Police Are Being Used To Exclude Black People From Public Places

May 29, 2018
Originally published on May 29, 2018 6:58 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than 8,000 Starbucks coffee shops in the U.S. are going to be closed this afternoon so employees can go through training on how to deal with racial bias. This crash course comes after that now-infamous incident when a barista called the police on two black men who were walked out in handcuffs. Since then, more examples have emerged where white people are calling the police on people of color, mostly African-Americans, when there's little to no reason to do so. Here's NPR's Leila Fadel.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It starts with a 911 call at an Airbnb...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, I'm observing a young black man at one of my neighbor's homes walking out with luggage.

FADEL: ...At a university campus...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There are two young men that joined our tour, and their behavior is just really odd.

FADEL: ...At a Starbucks...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hi, I have two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: What did they do? What did they do? Someone tell me what they did.

FADEL: The targets of these calls were people of color, most often black people, who ultimately were living their everyday lives. In some cases, the caller and law enforcement denied they had anything to do with race. But for many observers, especially people of color, it was about race. They say a flurry of examples over the last couple months are part of a systemic problem of people abusing the 911 system to police racial lines. Take former White House staffer Darren Martin. He's moving into his new apartment in New York City earlier this month when police show up in response to a report of an armed robbery.

DARREN MARTIN: I was hurt. I did feel unwelcome and at points unsafe because I know that there are folks here who are suspect of me.

FADEL: What he wasn't was surprised. He knew without his business suit on some of his new white neighbors might deem him suspicious, even with a U-Haul and clearly marked moving boxes.

MARTIN: No matter how early I get up in the morning to leave in my suit or how late I come back in my suit, when I take the suit off, I still wear this black skin. Folks see that, and you're often criminalized as a black man, you know, for being black.

FADEL: A video he took of the incident went viral, and he hopes it makes white people who call the police on black people recognize the internal biases that might be driving that call, like when a barista at a Starbucks in Philadelphia called the police on two black men who hadn't ordered anything. They were waiting for a business meeting with another person. The police arrested the two men. The incident sparked a public outcry about racial profiling. It's why the coffee shops are closed this afternoon, for Starbucks to begin training their employees to recognize their own biases. Starbucks released a training video in advance of today's session.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Because we understand that racial and systemic bias have many causes, sources and ways of showing up within each of us and in our communities.

FADEL: But since that incident, NPR found there's been over a dozen more cases that we know of. Now, of course, not every call to 911 involving different races is about race, but this list of incidents points to an unsettling pattern - a troupe of teenage Muslim poets, two black, two brown, giggling outside a Vermont club where they were going to perform, Native American brothers on a college campus tour, black students shopping for prom in Missouri, black women golfing in Pennsylvania.

Elijah Anderson is a professor of sociology at Yale University where a white student called the police on a black student napping in a dorm. He says there are white people who see the hard-fought battles for racial equality as a threat to their own status and use the 911 calls to reinforce color lines that were once drawn with policy and law - Jim Crow laws, redlining, segregated schools and restaurants, entire towns that barred black residents.

ELIJAH ANDERSON: Some white people become motivated to put black people in their place or tell them that they don't belong in these white spaces as it were.

FADEL: There's no hard data on how often these calls happen, but it's not new. Thanks to social media, people are just more aware. A 2016 Pew poll found that roughly half of black people surveyed said someone acted suspicious of them because of their race in that past year. Katheryn Russell-Brown is a professor of law and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at University of Florida law school.

KATHERYN RUSSELL-BROWN: People are reacting to a feeling or a sense or this idea that they're the general manager of the universe, that they can direct racial traffic with the help of law enforcement, where and what are the appropriate things that people of color, African-Americans in particular, can do.

FADEL: She doubts that in any of these cases anyone would have dialed 911 if the person was white. It's a question that weighs on Komi Olaf, a black artist. Last month, he was leaving an Airbnb in Rialto, Calif., with friends when a neighbor called 911.

KOMI OLAF: I really want to understand what it was about my physical being or what it is that I was doing that appeared to be so threatening to this lady that she felt it was important to call the police.

FADEL: Olaf says it was shocking to be packing up the car and then suddenly surrounded by officers. Leila Fadel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR MCFERRIN'S "POSTPARTUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.