This essay appears in my book Welcome to Hell World: Dispatches from the American Dystopia. Subscribe to this newsletter below.
On a Monday in May of 2018 Lolade Siyonbola a black graduate student at Yale University posted a video of her encounter with the police. Siyonbola’s offense was falling asleep in a common area of her own dorm. Two videos she posted to Facebook including a confrontation with the woman who reported her, a fellow grad student, and a second of her interaction with the police soon went viral with a combined 2.5 million views that week. Despite showing the officers her school ID and room key they continued to investigate the incident as if a serious crime had occurred.
“We need to make sure that you belong here,” one of the officers in the video can be heard telling her.
In late April a similar interaction with police played out in Rialto, California, when four African American artists were questioned by police after exiting an Airbnb. A neighbor had called suspecting a burglary was underway. One of the renters named Donisha Prendergast who is a filmmaker posted to Instagram from the scene in a video that pulled in tens of thousands of views and soon spread widely. Also that month a video taken of two black men being arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for not purchasing anything fast enough exploded across the internet gaining millions of views.
See? many of the millions of people who shared each video would say online. We’ve been trying to tell you.
In each case none of the stories would have garnered much national attention if the people in question or a concerned bystander hadn’t been on hand to document it in video form. It’s one thing to read a story about a person of color being fucked with by the police particularly for people whose white privilege often shields them from these sorts of hassles. It’s another entirely to witness the reality of it as it happens.
We’ve seen a shift in recent years as the ubiquity of cellphone cameras has started to change the way we talk about police violence in America from Eric Garner to a Miami police officer who was charged with assault in 2018 for kicking a man in handcuffs in the face. But these sorts of encounters differ in a way. It’s no surprise that something as shocking as police murdering or brutalizing citizens would attract widespread attention. What is happening now is a less sensational sort of harassment. The banal everyday indignities people of color are often forced to deal with—things white people like myself rarely have to think about—are being shared widely. Consider the group of black women who had the police called on them on a Pennsylvania golf course for not golfing fast enough or the Native American brothers who were removed from a campus tour at Colorado State University because their presence made a parent nervous or Darren Martin who had six police officers arrive to detain and question him while he was moving into his apartment in New York City or the woman in Oakland who called the police on a group of black people for “grilling illegally.”
When it comes to police violence it’s become common to ask ourselves and others: Can you imagine how often these things happened and how little we heard about them before cameras? We could just as easily ask the same question about the types of encounters Siyonbola and Prendergast and others have posted about. These encounters happen across America every day. The mere act of existing in the world—taking a nap, barbecuing, moving into an apartment, shopping—is seen as de facto inappropriate when it’s being done while black.
Of course this is not news. This has not just started happening. What is different is that people have become wise to the fact that sometimes going viral is their only recourse so we are seeing more videos of it posted. And on the plus side many more people do seem to be paying attention to it. Had white Americans listened to people of color talking about their own lived reality for decades they might have understood that this happens all the time. But America at large doesn’t tend to do that. Even with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement there will remain a steadfast and indignant percentage of people—even when given clear evidence of actual crimes, even cold-blooded murder being carried out by police—insisting on seeing all the evidence, or those who wonder what the obviously guilty black man must have done to provoke the righteous police into killing him. They always have it coming.
For those people I doubt there is any hope whatsoever. But for people inclined to stand in solidarity but not necessarily always fully invested—because, of course, it won’t happen to “us”—there’s one critical takeaway: do not call the police every time you are made marginally uncomfortable by a situation. As the Native American writer Kelly Hayes explained on Twitter in the wake of these stories: “Police don’t enforce laws. They enforce social norms. Gentrifiers who chronically call police aren’t concerned with safety. They want to dictate social norms and conditions. They want control. And they know what it could mean to call. They are simply prioritizing their own power.”
In the video in which Darren Martin is being detained by police while trying to move in he asks what prompted them to suspect he was breaking into his own apartment. One of the cops has the dispatcher read out the call they’d received. Someone “was trying to break into the door,” she says, “possibly a weapon. A large tool.”
Now you know why we’re here, the officer says.
“I know why y’all are here,” Martin says.
Then one of them jokes about how many likes he’s getting on the video he’s live-streaming.
These sorts of videos are now thankfully going as viral as the more sensational ones which can be an opportunity for outside observers to practice the empathy they’d like to think they have. What would it be like to be hassled by the police for simply taking a nap or renting an Airbnb or golfing? To be told that an investigation had to be launched on whether or not you belonged here? After a while you might start to question whether or not you do.