A Case of Emergency: How 911 Became a Weapon Used Against Black Folks

by Leah C.K. Lewis I actually remember learning about 911 as a little girl. It seemed like some ...

by Leah C.K. Lewis

I actually remember learning about 911 as a little girl. It seemed like some sort of rite of passage because of its weight and gravity. Calling 911 was a very serious matter and not something to do unless circumstances warranted the attention of the police, fire department, or emergency medical services. Dialing those three little numbers demanded sobriety—and it still does.

As the media continues to highlight cases of police brutality, I have been captivated by how 911 calls initiated the events that eventually led the deaths of Black men, women, and children. Particularly, Tanisha Anderson, a mentally ill woman; Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland; and John Crawford III in Beaver Creek, Ohio outside of Dayton.

Recently, I read an article by Shannon Nasah-Miller, Ph.D., in which she describes an incident where her 15-month-old daughter fell off a stuffed lion rocker eighteen inches to the floor while she and her wife supervised. During thrift shopping at Goodwill, her precious daughter was instructed to get off the lion and in typical childish defiance, baby girl went limp in full tantrum mode. As a result of this scene, unbeknownst to the child’s mothers, someone called 911 seeking unneeded medical attention for the toddler. As is typical, police arrived along with the ambulance, and a conversation ensued between an officer and one of the moms. Thankfully, the matter did not escalate into anything violent, but it easily could have.

Then there last weekend’s occurrence at the Craig Ranch subdivision in McKinney, Texas, where video shows overzealous police officer Eric Casebolt running amok, pulling a gun on teens, only corralling the youth of color and manhandling Dajerria Becton, a teenage girl in a bikini. In this case, officers were called to attend to a well populated end-of-school cook-out hosted by Tatiana Rhodes, a resident of Craig Ranch, after two adult white women and one man allegedly engaged African American teenagers with racial slurs and ignorant, lowbrow dialogue (“go back to your Section 8 housing”). A woman named “Kate” is accused of actually slapping Tatiana in the face.

Reminiscent of the Jim Crow era, there is the appearance that callers utilized 911, desirous of a “whites only pool,” as a means to extract the children of color from the recreational facility and the subdivision. One video shows the confrontation involving two aggressive white women, one white man, Tatiana, and her friends. Police were called, ten units total, and an unhinged Officer Casebolt confronts the young people who appeared a mixture of calm, rational, concerned, confused, and fearful.

All the victims I have mentioned were African Americans (with the exception of those involved in McKinney, Texas where people of Mexican and Arab or Persian descent were also accosted).

In the case of Tanisha Anderson, her family called seeking aid. Because of Tanisha’s death, her family deeply, deeply regrets making that call. Presumptions have been made as to the ethnicity of the callers in the Tamir Rice and John Crawford case. It has been presumed by many that the callers in these two cases were also white.

In the extraordinary case of Charlene Cook, we know that the person who initiated that 911 call was a white woman. She was body-slammed by police in Barstow, California while eight months pregnant. This occurred at her second grader’s school after she and the caller had a disagreement and confrontation while in the drop-off line.

Our emergency notification system is becoming a method for executing mayhem and murder in the lives of African Americans. The travesty is further exasperated because there are no consequences for callers who set off the chain of events that lead to the deaths, assaults, and general violations of people’s rights, where the human subject of the call proves to be innocent of the allegations or concerns enumerated by callers.

John Crawford was standing in a Walmart, on a phone, holding a toy BB gun sold by Walmart. Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun in a playground. Charlene Cook was standing at her child’s elementary school and merely refused to give officers her name all while they acknowledged that no crime had been committed. Shannon Nasah-Miller’s fifteen-month-old daughter fell off a toy eighteen inches to the ground. Dajerria Becton was not part of the instigating confrontation in McKinney. Tatiana Rhodes, for goodness sake, simply wanted to have a celebratory cookout in her residential community.

Tanisha Anderson’s family, like so many others of mentally ill people called for aid, not destruction. She was agitated and unarmed. Even so, there was distress. Calls pertaining to mentally disturbed men, women, and children merit a response from specially trained police officers and EMS workers.

There is a part of me that remembers the rhetoric and propaganda of “Officer Friendly.” There remains the knowledge that some good officers do in fact exist. So, when we perceive danger, it is reasonable to seek the aid of police. Yet, we must acknowledge that whenever police are called to a scene, the potential for escalation exists. Where police are, there are guns, tasers, and other weapons. This is a precarious combination. If possible, calling law enforcement should be a last resort.

To be frank, African Americans are tremendously reluctant to call for police assistance due to our understandably uneasy history with law enforcement. African Americans know the history of the slave patrols called “paddy rollers.” Officially, it was U.S. Marshalls that enforced the indignity of the Fugitive Slave Act. Every generation of African Americans can cite examples of police brutality. There is literally no era in American history where African Americans have been able to live peacefully without some major violations of human rights, dignity, civility, or sanctity. From the imposition of slavery and Jim Crow, to the destruction of thriving all-African American communities and economies like Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida. From the brutal murder of Emmett Till, to the framing of fourteen-year-old George Stinney and his execution for a crime he did not commit, and the plethora of contemporary abuses, African Americans are extremely hesitant to call upon the first-line executors of a legal system that has yet to grant us the basis of justice we ought to be afforded as citizens.

For the greater part of its existence, law enforcement in the United States only served the interest of whites, particularly those who were wealthy or land-owning. Their financial and social interest was, and remains, the sanctity that law enforcement generally seeks to maintain. Today, pernicious whites utilize this historical advantage to terrorized African Americans, other people of color, and poor whites who have also been disenfranchised. They use 911 as a means to exercise white privilege in a manner that exploits taxpayer dollars. Mean-spirited and devilish people of all ethnicities employ 911 to invoke danger, as opposed to stopping or preventing danger. Such a practice is egregious, especially where innocent people are harmed.

Policy-makers must develop protocols and legislators must institute laws that stem the tide of abuse, should the assault on African American lives persist due to ridiculous and unwarranted calls to 911. I already hear the chorus of, “Better safe than sorry.” And, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure.” I agree, but #BlackLivesMatter more than these adages ever will.

Photo: Shutterstock

Leah C.K. Lewis, J.D., M.Div., D.Min., (ABD), is a minister, councilwoman, author, animation producer, and literary activist. She recently completed her dissertation on sex and sexuality in the African American Baptist Church and a manuscript on legal, religious, and political rhetoric pertinent to “race.” Follow her @HumanStriving and on SoundCloud.com/Reverend-Leah-CK-Lewis. #BlackLivesMatter #StayWoke #HumanStriving #RighteousvRacist

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