You! Step Away From The Nine!

In the 1980s, humid summer nights found my sister and me playing on the street where my grandmother lived. On the very rare occasions that our parents would go out of town without us, spending the night at my grandmother’s would lead to every kid in her neighborhood playing on the no-outlet street well past the illumination of the streetlights.

Our favorite game to play, late into the evening, was “12 o’clock, Midnight,” or for those of you unfamiliar, Hide-And-Go-Seek, mixed with Freeze Tag, under the cover of darkness. The game would always end in uncontrollable laughter, as all players would congregate back into the middle of the dark asphalt.

Almost every single time, while standing on this dimly lit, lazily paved road, someone would find a lull in the conversation to yell out, “What’s that?!” Without looking to see what the individual was talking about, every kid would take off running. About 200 yards later, a distance that was covered in time that would rival Usain Bolt himself, everyone would realize that the person that yelled out the warning was just playing a joke. On rare occasions when the alarmist did see “something,” it would turn out to be the neighborhood stray cat, or a random raccoon looking to get out of our way.

Yet…. every time, regardless of past times, we would immediately assume the worse when someone would yell out, “What’s that?!” We would take off running, without assessing the situation, because as far as we were concerned, our lives were at stake.

Our lives were never at stake.

Reminiscing leads to epiphanies….

This is not about the police.

If you’re a fan of the blog (thank you by the way…sharing is caring) you know that I have addressed certain instances where the police were clearly out of line. And while it’s easy (and often warranted) to accuse the police of their inability to deescalate certain situations, I’m here to submit that maybe, sometimes…it’s not them at all.


Just maybe….

They got a “What’s that?!

But in this case, it comes in the form of a 911 call.

We currently live in a society where it’s quite common to ‘What’s that?!’ the police every time a Black man is spotted doing…well…anything.

“Here you go, pulling the race card.”

Yeah. Well, that’s the deck we’re playing with today.

And News Flash: That’s the deck we as Black People are dealt everyday.

Shh, shh, shh. I know it’s a hard pill to swallow, or even a hard scenario to believe, but it’s true. Racism hasn’t died; it had grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And even though it may not say the N-word, or burn crosses in our yards, it is still ever present; it still carries its prejudices, it’s still implicitly biased, and we, people of color, deal with it every single day.

And it calls 911 on us.

No–not a sometimes…a lot of times.

When we were younger we were all told by an important figure that if we were ever in a dangerous situation, we should call 911.

Fire—call 911

Medical emergency—call 911

Kidnapping—call 911

Black person, most specifically a man, doing anything—call 911

Wait…that last one was not apart of our lesson… but it’s a thing. There are some people who immediately assume the situation is dangerous because a Black person, most of the time a man, appears.

No–not just sometimes….A lot of times! Like…a lot of times.

As a result you get:

A young man violently arrested while waiting to use the ATM, a teacher violently arrested after retrieving money from the ATM, a 12-year old shot dead in park over a BB gun, a man shot dead in Walmart over a air rifle, an engineering doctoral candidate violently arrested after being falsely accused of stealing his own car, a man holding a cell phone being gunned down in his back yard, a group of women being escorted off a wine train, a man being arrested after withdrawing money from his own bank account inside the bank, a 13-year-old having a gun pulled on him while trying to build a tree house, a group of kids being escorted home by police for playing a pick-up basketball game on their own street, a new grandfather being violently tackled to the ground, leading to his partial paralysis, for taking a leisure stroll through his daughter’s neighborhood….

These things have happened, to black or brown people, all because a certain demographic of 911 callers “What’s that-ed” the police.

As a result, black people have prepared speeches that we give our kids on how to not cause a “what’s that?!

We make our children change their clothesto look “nicer” if we know they may be in a situation where they will be the minority.

We teach our sons to take the bass out of their vocal tones when addressing individuals that would perceive the heavier sound as an act of defiance or disrespect.

We tell our kids what they can and can’t play with regardless of where they are.

We have different voices we use so we sound “less angry” or “less upset,” because people of color recognize the “uncomfortable” look on others’ faces.

We sometimes don’t report terrible treatment in business establishments because we don’t want the situation to “escalate.”

We smile to lighten the frowns on our faces to make sure that they know we aren’t there to harm anyone…

“We wear the mask that grins…”*


Because we know we are always one 911 call away from being mistaken as the problem in the situation we were just being human in.

And it works, I guess? Because the most infuriating comment I read was from a blonde woman who wrote:

“Can we just applaud these men on how they got arrested? Their behavior should be commended. They remained calm and polite. They are an excellent example at how to act in this situation.”

Because essentially, our black men bear the burden of not looking suspicious, being non-threatening, deescalating the situation when the police arrive, remaining calm in the face of several armed officers, and fighting against their own flight or fight reaction in the presence of their own fear…

All because someone may “what’s that?!” the police.

So, I guess we should just let crime happen and not call the police!”

No. And stop doing that! Stop making us seem like we’re making this up or that we’re blowing things out of proportion. We are telling you that this is common! Get out of your feelings and listen!

It’s irritating and simultaneously exhausting to have to say this, but 911 is not a personal hotline to your ‘good friend’ when you feel kind of uncomfortable with the black people in the vicinity of your area, mostly because someone convinced you that black people commit crimes more often than not.That’s not true and that’s not how this works!

Because if those are the rules we’re playing by, every time a blonde, gingered, brown or brunette-haired white man walks into a movie theater, middle school, high school, daycare, bank, church, college campus, hotel on the Vegas strip, restaurant, state park, new land, or new country, —we’re going to call the police.

Sound ludicrous?

Yeah, it is.

It truly is.

You know I’m right.

-Danita LaShelle

* Excerpt from, “We Wear The Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar,  Lyrics of Lowly Life, 1896

Photo by from Pexels

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