The past few weeks have seen a spate of news stories about white Americans calling the police on people of color who appear to be simply going about their lives ― whether waiting at a Starbucks, golfing, attending a university tour, leaving an Airbnb, napping or barbecuing.
These incidents have sparked fierce debate about racism in the U.S. In most of these cases there was no apparent threat of harm, making it hard to avoid the conclusion that the people who called the police did so because of a conscious or unconscious belief that people of color simply don’t belong, or that they inherently pose a danger or threat.
Ironically, the real danger in such encounters often comes from white Americans calling 911 on their neighbors of color ― effectively deploying the threat of violence, as police interactions with black people in particular are disproportionately likely to end in excessive force or death.
“When you engage law enforcement in these kinds of things you are opening the door for things to go very wrong,” Oakland, California, mayoral candidate Cat Brooks told KRON News this week, after a white woman called the police on black residents barbecuing in a local park in an area designated only for non-charcoal grilling. Brooks cited “the potential for arrests like in Philadelphia with those two black men or worse physical assault or death.” “I don’t believe in this day and age that white folks don’t know that,” she added.
HuffPost spoke to two experts from grassroots anti-violence organizations, Oakland’s Critical Resistance and the Arab American Association of New York’s Accompany Project, which hold workshops addressing the complications of calling police, and educating people on when ― and when not ― to do so.
In some cases, like those above, the solution would appear obvious: “Mind your business,” as journalist Kara Brown put it on the “Keep It” podcast this week.
But even in cases where the possibility of actual harm seems to exist, these experts suggest that Americans, particularly white people, challenge their immediate response and think twice before calling police.
“On the face of it, people need to not call the cops when it’s merely just the presence of people of color in a public place. That’s just obvious,” said Mohamed Shehk, a spokesman for Critical Resistance, which provides trainings on alternatives to policing.
“But further, people need to think about, [in] situations that actually need to be addressed… what are police going to do?” he added. “And is there a way that someone else could do what would be beneficial in this situation?”
Many Americans, white people in particular, have been socialized to think of police as providing safety, social worker Rachel Blum Levy, who is white, told HuffPost. As a community organizer and facilitator with the Accompany Project, she leads “bystander trainings” to teach New Yorkers how to intervene in situations of potential violence, particularly against Arab or Muslim people, and help de-escalate. The trainings ― one of which HuffPost attended last year ― challenge participants to check their biases around race and policing. The group goes over the potential risks of engaging police, especially in cases involving people of color or undocumented people.
As Blum Levy noted, many white people have a very different relationship with police than many people of color, who are often taught growing up that police involvement can come with the threat of violence.
A 2015 Reuters poll showed that black and white Americans tend to hold drastically different attitudes toward police. While 54 percent of all Americans said they “trust the police to be fair and just,” only 30 percent of African-Americans did. And when asked if police “tend to unfairly target minorities,” 69 percent of black Americans agreed, while just 29 percent of whites did.
Some studies have shown that black Americans call the police slightly less than whites do. Other reports show that calls to the police from black communities tend to decline specifically after instances of police violence.
“White people need to challenge what ‘safety’ is. We’ve all been taught to read certain people and situations as being inherently dangerous,” Blum Levy told HuffPost. “Sometimes, taking actions which make us feel ‘safe’ and comfortable put others in danger.”
Sometimes, when police are called on a person of color because of a perceived ― but ultimately nonexistent ― threat, things escalate quickly toward irreversible tragedy.
Tamir Rice was 12 years old in 2014 when he was playing with a toy gun in Cleveland. A man called the police on him. The cops shot Tamir dead within seconds of arriving at the scene.
In Sacramento, California, in March, 22-year-old Stephon Clark was shot dead by police in his own backyard, after they responded to calls of someone breaking car windows. Police say they thought Clark was holding a gun. It was a cellphone. The man who called the cops, who was white, later told reporters he regretted it. “It makes me never want to call 911 again,” he said.
“Saheed Vassell was shot a couple blocks away from where I live,” Blum Levy said, referring to a 34-year-old black father who was shot dead by police in Brooklyn, New York, last month, after someone called police to report a man wielding a gun. The object Vassell held, and allegedly pointed at cops, was later found to have been a pipe. In the aftermath, locals said it was widely known among long-term residents of the neighborhood that Vassell had a mental illness.
“That to me speaks to police brutality, but also gentrification,” Blum Levy said. “New migrations of people, presumably white, coming into a community that don’t have a connection to its history and culture, and taking actions that give them feelings of safety [but] don’t take into consideration the community at large.”
For community initiatives that provide alternatives to calling police, like the Accompany Project or Critical Resistance, the tactics taught in the trainings are relatively straightforward: Assess the situation, looking to challenge your initial response to determine if there is actually a threat. If so, see if you can de-escalate it using simple tactics ― such as loudly saying “no,” naming the perpetrator’s harmful behavior or addressing them as a “we” to make them feel you’re on their team. If that’s not possible, trainers recommend delegating the intervention to another community member, such as a trusted neighbor or church leader.
Shehk says it’s important for all Americans to educate themselves on the potential harm of involving police in everyday situations. And to a large degree, that onus is on white people. Many people of color already know all too well that bringing the police into a situation often results in someone getting hurt or killed.
“Given that white people are positioned to be protected by police and are also prone to see black and brown people as criminals and are quicker to call the cops, I do think it’s important that white people make a commitment that they will challenge their communities to not call the cops,” he said.
A clear limit of such grassroots efforts is their modest reach: The Accompany Project in New York and Critical Resistance in Oakland are relatively small-scale, with workshops once or twice a month, often with around 20 or so participants. There is far more work to be done if the majority of Americans are to stop seeing police involvement as the “go-to” solution, as Shehk put it.
“Starbucks will do what it needs to do to protect its brand,” Washington Post opinions editor Karen Attiah wrote last month. “But what is America doing to protect its own citizens of color? Who will train Americans to stop calling the cops on their unarmed black neighbors?”