Fundraising While Black
An incident this week in Arkansas is just the latest example of a depressing and dangerous trend.
This week in Arkansas we saw another example of African-Americans being treated in a way that clearly wouldn’t happen if they were white:
Four black high school students were going door-to-door to raise money for their football team in Wynne, Ark., on the morning of Aug. 7.
One moment, they were laughing, having been frightened by a dog chasing them that had only wanted to play. The next, they were on the ground in a stranger’s front yard with their hands behind their backs while a white woman with a handgun ordered them to stay put.
The woman, who lived at the property, had already called her husband, a county jail administrator, who alerted the police. “Upon arrival of our officers, four juveniles were found lying on the ground with a female adult with a gun standing,” Jackie Clark, the Wynne police chief, said in a statement. “Our officer had the children stand up and they explained they were selling discount cards for a school athletic program.”
The woman, identified by the authorities as Jerri Kelly, 46, is now facing felony charges of aggravated assault and false imprisonment. She was arrested and released on $10,000 bond on Monday, according to the Cross County Sheriff’s Office. She could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The episode is similar to other recent cases of white people threatening or calling the police on black people for minor or nonexistent transgressions, such as knocking on a door for directions, taking a nap in a Yale common room or asking to use the restroom in a Starbucks without buying anything.
The teenagers were not named by the authorities, but all were between the ages of 15 and 16. Carl Easley, the superintendent of the Wynne School District, said he had spoken with some of the students’ relatives. “They’re upset that it happened,” he said. “Two of the boys lived within two blocks of where that happened.”
According to the superintendent’s office, about 70 percent of Wynne High School students are white, and 28 percent are black.
Police reports painted a detailed picture of the encounter on Aug. 7.
The boys had been selling discount cards at $20 each to raise money for their team at Wynne High School, the Yellowjackets. In statements to the police, all four boys mentioned a dog that had chased them on the street that morning. Some of them had taken shelter in the back of a truck, they said, until the dog’s owner assured them that the dog was friendly.
“We jumped from the truck and pet the dog,” one of the teenagers wrote in his statement. “After me and my friends got done laughing at the situation, we walked up to the house.”
But before they could knock, Ms. Kelly came out with a gun in her hand.
In her statement, she said she had seen the teenagers approaching and thought they looked suspicious because they did not appear to be selling anything. “All males were African-American,” she added. “And I know this residence to be white.”
She had already noticed that a dog “ran them off” from another home. She said the teenagers did not appear to be knocking on many doors. And she noted that she had been the victim of a home invasion before.
As the boys approached, she grabbed her gun, she wrote. Then she opened her door and asked what they were doing, eventually telling them to get on the ground. “I drew my weapon without my finger on the trigger as I have been previously trained to do,” she wrote.
One of the boys wrote in his statement that during the encounter, he had moved his hand to swat a mosquito. “She told me to stop moving or she will shoot me,” he added.
Another wrote that he had tried to show her the discount cards and had pointed out that two of the boys were wearing their team jerseys. “But as I was saying it, she told us to look down, so I was scared to even talk to her,” he added.
The boys were still on the ground when a police officer arrived.
According to the officer’s report, he recognized the boys because he had worked as a resource officer at the high school, and he told Ms. Kelly that they were trying to raise money for the team.
Then, the officer’s report said, Ms. Kelly addressed the teenagers and appeared to gesture to the difference between her and the boys’ skin color before saying: “It ain’t about that.” She went on to explain that her actions were about “suspicious activity,” and she advised them to “act like you’re selling cards.” She added that she had worked in law enforcement for seven years.
“Be smart about it boys,” she said, according to the report. “Please. It’s your life you’re talking about. Don’t be silly about it.
As the article quoted above notes, it has become unfortunately common in recent years for white people to become concerned when they see African-Americans doing seemingly ordinary things. This has included everything from having a picnic in a local park to simply walking down the street. Typically, it results in someone, and usually that someone is a white woman, calling the police and reporting alleged suspicious activity. The police who respond to such a scene inevitably end up finding out that the allegedly suspicious-acting African-Americans weren’t doing anything wrong, in most cases had not even directly interacted with the person who called the police and were simply doing an utterly ordinary thing in public unaware that some person was monitoring them and calling the police.
All of these incidents have been grouped under a category that has been called ‘doing X while black,’ as this list compiled by CNN at the end of 2018 makes clear:
- Taking a phone call in the lobby
- Operating a lemonade store
- Golfing too slowly
- Waiting for a friend at Starbucks
- Barbecuing at a park
- Working out at a gym
- Campaigning door to door
- Moving into an apartment
- Mowing the wrong lawn
- Shopping for prom clothes
- Napping in a university common room
- Asking for directions
- Not waving while leaving an Airbnb
- Redeeming a coupon
- Selling bottled water on a sidewalk
- Eating lunch on a college campus
- Riding in a car with a white grandmother
- Babysitting two white children
- Wearing a backpack that brushed against a woman
- Working as a home inspector
- Working as a firefighter
- Helping a homeless man
- Delivering newspapers
- Swimming in a pool
- Shopping while pregnant
- Driving with leaves on a car
- Trying to cash a paycheck
As I said, the majority of these incidents were ones where the police were called by suspicious white people, and none of them resulted in the African-Americans involved being arrested. This is one of the first incidents, though, that seems to have involved the white person involved the allegedly suspicious African-Americans having pulled a gun on them. In that sense, this is a far more serious incident that could’ve ended tragically if the police hadn’t arrived when they did or if one of the teenagers had acted in a way that this woman considered threatening. If that had occurred we could be talking today about another Trayvon Martin incident. Thankfully we aren’t.
In any event, I am honestly somewhat puzzled as to why these incidents seem to be becoming more common if that is in fact the case. It could be that this has been happening for a long time and it just appears to be increasing because the media is paying attention to it now. In any case, whether it is something new or something old we’re just starting to pay attention to, this strikes me as both depressing and dangerous. Depressing because it tells us that, at least in some cases, we really have not learned anything about race relations since the 1970s. This is alien to me personally because, perhaps unusually for someone my age, I grew up in a very racially mixed community. Across the street from the house I grew up in the neighbors were a childless African-American couple, an African-American couple with a daughter a few years older than I was, and a mixed-race couple with a son about the same age I was. Just up the street was a family made up of a white father, a Korean mother, and two mixed-race daughters roughly the same age I was. All of us kids grew up and played together on a regular basis. Watching stuff like this happen 45 years later would’ve made no sense to me even at six years old.
The dangerous side, of course, is that one of these days someone like this woman in Arkansas will decide that what she’s seeing is enough of a threat that they’ll fire their gun before calling police. We already saw the consequences of that in the encounter between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. We don’t need a repeat lesson, but I’m afraid we’re going to get it one day unless we learn to live in peace with each other.