painfully far from where it needs to be in this country. And with a bunch of bigots armed with automatic weapons — and others armed with cell phones and ready to call the cops — it’s not going to be an easy road.

But Black Lives Matter and other social movements have made an impact, and we’re further along that road today than we were a few years ago. There was a wave of revulsion at the cruel victimization of people of color in these cases — and that’s something activists can build on to reach a wider layer of people willing to stand up for justice.

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