5 things white people can do before they call the cops on a black person

Don’t turn into a #BBQBecky or #PermitPatty and weaponize your phone by calling the cops on a black person for no real reason.

Image: Shutterstock / Tymonko Galyna

By Rebecca Ruiz2018-06-24 23:59:49 UTC

Thanks to Alison Ettel, aka #PermitPatty, we can add selling bottled water without a permit to the list of things black people can’t do in America without having the cops called on them. 

Ettel became the subject of viral outrage Saturday when she appeared to call the police to report an 8-year-old black girl “illegally” selling water on a San Francisco street. The girl’s mom posted video of that apparent phone call to Instagram, and Ettel later told HuffPost she “pretended” to report the incident to the police. 

“They were screaming about what they were selling,” she told HuffPost. “It was literally nonstop. It was every two seconds, ‘Come and buy my water.’ It was continuous and it wasn’t a soft voice, it was screaming.”

Whether Ettel dialed 911 (or the non-emergency city hotline 311) or not, the point is that she felt calling the authorities would scare the mom and her daughter into submission. And while Ettel claimed that confrontation had “no racial component to it,” the scene is yet another reminder that some white people contact the police like one calls a customer service hotline. In this case, they’re ready to demand that their local government put a black person back in their place — and they expect results. 

Recent examples of that include a white woman calling the police on black people barbecuing in an Oakland, California, park; a white, female Philadelphia Starbucks employee calling the police on two black men who hadn’t bought drinks yet; and a white woman at Yale University calling police on a black female student who’d fallen asleep in her dorm’s common room.  

This behavior has deep historical roots and should be condemned by law enforcement as a nuisance. In the meantime, it’s clear that white people inclined to call authorities to report mundane or so-called suspicious behavior need an intervention. Here’s just one handy checklist for them to consult before they dial 911: 

1) Take several deep breaths. 

You know that meditation app you optimistically downloaded awhile back? Now’s the time to click on it and get very real about those deep breaths. Or if meditation is not your thing, play yourself some soothing music — Taylor Swift, Celine Dion, Enya, whatever it takes. Get your heart rate down and your mind relatively clear, because acting out of blind rage and calling the police could get a black person thrown in jail or killed. 

2) Ask yourself what you’re really angry about. 

Ettel told HuffPost that she regretted how she handled the situation and that stress had shaped her response. So before you get to Ettel’s place, where you become the subject of national news coverage, be honest about why you feel so powerful dialing 911. Sure, consider the possibility that you’re using the police as a pressure-valve release for things spinning out of control in your personal life. But, more to the point, reflect on why you’re calling the police on this particular person. If your first reaction is, ‘But I’m not racist!’, try again. If you want to feel vindicated or hope to make a statement about a larger community issue that you think involves a specific racial or ethnic group, you’re probably calling the police for terrible reasons.

3) Remember that you’re no saint. 

You may feel self-righteous when you’re dialing 911, but no one is beyond reproach. Indeed, Ettel herself seemed to have been running her own business in, gasp, a legal gray area. She admitted to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015 that her business selling medical cannabis products for animals operated on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy. Ettel felt emboldened enough to say that in a major publication, and yet she was willing to report an 8-year-old girl to the police for selling water without a permit. If you’ve ever skirted official laws or rules without punishment, don’t ignore that good luck and privilege and try to ruin someone else’s life to teach them a lesson. 

4) Take an implicit bias test. 

You don’t see race, you say? That’s foolishness. Racism is everywhere in America; insist you’re colorblind all you like, but that doesn’t mean racist stereotypes and ideas don’t enter — and poison — your consciousness. Instead of pretending you’re not affected by racism, take a test that gauges how you associate people and groups, positive and negative attributes, and stereotypes. You might be surprised at what you learn about yourself. 

5) Order a book that deconstructs racism in America, wait for it to be delivered, read it all the way through, and then ask yourself again if you should call the cops. 

If you can spend two hours calling the authorities and waiting for them to show up, you have plenty of time to read some of the best books on racism in America. You can focus specifically on the experience of black Americans but know that other people of color may also become the target of white people willing to call the cops over their behavior. Here’s a good list of books to get you started: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (available June 26) by Robin DiAngelo. 

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