• Garth Wolkoff

Calling 911 While Becky

When police shot and killed Saheed Vassell in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, earlier this year, terribly on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, talk was not only about another police killing of a Black man without a gun. Some people in the neighborhood questioned the source of three 911 calls about Vassell, a familiar neighborhood figure with a bipolar disorder.

According to The New York Times and other news sources, word on the street in Crown Heights was that the calls were placed by, as Ginia Bellafante wrote, "outsiders — new arrivals who had become synonymous with the Crown Heights of untenable rents and contrived adventures in millennial night life...The notion that the invaders, afraid of what they did not know, were surely responsible, exemplified the growing terror around gentrification circulating in Central Brooklyn, which is experiencing one of the most acute housing crises in the country."

Afraid of what they do not know.

What happens when outsiders move into a new neighborhood and are confronted with new people, new culture, new practices? To ask bluntly: What happens when white people move to a new neighborhood and suddenly find themselves immersed in a culture they're not used to? What happens when white people, used to white spaces, enter a Black space?

I have been an outsider most of my life. For most of the nearly 30 years, since I graduated college, I have lived in Black or Latino neighborhoods: San Francisco's Western Addition, Oakland's Lake Merit, Washington DC's Columbia Heights, Maryland's Silver Spring, and Brooklyn's Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy. All were at various stages of gentrifying, or at least changing. I lived there for different reasons. On one occasion I moved in with a girlfriend. Another I moved across the country to attend graduate school. In San Francisco, I moved into the Western Addition after moving back from teaching English in Istanbul, and my best friend happened to be looking for a roommate. In every case, I moved into an apartment or rented a room in a house I could afford. In Clinton Hill in 1997, the rent for my room was $450 a month. I had no job. Now, my two-bedroom apartment in Bed-Stuy is $2,000 a month (please don't raise my rent!).

I am writing these stories on this website to understand my place as an outsider. The cautionary tale of Saheed Vassell, if only one of those 911 callers was made by an outsider, underscores an important point. When people are faced with something new, even frightening, calling the police might not be the first option, or the best. White people, and other outsiders, need to remember: The police have different relationships with different groups of people, and that is to put it politely and euphemistically.

I could not easily find data on 911 calls. However, data on 311, which people use to make noise or other so-called quality of life complaints, is staggering. In Crown Heights, where the police shot Vassell, and neighboring Lefferts Gardens, calls to 311 went from 11,515 in 2010 to 37,039 in 2017, according to the local publication Brooklyn Paper. One organization, Equality for Flatbush, which is a neighborhood south of Bed-Stuy, advises people to call mental health workers before the police. Imani Henry, who spoke "to a mostly white crowd" at a meeting in May to discuss alternatives to 911, "urged the crowd to consider alternatives, like contacting a mental health or medical care worker at Thrive NYC at (888) 692–9355 to assess if an emergency response is necessary. Such a call could result in a trained mental health counselor intervening instead of police," reported Colin Mixson.

Eric Garner's death may be another example of how space changes with police, gentrification, and race, and how those changes can be deadly. In July of 2014, the neighborhood in Staten Island where Garner reportedly sold loosies--single cigarettes--hadn't drawn much police attention before it had begun to "see some economic development," according to The Atlantic . Misdemeanor offenses, which The Atlantic describes as increasing with more police presence, had risen recently in the neighborhood. "After a landlord made a 311 complaint regarding illegal drug and cigarette sales taking place outside his apartment building, officers began to closely monitor the area." Within months, Garner was killed by a police officer. This is not blame gentrification for Garner's death. Or the landlord who called 311. Rather, this is to say that there is a context of white people calling the police to enforce social mores--a long, bitter, deadly, and racially motivated context.

Here in Bed-Stuy, the 79th Police Precinct sits practically catty-corner to Tompkins Park, named after a 19th Century Governor, Abolitionist, and President Monroe's Vice President for two terms, Daniel D. Tompkins; it was renamed Herbert Von King Jr. Park, in honor of a Bed-Stuy community leader, in 1985. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the architects of Central Park and Prospect Park, designed Tompkins Park, which opened in 1873. It is simply stunning, the park, closer in size to the Robert Mose' pocket parks than the grand parks that act as center pieces of the Manhattan and Brooklyn. There is a baseball diamond in Tompkins Park. Basketball courts. Lawns. Two playgrounds with jungle gyms, swings, and sprinklers. An actively used amphitheater. Lots of tables and benches. A cultural center.

What is to become of Tompkins Park as gentrification grows? Since the weather turned warm this year, a cafe opened up across the street from the park, the cafe pictured above. There is also a dog run that has been in the park since 1990. There is a vegetable market on the sidewalk outside the dog run. Sometimes, a man sets up a bartering market, where people bring gently used consumer items and take what they need. A truck pulls up once a week that allows people to spay or neuter their dogs and cats.

On summer weekends, the park becomes a party, with BBQs, kids, music, some pot smoking, dancing, and some drinking. Most of the people doing the partying are Black and local, as evidenced by people carrying fixings in on Saturday mornings. Last weekend, as I took my girlfriend's dog for a walk before dusk, I noticed that the east half, abutting Tompkins, was mostly black, while there was a small pocket of Latino BBQers closer to Marcy Avenue, on the far end of the park. Toward the Green Avenue side, where the new cafe is, were most of the white people I saw, sitting in benches or on blankets.

My thoughts turned toward Barbecue Becky.

You remember her. She called 911 on some Black barbecuers in my old Oakland neighborhood of Lake Merit this past spring, citing a confused danger posed by the men cooking. Her YouTube video, above, went viral, and she became one of the national symbols of Living While Black--such as the two Black real estate agents in a Philadelphia Starbucks who had the police called on them for doing what so many white people do in Starbucks, which was waiting for someone else to show up; the Black Yale student who had school authorities called on her for napping in a dorm common room; the little Black girl, also in California, for selling bottled water on the sidewalk without a permit; and the list has gone on this year.

What happens to public spaces, or private spaces treated like public spaces such as cafes, when neighborhoods gentrify?

Doreen St. Félix wrote in The New Yorker, "The [Philadelphia Starbucks video]...crystallized the way in which unnecessary 911 calls precipitate the kinds of police interaction that can end catastrophically for black and brown people. It also showcased the banality of racism: it was a reminder that coffee shops, with all the dawdling they encourage, are a 'white space.'”

I know some people will cringe at the idea of white space and Black space, especially in the "Why can't we all just get along" spirit of Rodney King. But we saw what happened to Rodney King. We don't all just get along. We move in spaces racially stratified and constructed. Remember that for most of American history--yeah, I said most--there have been private and public spaces where Black people could not go, and the threats against were real and they were mortal: neighborhoods with restrictive housing covenants, hotels and universities, buses and public schools, the list is very long. It has only been in the last 50 or so years that Separate But Equal has been made illegal, although such newer laws are not always followed and the spirit more often ignored. To think of public and private space as racially free or neutral spaces is sadly naive.

At the gigantic Kosciuszko Pool on Marcy Avenue near my house, swimmers clearly carved out white and Black space. The city built a number of small pools at or next to public parks between 1970-'72. The Kosciuszko Pool, which opened July 2, 1971, was an exception, measuring 230 feet by 100 feet. This past Sunday afternoon, in the shallow end, Black children, teenagers, and parents swam and played. At the far end, mostly white people swam laps (where only lap swimming is allowed). White people in their 20s and 30s stuck together near that far end, both in and out of the pool. In the two-thirds shallow and mid-depth of the pool, only a light sprinkle of white folks swam and played, and again, we were mostly parents with our children. What was evident was that white families didn't populate the free pool, but white young adults--and I'm inferring that they are new-comers to the neighborhood--did.

There is nothing wrong with white people lap swimming as there is nothing wrong with black parents and their children playing in the other end. What I saw was that racial groups, for unconscious reasons, or conscious, socially carved up the pool space. Now, perhaps I wasn't looking before, didn't notice, didn't even care, but this time, there were two uniformed police officers watching the action inside the pool. Had there always been police officers there before? And on that same day, Tompkins Park has so many uniformed police officers that even my 9-year-old daughter asked what they were doing there. One has to ask, not that the police officers were doing anything wrong either, but who were they there to protect? What laws could have been broken? The pool staff seemed extremely adept at holding us to the many pool rules.

"The wider society is still replete with overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, restaurants, schools, universities, workplaces, churches and other associations, courthouses, and cemeteries, a situation that reinforces a normative sensibility in settings in which black people are typically absent, not expected, or marginalized when present. In turn, blacks often refer to such settings colloquially as 'the white space'—a perceptual category—and they typically approach that space with care," wrote Yale African American Studies and Sociology Professor Elijah Anderson in "'White Space'", which appeared in the the American Sociology Association's 2015 publication of Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.

That "normative sensibility" causes problems. When you come from a college setting, a PWI--Predominantly White Institution--or a suburb or another city neighborhood with few Black or Latino families, the tendency for newcomers is to think their experience--their culture, body, education, social class--is the norm; that is white privilege.

You know what you know, unless you try and find out something you don't know.

Living While Black incidents infuriate me. They are the passive-aggressive side of racism.

The Living While Black "incidents also speak to the persistence of residential segregation and isolation, particularly of whites, and how that isolation simultaneously maintains and heightens white mistrust of nonwhite groups," writes P.R. Lockhart in the website VOX. "And with many of these calls leading to requests for police intervention, they highlight the use of law enforcement to 'manage' the behavior of African Americans. That’s fraught with menace because of the racial disparities in police use of force that make people of color more likely to encounter violence or harassment."


David Stein contributed to this post.

96 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All