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I was 12 years old the first time it really sunk in. I was in a store in Cleveland, Ohio, with my mother, roaming the aisles for socks. That’s when I felt the drop in my stomach. I stood there with that intuition for a few moments before I realized what it was: A white employee had been following me for 10 minutes with a grimace on his face.
He was waiting for me to steal something.
In recent months, we’ve witnessed an onslaught of viral videos in which white people call the police on Black people for purely existing in public, expecting them to be doing something wrong. There was the most infamous meme-worthy incident, in which several Black parkgoers had the cops called on them by a white woman, now dubbed BBQ Becky, because they were simply grilling. Then there were the four Black Airbnb guests who were startled when local police showed up in helicopters because a white neighbor had called to report that “strange people” were in her neighborhood. And earlier this month, a Black woman named Camilla Hudson videotaped a CVS employee, now better known as Coupon Carl, as he attempted to call the police on her for using a coupon.
But the video that hits closest to home is the case of a white woman calling the police on a 12-year-old Black boy as he was mowing his neighbor’s lawn in Ohio. In one moment, Reggie Fields was just living his life, innocently, like children do, much like I had before I realized I was being followed in that store. In another moment, his innocence was annihilated. He would learn he was not like most children; he was Black.
Just four years ago, in the same state where Reggie and I are from, police responded to a call that a Black man had a gun in a park. In reality, a 12-year-old Black boy, Tamir Rice, was holding a toy. He was shot and killed by police.
What’s unveiled in this latest slate of viral videos is a long-known truth: There is no small correlation between the authority white people try to exercise over Black people, the criminalization of Black Americans, and the interactions police have with the Black community. But these connections are far from new. Police have historically functioned in the United States as an extension of white fear and a means to control Black bodies.
“I think [these videos of white people calling the cops] are much like the influx of viral police shootings these past few years,” Josh Briand, co-host of Millennials Are Killing Capitalism podcast, told the Daily Dot. “It has been happening since the slave patrolling days, but now it’s being caught on camera.”
Nowadays, during tense police encounters, Black people are tasked with having to document their own (or others’) humiliation, abuse, or death as evidence of what many white people actively try to deny. One only needs to hear the panic in Diamond Reynolds’ voice after Minnesota police shot and killed her partner, Philando Castile, in 2016, to understand how police violence against Black bodies is often perpetuated and misconstrued. “Please, Lord, make sure that he’s OK. That he’s breathing, Lord,” she begs in the livestream of the encounter. “Please, Lord, you know our rights. Lord, you know we are innocent people, Lord.”
But while livestreams and virality may provide some sense of justice, or at least proof of wrongdoing, it doesn’t erase the pattern that inherently criminalizes Black people and puts them in harm’s way.
“The institution of policing is inherently oppressive and built on anti-Black and Brown structures,” Briand says. “It’s hard not to marvel at the fact that humans keep repeating history.”
Simone Browne explains this further in Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Slave patrols began formally in the colonies as far back as 1704 when South Carolina and Virginia instituted slave codes that needed enforcing. Slave overseers were often instructed to make slaves follow strict timetables in “an attempt to account for every moment of enslaved life” and some slaves were allowed to leave the plantation only with permission and a written pass from their master.
In 1713, New York instituted “lantern laws” that required slaves older than 14 years of age to carry a light, so they could easily be identified—a law that is eerily similar to New York’s current strategy to put excess street lights in near low-income housing to make neighborhoods “safer.” Both are examples of surveying Black bodies and keeping them in line out of fear.
Then there are the neverending cases of brutality against Black bodies perpetuated by this fear. Like that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi after a white woman falsely accused him of making pass at her. Till’s murderers later notably admitted to killing him during an interview (for which they were paid) and this month, it was revealed that his case would be reopened by the Department of Justice based on new information.
Then there is the targeting by police caused by such fear. In Buffalo, New York, activists and community members recently filed a lawsuit against the city for years of traffic checkpoints that targeted predominantly POC neighborhoods, a clear example of racial profiling.
The constant surveillance of Black people by a white population is best summarized by author Frank B. Wilderson III: “In such a paradigm white people are, ipso facto, deputized in the face of Black people, whether they know it (consciously) or not. Whiteness then, and by extension, civil society, cannot be solely ‘represented’ as some monumentalized coherence of phallic signifiers, but must be first understood as a social formation of contemporaries who do not magnetize bullets…. in short, white people are not simply ‘protected’ by the police, they are—in their very corporeality—the police.”
Now that I live in an adult Black body, not much has changed since I was 12. I am still questioned in some way when I enter predominantly white spaces. At a writer’s conference I attended this year, a white woman stopped me at the door to an event to ask “if I was in the right place” and then, another white woman asked if I had enough money to buy a drink while waiting in line at the bar.
I reacted calmly to both women, giving them the “Are you serious right now?” look that has become instinctual for many Black people. When you’re Black and living in this world, the most important battle you face is how you choose to define and defend yourself.