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White People Have Been Dialing 911 On Black People Since 911 Was Invented


White People Have Been Dialing 911 On Black People Since 911 Was Invented

White People Have Been Dialing 911 On Black People Since 911 Was Invented

It was his 1st day on the job. A 12 year-old kid with a newspaper route that rite of passage for a lot of American boys and girls. Uriah Sharp gathered the pile of newspapers he was to deliver and set out with his mother and older brother to their assigned neighborhood of Upper Arlington Ohio an affluent Columbus suburb.

That’s exactly where a young African American boy excited to earn a little money instead encountered a lesson far more enduring than the value of hard work: the insidious persistence of American racism. Sharp had only delivered a few papers before police descended on him and his mother. The police had been summoned by a woman who called 911 because of the 2 suspicious African Americans she saw approaching houses in her heavily white suburb. Less than 1% of Upper Arlington residents are African American according to the 2010 census.)

Last week’s incident in Upper Arlington comes the latest entry in a too long list of white Americans have called the 911 emergency service on their black neighbors for doing almost nothing illegal at all including: hanging out in a Philadelphia Starbucks sleeping in a dorm common room at Yale entering their rented Airbnb in California and grilling out in an Oakland park. 

These are just the high profile examples from the last 3 months. But as a former 911 dispatcher recently wrote in Vox as far too many people of color know all too well white Americans make racist calls to 911 on a daily basis using the emergency service as a personal hotline to vent their paranoid fantasies while imperiling the lives of African Americans and other persons of color.

These incidents provide a cruel reminder of how easily a system designed to ensure the public’s safety which for many has been a life saving advance can become just another tool of racist violence.

Probably that use shouldn’t be surprising given the origin story of 911. Created 50 years ago this year the national emergency system grew out of President Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice a group Johnson tasked with solving the problems of crime in our nation he explained.

"911’s ease and accessibility permitted far darker abuses than just an overworked police force.

With a rising national crime rate in the late 1960s many Americans felt the urgency of that work. But perceptions of crime especially for white Americans were as well shaped by the societal changes underway, including the anti Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement. Some have become suspicious of those they conceive to be responsible for crime the commission’s report noted including “Negroes” and “demonstrators.” To tackle the crime problem the commission called for the creation of a single uniform police number Americans could call in emergencies.

Need Help? 911 Will Be Magic Number a Chicago Tribune headline enthused as the first 911 systems were released in early 1968. From the start though Americans tended to misuse the emergency service. A New York Times story in 1969 found people called 911 to report their heat was not working ask about the city’s parking rules and in one case inquire how to get a divorce. The emergency number has destroyed what might be called an inhibition barrier a New York City official complained at the time People call 911 on the slightest pretext Nonemergencies made up about 60% of the calls the department received that year.

911 services slowly expanded across the nation it took until 2000 for more than 90% of Americans to have access to the emergency system different jurisdictions passed laws against improper calls to the service. Prank calls for instance are illegal in most places. But laws vary by state for other abuses including making false reports or using the service to harass others such as calling 911 to send firetrucks to an ex-girlfriend’s home when it’s not in flames.

Officials have been hesitant to prosecute such infractions, however, because of the fear that cracking down on the misuse of 911 will discourage legitimate calls, particularly of those from marginalized groups or victims of domestic violence.

"When white Americans feel entitled to regularly call in their racist suspicions to 911 the results can be no less than disastrous.

That broad tolerance for its misuse has allowed 911 to be used to terrorize African Americans. In a nation where a lot of people associate blackness with criminality and danger black people live under heightened suspicion as they go about their daily lives especially in majority white settings.

An overwhelming reality in itself. But when white Americans feel entitled to regularly call in their racist suspicions to 911 the results can be no less than disastrous. At worst like calls as far a lot of stories of late make clear can lead to deadly ends no matter the innocence of those involved. At best it means that African Americans live under constant surveillance harassment and intimidation brought about in part by a simple 3 digit phone call. 

Americans in recent years have begun to understand how systemic police brutality endangers the lives of black people in the United Stats But less recognized is how the casual racism of everyday Americans often initiates those deadly police responses. 

50 years ago when 911 was launched some authorities warned that the system’s convenience may cause clogged phone lines and unnecessary police action. 911’s ease and accessibility permitted  darker abuses than just an overworked police force. It provided a direct line for white racists often anonymously and with rare penalty to activate law enforcement against their black neighbors. 

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