See Something, Say Something – But Think First

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“The call came out as a young man, 10 to 12 years old that was passing out a gun.  And the description fully matched the individual that they stopped.”  That is Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie Johnson defending his department’s decision to handcuff an innocent 10 year old black child.  Stop it!  He’s a child, a boy, not a young man.  He fit the description?  Really!  Is this still happening?  Is the police listening?

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested after a neighbor saw him attempting to enter his own home when he was locked out.  Remember,  his “neighbor” didn’t think Gates was the homeowner and placed the call.

A white golf club owner called the police on a group of black women for “golfing too slow” at the club . . .  where they are members.

Two Native American brothers on a tour of Colorado State University were reported to campus police as suspicious because a parent with the tour thought their behavior and clothing were odd.  The call was made after the parent was convinced that at least one was Mexican (after asking if the teens were white).

A young black real estate investor is questioned by the police after a neighbor reported suspicious activity at the home the investor was inspecting prior to a renovation project.

Members of a black sorority were questioned by a state trooper while picking up litter on a Pennsylvania highway.

A black Yale University student was interrogated by police after her white dorm neighbor called the police because she was napping in a common area.

A neighbor reported a burglary in progress as a group of black women left their Airbnb in Rialto, California.

A manager at a Philadelphia Starbucks called police on two black men who were waiting for a business associate before ordering.

What’s happening here?  What do all these people see that I don’t?  What are they thinking when they make that call?  Simply put, people see something and they say something.  What do they see?  They see a person of color doing everyday things.  What do they say?  They say what they think – those people don’t belong in their world.

Soon after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, there was talk about what could have prevented those attacks.  Allen Kay, chairman and chief executive of Korey Kay & Partners, a Manhattan advertising agency, coined the phrase If You See Something, Say Something on September 12, 2001.  The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (one of Kay’s clients) trademarked the slogan and implemented a security awareness campaign in 2002.  The slogan was soon licensed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a nationwide campaign.

Has a new See Something, Say Something campaign been borne of the 2002 campaign?  Much like the DHS campaign that began as an effort to create greater public awareness of terrorism indicators or terrorism-related activity, the new campaign has led to a greater awareness of people of color engaged in normal daily activities.  Let me be clear . . . I was a member of Homeland Security Investigations when the campaign began.  I don’t believe there was some covert conspiracy to attack people of color.  But I will say that because the campaign focused on terrorism the focus was on people from other countries, and most of those people were people of color.

Let’s not blame calls to the police about “suspicious” people of color on the current administration.  For years, when Americans see something it’s a person of color.  And when Americans say something it’s that the person’s presence, activities or appearance isn’t normal to them and, therefore, is threatening (translation: call 911).  The campaign worked.

Sometimes these calls result in incarcerations, beatings or deaths of people engaged in normal daily activities.  Every time they result in humiliation and embarrassment.  Just as the neighbor, retail manager or golf club manager exhibits bias against people of color, so does the police when they arrive.  The investigation of facts is often one-sided.  We just can’t continue to traumatize 10 year old boys because “he fit the description”.  We can’t continue to proclaim that the officer followed protocol when complaints are filed or footage of the encounters appear.  We have to think before we act.

I want to be a figure for prison reform. I think that the criminal justice system is rotten. – Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

While we spend a lot of time talking about the potential of these encounters ending in fatal police shootings that is just one prong of the problem.  Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said it best . . . using handwritten placards instead of speaking.  It’s simply time to stop talking and commit to action.  Is America really not listening . . . not thinking?  Is the data on prison population, arrest trends, fatal police shootings and reports of police brutality not reaching large swaths of the population?  Is a knee in the back or chest during a police encounter more patriotic than a knee during the performance of the national anthem?

That said, wake up people!  Step up and take action against this injustice.  People say they don’t see color but don’t these incidents say we should?  Look, there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that a person is different if we treat that person with dignity.

We’ve been shown the forest.  It’s time for us to stop staring at the trees.