Michigan city moves to criminalize calling 911 on people of color who are just living their lives

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KTVU / YouTube

Sweeping amendments to a 66-year-old human rights ordinance might make Grand Rapids, Mich. the latest city to try to tackle the epidemic of racially-motivated abuses of emergency services. The planned changes “would make it a criminal misdemeanor to racially profile people of color for ‘participating in their lives.’”

Diversity and Inclusion Manager Patti Caudill said the ordinance is a new concept in Michigan. It isn’t meant to discourage 911 calls, she said. Rather, it’s meant to make people “check their biases” before calling the police.

“Call the police, but if you’re calling because your neighbors are having a barbecue and you’re calling because of some implicit bias because they’re people of color, we don’t want to see that,” she said.

The scenarios Caudill cites are all too familiar these days: White people keep calling 911 on people of color while they’re simply trying to live their best lives. The depressing #LivingWhileBlack hashtag never lacks new fodder, since black people face the brunt of these racist actions that waste valuable first-responder resources. The epidemic, which we can only hope peaked in 2018, showed the nation just how hard it is to be a person of color in spaces that bigots have declared to be for “whites only.”

CNN’s end of year roundup of the epidemic is a stark and unapologetic reminder of just how prevalent this particular iteration of racism has become.

In 2018, police across the United States have been urged to investigate black people for doing all kinds of daily, mundane, noncriminal activities.

This year alone, police have been called on African-Americans for:

Operating a lemonade store

So how, exactly, does Grand Rapids plan to fight not just the abuse of 911, but the racism that fuels it?

The proposed changes include:

  • Identifying four primary potential areas of discrimination, which are discriminatory practices in housing, employment, contracting, and bias crime reporting. Each area has its own section in the ordinance.
  • Adding a “bias crime reporting prohibition” and making it a criminal misdemeanor to racially profile people of color for participating in their lives. That is, no person shall make a police report that is based in whole or in part on an individual’s membership in a protected class and not on a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in consideration of all available facts and the totality of the circumstances.

The River City is hoping that threatening the pocketbooks of would-be BBQ Beckys and Pool Patrol Paulas will make them re-think their choice to dial 911 on a person of color for no reason. Violations would be subject to a $500 fine.

But is that punishment sufficient in the face of the potential impact on the victims of these racist acts? Elsewhere, other approaches are emerging.

New York state senator Jesse Hamilton, who was profiled while canvassing in his district while black, wants to make calling 911 on innocent people of color a hate crime. 

“Living while black is not a crime. But making a false report, especially motivated by hate, should be. Our laws should recognize that false reports with hateful intent can have deadly consequences.”

Meanwhile, just a couple hours southeast of Grand Rapids, a Detroit man is fighting back after his life was turned upside down by three white women who simply could not accept his presence in their neighborhood.

Last May, (Marc) Peeples was arrested and charged with stalking after three white women—Deborah Nash, Martha Callahan, and Jennifer Morris—made up stories accusing him of violence, death threats, and criminal activity. The case against him was thrown out last year after a judge said the charges were “ridiculous” and “disgusting.” The judge also criticized police for saying that the women made credible claims.

Peeples says the case was devastating.

[…]

(H)e lost his garden and work contracts, and had to spend money on defense attorneys who could help him get out of jail. As his lawsuit moves forward, Peeples says he believes there should be more accountability for the people making unnecessary 911 calls.

“People make it a joke and make up these nicknames,” he said. “But lives have been destroyed and lives have been lost for these reasons.”

Peeples filed a $300,000 lawsuit against Nash, Callahan, and Morris on March 1.

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