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When white people call the police on black people

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in 2015. Lolade Siyonbola, a graduate student in African studies at Yale, fell asleep while working on a “marathon of papers” on May 7, only to be woken up when a woman who lived in the dorm turned on the lights and called the Yale police, telling Siyonbola she wasn’t allowed to sleep in there.

What makes the police encounters chilling is how routine they are.

They’re sparked by black people going about their everyday lives, only to be interrupted by someone calling the police for the thinnest of suspicions.

In the past month, more than a handful of such interactions have attracted widespread attention on social media — and, in turn, in national outlets like the New York Times, CNN and the Washington Post.

“It happens so frequently to people of color that we don’t often think of it as a big deal or as particularly newsworthy,” said Paul Butler, a Georgetown University law professor who is the author of “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.”

He added, “It’s humiliating and aggravating and upsetting, but the idea that it’s national news is unexpected.”

It’s also encouraging, he said. Half the African-Americans surveyed last year by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said they had personally experienced racial discrimination in police interactions.

But until recently, the cellphone videos of these everyday interactions weren’t constantly going viral, and the news stories were far less common. Now routine police interactions, those that don’t end in an arrest or violence but still leave people shaken, are entering national consciousness in a way they have not in the past.

Here are six instances in just the past month that have exploded on social media and made national headlines, and what the people were doing when the police were called.

NAPPING IN A DORM’S COMMON ROOM

Lolade Siyonbola, a graduate student in African studies at Yale, fell asleep while working on a “marathon of papers” Monday night. At 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, a woman who lived in the dorm turned on the lights and called the Yale police, telling Siyonbola she wasn’t allowed to sleep in there. Several officers arrived, and Siyonbola showed them the key to her apartment and her ID.

A Yale spokeswoman said the officers followed procedures, but Kimberly M. Goff-Crews, the university’s vice president for student life, said in an email to students she was “deeply troubled” by the episode. On Thursday, Yale made a point to emphasize that officers had told the caller that this was not a police matter.

SHOPPING FOR CLOTHES

Three teenagers looking for last-minute deals before a prom were trailed by Nordstrom Rack employees in suburban St. Louis on May 3. When they left the store carrying the items they bought, they were met by the police outside. The officers let them go after looking at their receipts and inside their bags and car.

Nordstrom Rack’s president called the three men to apologize. A company spokeswoman said in a statement the employees didn’t follow policy, which directs employees to call the police only in emergencies.

LEAVING AN AIRBNB

Three black people loaded suitcases into their car after staying at an Airbnb in Rialto, California, on April 30, but they were halted by police after a neighbor suspected they were burglars. They were questioned by officers as a helicopter flew overhead.

The women are suing the Rialto Police Department, which said in a statement it was “confident officers treated the involved individuals with dignity, respect and professionalism.” Airbnb said in a statement that the guests’ treatment was “unconscionable.”

TOURING A COLLEGE CAMPUS

The everyday suspicions are not limited to African-Americans. Other people of color face increased scrutiny. On April 30, two Native American brothers were touring Colorado State University when a parent reported them to campus police, saying their behavior and band T-shirts were suspicious. Officers pulled them aside and questioned them for about four minutes before releasing them to rejoin the tour, but the guide had moved on.

The university said it was “sad and frustrating from nearly every angle,” and offered to reimburse the prospective students for the trip and bring them back as VIP guests.

PLAYING GOLF

An owner and employees of Grandview Golf Club in Dover Township, Pennsylvania, called police on a group of black women who they said were playing too slowly on April 21. Officers left the golf course after they “quickly determined that this was not a police issue,” said Mark L. Bentzel, chief of the Northern York County Regional Police Department.

No charges were filed and one of the women, Sandra Thompson, said on Facebook “the police were respectful.” Jordan and J.J. Chronister, co-owners of the golf club, said in a statement that “the interaction between our members and our ownership progressed in a manner that was not reflective of our company’s values or expectations for our own professionalism.”

SITTING IN A STARBUCKS

Two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were waiting for another man for a business meeting at a Starbucks in downtown Philadelphia on April 12. An employee asked them to leave, and called police when they refused.

The men settled with the city of Philadelphia for $1 apiece and a pledge to spend $200,000 to help young entrepreneurs. Starbucks apologized and reached a confidential financial settlement with the men, and said it would close all its stores in the United States on May 29 to give 175,000 employees anti-bias training.

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