From Starbucks to Hashtags: We Need to Talk About Why White Americans Call the Police on Black People

“Don’t you fucking walk away! Don’t fucking walk away from me!” the 20-something-year-old woman screamed as she followed after the 20-something-year-old guy who just got out of her car. It was 2 a.m.; only the streetlights were on, but the guy was clearly done with his girlfriend (probably ex-girlfriend at this point) and was just trying to get inside the building.

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“You fucking asshole!” she screamed and ran after him, jumping onto his back for the angriest piggyback ride in history. He tussled with her for a bit, managing to slide her off his back with a thud. Then he kept walking to the apartment, cursing at her to leave him alone. This was several years ago—my friend Josh and I were awkwardly watching the whole thing. All we wanted to do was move a few final boxes into my first apartment in Laurel, Md., but this Real Housewives of Potomac cutscene was blocking our path to my second-floor unit.

“I’m gonna call the cops! I’ll tell them you hit me!” the woman screamed, sitting on the grass and pointing at her ex. “I’ll tell them you beat me up. They’ll get your ass.”


The man stopped dead in his tracks, turned around and gave her a look of shock, anger and then unmitigated fear. He was black. She was white. He knew exactly what she was saying and so did I, and most horrendously, so did she. When white people threaten to call the police on black people—out of anger, out of spite, out of pure vindictiveness—they are effectively saying, “I’ll kill you!” They’re just using a legal extension of white supremacy to do it. It’s high time we start considering these bigots just as much a threat as the police they summon to do their bidding.

This week, black America added “sitting at Starbucks waiting for a white friend” to the list of things that we cannot safely do without fear of police violence. Previous entries included sitting in your car, sitting in someone else’s car, standing on your front porch, standing on your back porch, surviving a car accident, asking for directions to school and, of course, breathing.


As a black man in America who has been harassed by police more times than I can count, I wasn’t surprised by the viral Starbucks video at all. However, my anger is directed not just at the cops but also at the cowardly Starbucks manager who made the call to the police to begin with. The men and women making these outrageous and unwarranted calls to police, which result in the harassment, unfair prosecution and even death of people of color, need to be found, publicly shamed and prosecuted to the full extent that the law allows.

No, I’m not talking about Dave Reiling, the man who reported an actual crime in Sacramento, Calif., that the police used as an excuse to shoot Stephon Clark in his own backyard. Calling the police to report an actual crime that the police overact to is not the citizen’s fault, no matter what color he or she is. I’m talking about the hundreds of cases—that we know about—every year, where white Americans actively and knowingly use the police as an extension of their personal bigotry yet face no consequences.


I’m talking about the white woman at the Red Roof Inn outside of Pittsburgh who called the cops on me because I disputed the charges on my bill and asked to speak to a manager. I’m talking about the white woman who called the cops on me last year even though she knew I was walking with political canvassers for Jon Ossoff’s congressional campaign in North Atlanta. I’m talking about the police officer who followed me behind my house in Hiram, Ohio, asking where I lived because he’d “gotten some calls about robberies.”

In each and every single one of these instances, a white person used the cops as his or her personal racism valets, and I was the one getting served. In each of these instances, I could have been arrested, beaten up or worse based on nothing more than the word of a white person whom I made uncomfortable. As sick as this all is, I still consider myself lucky.


Tamir Rice was killed at the tender age of 12 because a man who admitted to spending the afternoon drinking called 911 to report a “juvenile” who was probably carrying a “fake” gun. Constance Hollinger, the 911 dispatcher, who failed to deliver that information to the cops, got an eight-day suspension but kept her job, and there was no investigation into the caller. Tamir is still dead.

Then there’s Ronald T. Ritchie, who told 911 that John Crawford III was running around Walmart “menacing children” with a shotgun. Crawford, holding a BB gun—sold at Walmart—in the open carry state of Ohio, was shot and killed by police. Despite clear evidence that Ritchie lied to the 911 dispatcher, which is a crime, no charges were filed against him.


You can get arrested for pulling a fire alarm, making fake bomb threats and making false claims of an alien invasion—why not a false police report that results in death? We should be pushing for prosecution against these callers just as much as the cops who pull the trigger.

That’s why I knew Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson’s statement on the Philadelphia incident was trash: “Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated the way it did ... ”


Either Johnson is lying or hasn’t been white in America as long as I’ve been black in America. Calling the police is the epitome of escalation, and calling the police on black people for noncrimes is a step away from asking for a tax-funded beatdown, if not an execution. That Starbucks manager didn’t call the police in hopes that they’d politely ask two black customers to buy a latte or leave, just as the angry woman in front of my apartment wasn’t threatening to call the cops just to get her boyfriend to listen to her. The intent of these actions is to remind black people that the ultimate consequence of discomforting white people—let alone angering them—could be death.

As horrible as the realities of American policing can be for black America, we can’t ever forget that there are even worse people out there. They’re peering out from the curtains of their house, information kiosks and “liberal” coffee counters, surreptitiously dialing their phones, whispering the exaggerations and Trumped-up fears that make America’s violent policing possible.


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