PK Note: For those interested, Because We Live Here now has merchandise! You can pick up some excellent shirts and coffee mugs! And yes, it does come in black. Also, we are on the verge of publishing Their Lives Matter Too. If you are interested in picking up a signed copy, send me an email at [email protected]
We already know in Grand Rapids it might soon be a criminal misdemeanor for calling the police on people of color, but the reporters in elite newsrooms across the United States are also hard at work conditioning whites to feel guilty about calling the police on blacks in the act of breaking the law. Take a look at this letter to the editor from a white person published in the New York Times Magazine, answered by Kwame Anthony Appiah.[Was I Right to Call the Cops on a Black Man Breaking Into a Car?, New York Times Magazine, May 7, 2019]:
Recently, I witnessed a young black male cut across my yard, duck between my neighbors’ two cars and try the doors of both, before “breaking” into the unlocked one. I opened my back door and yelled, “I see you getting into that car!” He took off running. I called the police and then posted to the (admittedly sometimes racially charged) Nextdoor app, in the hopes that my neighbors would check the locks on their cars and homes.
Break-ins are fairly common in my neighborhood, and this isn’t the first time that I’ve witnessed what appeared to be a theft and called the police. It was, however, the first time I was certain the suspicious person was a black man. I immediately felt a pang of guilt for calling the police and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, given the tragic way things too often end between police and people of color.
I feel an obligation to my family and my neighbors to report crimes. But I’d rather have my car broken into than have a person’s life ruined by my 911 call. And honestly, I don’t even know if it’s a crime to open someone’s unlocked vehicle.
If the incident had been a forced entry or violent in any way, I would feel less torn about having called the police. And really, people should know better than to leave their cars unlocked. I sincerely hope the young man wasn’t apprehended but instead was just scared off and won’t lurk around my home again. But what if he had been arrested? I also shudder to think how many young black men vaguely matching his description were harassed by officers after my call.
Did I do the right thing by calling the police? Or am I bordering here on behaving like BBQ Becky — the white woman in California who called the police on a group of black people having a barbecue? Name Withheld, Missouri
What you saw was a series of apparent attempts at theft — and entering a vehicle or a residence with the intent to steal typically constitutes burglary, whether the door is locked or not. Reporting such behavior is an act of civic responsibility. In your particular state, with its notably lax gun laws, people may not leave their wallets in their car but may well keep pistols in their glove compartments. In recent years, the theft of firearms, often from vehicles, has risen sharply where you live. Your state also has the highest rate of black homicide victims in the country (and most violent crimes are indeed intraracial). So yes, I’d say you did the right thing.
Still, your anxiety that the police might overreact to your call is reasonable. In a 2015 survey conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, about half of African-Americans reported being treated badly by police officers because of their race. (Fewer than 5 percent of white Americans said this.) Unjust policing is wrong; it’s also self-undermining. One problem caused by the flagrant abuses of police authority we see reported in the media — the sort of events that generated the Black Lives Matter movement — is that they weaken community support for the police, and such support is essential to successful policing. It’s possible to understand why so many police officers appear to be willing to turn a blind eye to misconduct by their fellows (solidarity develops naturally among people who face danger together), but the abuse of police authority makes their jobs harder. They’d be better off if they did more to root it out.
That there are too many occasions when police officers abuse the rights of citizens does not mean that most police-civilian interactions go wrong. And the fact that being a black man makes it more likely that your interactions with the police will turn unpleasant doesn’t mean that interactions between police officers and black suspects are typically mishandled. Still, it’s bad enough that black men have a reason to worry that any arrest might go wrong. Your hesitance about involving law enforcement points to a larger crisis of trust, one undergirded by worrying racial disparities throughout the criminal-justice system. The best response, however, isn’t to turn a blind eye to property crimes. It’s to get involved in campaigns to reform policing and prosecution.
If you don’t get it yet, our elite truly want to not just make it illegal to call the police on blacks/people of color, but also are actively conditioning white people to feel guilty about calling the police on blacks/people of color caught in the act of committing a crime.