As stories of Black people having the police called on them when they are merely going about their lives spread across social media, a group of Black activists is calling on Congress to take action. In an open letter addressed to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, six Black Americans who have recently had the police called on them for no reason ask Congress to hold a hearing “on weaponized police calls.”
Stories of white people calling the police to report Black people for no apparent reason came to the forefront of the national conversation earlier this spring after an incident involving the police and two Black men at a Starbucks went viral.
The letter was written by Lolade Siyonbola, Darren D. Martin, Jean Roseme, Donisha Prendergast, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, and Komi Olafimihan and posted to Siyonbola’s Medium blog on Monday. The signatories have all been involved in highly publicized incidents of race-related 911 calls and are asking Congress to hold a hearing on racial profiling and 911 calls.
A congressional hearing would be an opportunity for the letter’s authors to speak out about their experiences and to be involved with the creation of “innovative and meaningful legislation.” The letter states that “holding false accusers accountable and examining protocol practices should be a focus of this hearing” and ends with a request for “innovative and meaningful legislation.”
The common practice of calling the police to report Black people for so-called “suspicious” behavior, while they are simply going about their lives, has been a subject of national conversation in recent months.
In April, the (now former) manager of a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police on two Black customers who were sitting in the cafe waiting for a friend. Video of the incident went viral, and the entire country saw the two men taken out of the shop in handcuffs. The arrests drew protests at the local Starbucks, and ultimately led to Starbucks shops closing down for part of the day so employees could attend an “anti-bias training.”
But this was just one in a series of incidents that has widespread outrage in the last few months. In early May, a Black graduate student at Yale University was taking a nap in her dorm room when a white student, Sarah Braasch, called the police. The Black student was Lolade Siyonbola, the woman who published the open letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Darren Martin and Jean Roseme were surrounded by police when the two friends were moving some things into Martin’s home. Donisha Prendergast, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, and Komi Olafimihan were similarly surrounded by police when they were leaving an AirBnb they had rented after someone called the police to report them. Prendergast, who is the granddaughter of reggae legend Bob Marley, is suing the California police department who responded to the 911 call against her.
As a change.org petition accompanying the open letter notes, 911 calls made on black people who are going about their own business in public serve a very sinister purpose. “These recent highly publicized incidents are part of a history of racism and profiling in this country — from public and private actors — that often leads to the implicit or intentional weaponization of 911 to exclude Black bodies from white spaces, with police encounters leading to degradation, incarceration, and in some cases, death,” the petition says.
The open letter also states that “the domino effect that ensues from a racially-biased 911 call is a costly one,” resulting in a waste of resources and time for 911 operators and officers. Further, and most importantly, calling the police on Black people puts the freedom and lives of the Black people in jeopardy. The letter writers note that “the ultimate cost” is often paid by Black people who stand to face incarceration or even death if the police are called on them.
The change.org petition accompanying the open letter currently has more than 500 signatures, and the letter writers have been posting about their efforts on social under the hashtag #HoldtheHearing. According to the open letter, the activists are hoping for a response from the Committee by June 15.
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(Images via Joshua Trujillo/Starbucks)