“Pay it forward” is something you hear a lot in the restaurants and shops of Oakland, Calif. If you see a stranger in distress and you can help, you stop what you are doing and support them. The concept of doing for someone as you would want them to do to you is a fundamental philosophy for many who are from this city. I can only hope it catches on more in our society, especially in the times we face now.
It was in one of those local restaurants that I received the text from my husband, Kenzie Smith, on a typical, beautiful Sunday in Oakland. My husband woke up that morning, April 29, and invited me to join him at Lake Merritt for a barbecue with his friend. I had planned to join him that day, after a mother-daughter bonding brunch with our twin 18-year-olds, even though the three of us are college students and needed to focus on homework afterward.
That day, the text I received showed a picture of a woman standing in front of him looking as if she was on her phone. The text message said, “If I go to jail, this who did it to me.”
Hearing stories from my husband about being harassed for being black is nothing new. He’s faced racist remarks at his job. When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, one of his co-workers said, “You’ll be slaves again,” as a “joke” to my husband and his black co-worker. The company he worked for disciplined the man by cutting his hours, but my husband still has to work with him.
Kenzie has had a police officer pull a gun on him for fitting a description and refusing to let the officer take his work bag as he was leaving his job. Sadly, that is not the only foul interaction with police he’s faced. There are also the daily microaggressions, like store clerks following him to make sure he is not stealing, something I have witnessed so many times, I feel the need to follow him myself so the clerks won’t.
Every time I’ve heard these stories and seen his emotional state, I’ve told him that he should report the events, but he did not like being put on display as a victim. It has always taken a long time for Kenzie to process these experiences. With each attack, I’ve watched him grow emotionally stronger. He knows that these incidents do not define who he is, and he will not allow them to define his character.
Kenzie knew that this time, when the white woman called the police on him and his friend barbecuing, I would immediately confront the situation while documenting it. He also felt relief that I was there to witness it.
When I walked up to the scene with our daughters standing by in support, I saw my husband; his friend, Onsayo Abram; and a black woman later identified as Angela Williams. Williams told me she was documenting the scene and standing there waiting for police so that she could make sure she could share her account of the event. She was worried that the white woman would lie to police as she kept aggressively telling Kenzie and Onsayo that they were going to go to jail.
I knew that I was the only one who could confront the white woman, who has recently been identified as Jennifer Schulte. I could imagine a black woman doing what I did and felt certain that if that were the case, there would be more urgent calls for police to come to the scene from people in the apartments across the street overlooking the lake.
As long as I did not touch Schulte, who was pretending to be on the phone with police when I walked up to her, I would likely not be arrested or even touched by a police officer. We would look like two crazy white women arguing in the street, and, in general, society sees white women as harmless and nonthreatening.
What later became a viral video (currently at over 2 million views), and inspiring countless memes and even a spot on Saturday Night Live, was nothing short of surprising to us all. When I came to the scene, camera phone set to record, I expected Schulte to back down in shame from being recorded. Instead, she continued to escalate the situation. It was not until later that night, after reviewing the video, that I realized what I had. It was a disturbing display of just how dangerous white women can be when performing a victim act for police. Schulte gave a 101 class on how to use the police to criminalize innocent people.
The story was relatable to many, for a variety of reasons. For one, barbecuing with family is a sacred American tradition that everyone enjoys. There was growing disgust in the way Schulte was seen abusing the police system at a local level. As Schulte complained about charcoal and wasting taxpayer money, many Oakland residents already remain frustrated with police resources taking a large chunk of our city budget.
Then there were the many people of all different races and backgrounds who saw the video of Schulte in action as evidence of racism being very much alive in America, and dangerous. If it can happen in a diverse city like Oakland, it can happen anywhere.
What Schulte probably did not anticipate was the backlash from her actions, providing an opportunity for the “old Oakland” residents to feel comfortable barbecuing at Lake Merritt again.
After the fall of the economy in 2008, many people in California and across the country lost their homes. At the same time, Silicon Valley expanded and grew, hiring many people from outside the Bay Area and causing a massive strain on locals. Homelessness grew, and the new residents of Oakland clashed with the native residents and their culture.
The police are often called on black residents who have lived in Oakland all their lives—for things like being too loud at church, or drumming at Lake Merritt. Lake Merritt became a particular battleground, and as a result, new ordinances were put in place not only for barbecuing with charcoal but also for noise levels and groups of people gathering as they naturally do at the lake. Now those get-togethers required expensive permits. Many generational Oakland residents felt that the ordinances were a direct attack on the black community, which has gathered at Lake Merritt for decades.
Instead of trash cans being provided, new rules were posted for residents with the expectation that the Oakland Police Department would be able to keep up with citations, something the department does not have the resources for. Should they respond to a barbecue complaint about the use of charcoal at Lake Merritt, or to the possible act of violent crime across town?
The lessons learned from our viral video are a lot deeper than park rules. It has sparked a debate that unified many in a discussion about race and how some people will use the police to control public spaces. There are others, like Schulte, who call the police to control the environment around them, as if they have an authoritarian rule. Although people like Schulte are by far not the majority, it only takes a small group of people to advocate controlling public spaces to keep out whomever they deem undesirable.
Calling the police on black people doing regular, everyday things in public spaces reminds me of the Jim Crow era. It shook me to my core that we could be sliding that far back in our society.
What we need is more than just allies who stand on the side of black Americans; we need to do more than agree with their stances and recirculate their social media posts. We have to be better human beings overall. We have to stop caring what anyone thinks about us speaking out, we need to stop worrying about being polite, we need to stop being afraid and call out all the Schultes in the world, those who impede the freedom of others.
Now is not the time to hide in fear. Now is the time to act, speak up and document real life because this is a turning point in our history that must be forever recognized as the time when we decided to stand strong together. We must not be known as yet another generation that failed to prevent a repeat of inhumane actions.
I’ve been thanked countless times for what I did when I documented the events in the park on that Sunday. All I can ask is for others to pay it forward so that we may have strength in our communities and stop all acts of harassment.
Michelle Dione Snider is the BBQ Becky slayer, creator of that viral video from Oakland, Calif. Journalism student, mother of twins and wife. Writing is a gateway leading truth to power.