What if Black People Called the Cops on White Children for Selling Lemonade Without a Permit? (And Other Empathetic Questions)

What if Black People Called the Cops on White Children for Selling Lemonade Without a Permit? (And Other Empathetic Questions) August 12, 2018

What if more Black people started calling the police for perceived infractions (minor) involving White people?

For example, what if Black people called the police on White children for selling lemonade without a permit? Would some of us care more?

After all, the disconcerting episodes of White people calling the police on Black people for what most decent human beings would consider miniscule alleged breaches to societal order have led to a proliferation of corresponding hashtags, from #PermitPatty, #BBQBecky to #IDAdam.

If we are open to self-examination, such questions can help engage our social imaginations in taking the proverbial stroll in someone else’s shoes and recognizing our often invisible racial perspectives.

Recently, I had an experience where I did not call the police on a White person over a minor issue, and it inspired challenging questions I believe worth pondering.  I use this story and another experience to explore how to increase empathy and intention in dismantling racism in everyday race relations.

Do I Want to be Like #PermitPatty?

During a morning walk at one of my favorite parks, I noticed that a White man had pulled his massive pick-up truck onto the grounds, obstructing one of the paths. I gave him the benefit of the doubt because he appeared to be a volunteer. Still, initially, I felt agitated because I could hear the loud music blasting from his truck.

I decided against requesting that he lower the volume because I did not think it was worth confrontation.

However, I  wondered if this man understood that a Black man in his position, playing rap music with violent lyrics, instead of his choice of a different controversial music, courtesy of Johnny Cash, would have possibly increased the likelihood of calls to law enforcement in this predominantly White community.

The context reminded me of the people I had observed regularly breaking the park rules without police involvement.

I felt grieved thinking about how different White people made time to contact the police to patrol and control Black folks minding their own business or simply living life.

I thought about if Black people choose to engage in the same practices, how we would reduce our character to the levels of #PermitPatty.

For example, if I chose to report this individual to the nearby park officials in order to lower the volume of his music, my actions would not reflect a grand commitment to the letter of the law no more than people who argue the merits of upholding rules to justify racist behavior in cases like #BBQBecky.

No thanks.

Or, if I chose to call the police because of my “concern” of this suspicious looking man playing disruptive Johnny Cash music, I would waste my energy and community resources.

Although I had planned on a quiet walk, I appreciated this stranger for helping with the park’s landscape. I decided to seek goodness.

I pushed my thinking, asking, “How often do I like to play music as I do something I love? I would not make the choice to blast music in this area. Regardless, of my perception of his actions (considerate enough to volunteer and inconsiderate enough to blast music), there is goodness in this moment.  I choose to enjoy my walk.”

Now that my inner pouting had ceased, I admitted, “Okay. I do like Johnny Cash, too, and this playlist has the greats. God is giving me an opportunity to be more flexible with my plans and grateful.”

I started enjoying the music and had an extra pep in my step. I even began singing along under my breath.

Then, the man paused from working and called out to me, “Good morning!”

“Great,” I thought, feeling guilty for my desire to call down a small fire from heaven on his stereo just minutes earlier, “He is friendly, too.”

I replied, “Good morning! It is a lovely morning for Johnny Cash!”

With a pleasant surprise, he responded, “It is!”

Then, I felt another wave of gratitude for his work. He was making this place beautiful for people like me to enjoy-For people who keep and break the park rules.

I expressed, “By the way, thank you for doing this.”

He stopped from his labor and responded, “You’re welcome.  I’m sorry it looks bad. I was away for a few weeks and things grew out of control fast.”

I shook my head with a frown, signaling that an apology was unnecessary and stated,

“It’s okay. With all of the rain, it does not take much for that to happen.”

We conversed more about the park before I continued my walk.

A few days later, I was out of town and driving to a country club. My GPS had misdirected me to a cul-de-sac in a nearby neighborhood.

I pulled off to side of the road. As I searched for new directions using different navigational application on my phone, I muttered aloud in amusement, “Lord, I need to get out of this neighborhood. I don’t want anyone calling the police.”

Immediately after finding my new route, I heard tapping on my window.

An older White woman attempted to get my attention.

Whelp, she got it.

I thought, “Really, God? Timing, much?”

With a kind smile and bright welcoming eyes, she asked, “Do you need help with something? You seem lost.”

Bingo, Sister.

Although I was in the process of getting out of Dodge way before sunset, I got the sense that she was not going to escalate the situation into a “suspicious Black woman parked in our neighborhood” call to the police.

“I am,” I acknowledged, explaining where my GPS took me and my intended destination. She laughed and gave better directions.

I thanked her and went along my way.

These experiences where we avoided frivolous involvement of law enforcement point to the abundant beauty available to us when we engage others from a place of love and gratitude.

Instead of calling the police, what would it look like if we replaced  irrational fears of the Other with love in our problem-solving? Instead of fueling personal inclinations to control others, part of the answer lies in approaching each other in grateful curiosity and a desire to connect.

As for those of us who defend racism in the form of petty vigilantism, are you stopping people in the name of citizen’s arrest when you see someone jay walk?

Are you turning yourself in to the legal authorities for minor traffic offenses such as speeding or rolling through that stop sign?

I doubt it.

Imagination and Empathy

We can invite more empathy and progress by engaging our imaginations and questions that challenge us to face ourselves.

For example, we can return to the questions such as:

What if more Black people called the police on White people like #IDAdam? How would it impact our responses?

What if more Black people got fed up and stopped taking the high road?

I sense the exasperation of different People of Color with America taking for granted generations of patience, grace, and mercy.

The deafening outcry over an NFL flag protest before a game starts (not even during the game or preventing the game from happening) turns into silence when White people call the cops on Black children for selling bottles of water or mowing lawns.

Their fiery patriotism does not seem to include preventing the possible trauma inflicted on young lives. It is as if a love for one’s country does not involve a love for all of her children.

This inconspicuous indifference suggests that a vast majority of America keeps hitting the snooze button on a national alarm, when God keeps trying to wake us up.

As a matter of fact, it seems like even the grace of God has been taken for granted.

If you are a White person, who find yourself defensive whenever race comes up, especially when it is an act of bigotry perpetrated by White people, you can use your imagination to place yourself in the position of the Other, to develop more empathy. Imagine:

  • You are a Christian White man, desiring to have a seaside devotional time, and you drive out to a wharf, with your C.S. Lewis and Timothy Keller in tow. You sit in your car, reading, beholding the ocean, and enjoying your solitude, when police arrive. You find out that Black people in the area called the police because of a “suspicious White man” had been sitting in a car parked at the wharf for two hours.


  • As a White parent, your child embraces the American capitalist spirit by mowing lawns in residential areas. You find out that a Black person called the police on them.


  • Your eight-year-old daughter decides to sell bottles of water to help you after recently losing your job, only to have the police called on her by an adult Black woman because for selling without a permit.


  • You are a White woman who attempted to use an expired coupon at the pharmacy, and the Black employees choose to call the police about it.


  • You are a White man playing basketball at the local gym and when you foul a Black man, he calls the police, accusing you of assault.


  • You are White mother in suburbia with your children at the neighborhood pool, and a Black resident demands that you show your ID to him. After you refuse, he calls the police.


  • You are a White man lounging beside the community pool at your apartment community, and a Black woman demands that you prove to her that you live there. She subsequently calls management, also Black individuals, and the police gets involved.


  • As a White business owner of a brick and mortar store, you have police called on you for breaking into your store when you arrive to open it in the morning.


  • You are a White man returning home one night after a long day of work, to have the police called because your Black neighbors think you are breaking into a house.


  • You are a White woman in graduate school at a predominantly White institution, and you fall asleep in the community area of your dorm while studying, only to have the police called on you by another student, a Black woman, because she did not think you belonged there.


If you experienced these wrongs, how would you feel? What would show up for you in terms of empathy for the victims and how would it compare to the empathy for Black people?

Would you defend the actions of the Black people who called the police? Why?

Also, if  you feel inner resistance of any kind, from anger to pride, when engaging such questions and exercises, you are in a transformative place. You sense the challenge to expand.

You can accept the challenge or go stay comfortable without growth.

Speaking of our inner resistance, when Black people engage in wrongdoings against White people, other People of Color, and to each other, inter- and intra-racial grievances and crimes do not cancel each other out.

I share this caveat because a segment of the United States population think poor behavior by Black people serves as a reason to ignore racism.

Wrong is wrong.

Currently, a pivotal juncture lies before us to create a genuinely empathetic world where everyone shares responsibility in treating each other with greater mutual respect and dignity.

Conclusion: We the People and One of Us

The use of social media to promote social consequences against specific White authoritarians, who keep the local law enforcement on racial speed dial, raise issues about lasting and systemic results.

I can argue that “we the people” have become our own leaders in enforcing a social contract, and likewise, I can contend this phenomenon is a form of mob justice.

What remains to be revealed is the impact of this justice in prompting particular “good” and “hardworking” White people to examine the role of race in their lives.

As much as they annoy people invested in maintaining the status quo, these videos help prove that much racism happens at the hands of someone’s friend, family member, colleague, or neighbor without ties to White supremacist organizations.

The evidence disrupts the grand narrative of White exceptionalism and calls for greater empathy and intention.

And the world yearns for more of us to grow more comfortable with the rewriting of these narratives and less comfortable with the racism that maintains them.

The truth is that God made all of us equal.


If we really believe this truth, we would intentionally revisit the invisible ways we promote the myth of White superiority. Our solution would not involve similarly problematic racial narratives that People of Color are inherently better than White people, either.

Drawing from my experience with the White man at the park and the White woman who kindly gave me directions, if we approached people from a place of Divine gratitude for who they are and the crossing of our paths, our worlds would expand to align more with our talk of freedom.

We would likely feel thankful to see children a constructive path in life by selling water, opening lemonade stands, or mowing lawns.

We would likely seek mercy instead of going to the extremes of the law for something as minor as an expired coupon and delight in seeing family and friends enjoying life at a barbeque.

We would add to the goodness already in the world.

The song “One of Us” asks, “What if God was one of us?”

In a similar vein, what if we truly treated everyone like they were one of us?

Less misuse of calls to law enforcement could be one result.

A more inclusive world could be another.

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