Vox Populi

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Tom Engelhardt: Walking While Black

Like everyone else in America, you undoubtedly know about the recent afternoon shutdown of 8,000 Starbucks stores for anti-bias training after the well-publicized handcuffing and arrest of two black men who asked to use the bathroom at an outlet in Philadelphia, an event partially caught on video.

But did you know about the white woman who called the police to report on black men supposedly violating park regulations by barbecuing near Lake Merritt in Oakland, California — though no arrests were made, the police arrival also became a viral video — or the community response to that incident, a far larger BBQing While Black event sponsored by local restaurants? Or the white owner of a golf course in Pennsylvania who called 911 and demanded that the police deal with five brand-new members, black women who, he insisted, were golfing too slowly? Or the black member of a New Jersey gym and his guest who were “profiled,” reported to the cops, and ejected from the health club (an event also on video), though apologies later followed? Or the four “creative professionals,” three black, leaving an Airbnb with their suitcases when reported as possible burglars and taken in by the cops in Rialto, California? (Video captured the incident and a lawsuit against the police is now in process.) “Got surrounded by the police for being black in a white neighborhood” was the way one of them, Donisha Prendergast, a filmmaker and a granddaughter of Bob Marley, described the incident on Instagram.) Or the black graduate student who fell asleep while studying in the common room of her dorm at Yale and was challenged by a white student who promptly reported her to the campus police (producing yet another confrontation and viral video)? Or former Obama-era White House staffer Darren Martin who was called in by a neighbor as a possible armed robber while moving into his new apartment in New York City with clearly marked boxes all around him? (No video available.) Or the four high school slam poets in the group Muslim Girls Making Change, invitees all, who were waiting in back of the Burlington Elks Lodge in Vermont to perform when a club officer phoned the local cops? (“I called the police on you. They’re coming right now and I told them you’re doing drugs.”)

Though there are evidently no numbers available on just how many calls of this kind 911 operators (and police departments) field, there can be little question that they are the norm, not the exception. They are, in essence, calls to preserve racial boundaries etched into this society over the centuries.


Copyright 2018 Tom Engelhardt. First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.

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In Florida, Jacksonville’s enforcement of pedestrian violations raises concerns about racial profiling — as revealed in a feature article in ProPublica.

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