STOP Calling the Police – Engage Instead

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Yet another incident of a white person calling the police or security on a black person came to my attention today. In this instance, it was a man walking with his son in a stroller in D.C. #ParentingWhileBlack. I immediately thought of a situation that seemed relevant to this incredible barrage of circumstances in which white people call the police (or security) on a black person for no reason other than being black.

One day I was walking into a pet food store (the pet food store shares a parking lot with a grocery store and a few other establishments – I had just come from the grocery store), and I noticed a baby (maybe 6 months old) sitting alone in his car seat in the back of the car. There was no adult in the car or nearby. The sky light to the car was open and the window near the baby was cracked open. The doors were locked.
I felt concerned and did not know what to do. The child was African American. I knew one thing for sure, I would not call the police. I called out loud and no one responded. There were enough stores around that it seemed futile to begin walking into different stores, and I did not want to leave the child alone. So I decided to wait. I was hoping that the parent (or caretaker) would arrive shortly. I went up to the window next to the child, who was happily playing in his car seat and enjoying himself, so I knew he was fine. I called my husband on my cell phone because I noticed the discomfort in my body and I wanted to have support to manage my discomfort so I didn’t do something stupid – like call the police!
After maybe 3 minutes (it felt like a lifetime!), the father (also African American) came out and opened the car door (I was still on the phone). I felt a huge sense of relief. I said to him, “oh, thank god you’re here. I was worried.” I believe I then said to my husband on the phone, “the father’s here.” The father said to me, “What do you think, that I would just leave my child unattended in a car? He’s safe. The doors are locked, the skylight is open, and his window is cracked. I ran inside for a minute to get a banana” which he then proceeded to give to his child (still oblivious to the drama surrounding him). I said, “I understand, I was just concerned and wanted to make sure he was ok.” He said, “There’s no reason to be concerned. I am a responsible parent.” I said, “I’m sorry. I just was concerned.”
I then went into the pet food store, still talking to my husband. My heart was racing both from relief that the child was ok and from the awkward and unpleasant interaction with the father. I said to my husband that I felt terrible because I did not mean to upset the man, I genuinely was just concerned for the child and wanted to make sure he was ok. And then I realized,oh shit, I was on the phone when he came out, he probably thought I was on the phone with the police.I said goodbye to my husband and ran back outside to see if the man was still there. Fortunately, he was.
I said to him (through the open skylight in the car), “Oh my god, I am so sorry. I just realized I was on the phone when you came out and given the racism in our society and people calling the police on Black people all the time, you probably thought I was on the phone with the police. I am really sorry. I wasn’t. I was on the phone with my husband. I am so, so sorry. I did not mean to frighten you. I genuinely wanted to make sure your son was ok and was just standing there until you returned.” He said, “I know. I am sorry I reacted the way I did. I would have done the same thing. I would have been concerned too. It’s just that we are judged so much as parents and people make the worst assumptions about us and I got upset.” I said, “I completely understand. I truly am sorry to have upset and scared you.” He said, “Thank you. Hey, do you and your husband ever go hiking? There’s a group of people who go hiking [in a park near where we were] and we talk about what’s going on in the world, etc.” He explained the hikes are on Saturday and I explained that Saturday is my Shabbat and I do not drive on Shabbat so unfortunately could not join him. I thanked him for the invitation. We exchanged names and a handshake and went our separate ways.
Lesson: When you feel concerned about something and want to make sure the situation is ok, it behooves you to check your own biases and fears. If you are uncomfortable call someone other than the police so you can process your fears and biases. Speak to the person directly, you never know, you just might have a lovely interaction, as we did, and learn something new about yourself, about someone else, and about humanity. The truth is that the vast majority of people of all races, genders, religions, and socio-economic classes are good people who are trying their best to lead ethical, caring lives. It is time we see each other’s humanity and meet each other with an open, curious, compassionate heart. It is time we stop calling the police because we are uncomfortable or afraid. If your life is not endanger,  do not call the police. If someone else’s life is not actually in danger,  do not call the police. There are a zillion ways to handle situations that are unfamiliar to us or that make us uncomfortable, the easiest of which is to talk in a respectful way to the person (or people).