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“Permit Patty” has reportedly resigned from her job at the cannabis company she founded amid outcry for calling police on a girl selling water. Nathan Rousseau Smith has the story.
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SAN FRANCISCO — It’s now a weekly, if not daily, occurrence: A video is posted on Facebook or Twitter showing a white person calling police on black people for minor violations or nothing at all, a new form of social media shaming that’s exposed the everyday racism black Americans face and brought swift repercussions for the perpetrators.

Tagged with nicknames like BBQ Becky and Permit Patty, white people who’ve reported black people for sitting in Starbucks, shopping at CVS, mowing lawns, playing golf, staying at an Airbnb or napping on a couch in a college dorm are being publicly named, mocked and, in some cases, fired from their jobs.

White people have been policing black behavior for a long time. If they think someone black seems out of place, they know they can say something to the property manager, a store supervisor or the police, sociologists who study race say. Many black people in these situations don’t bother to complain publicly. They say they’re unlikely to be believed or their concerns will be dismissed. And they don’t want to escalate the situation and end up in jail or worse. 

Now footage captured on smartphones and spread instantly on social media is shining the spotlight on how black people are singled out “simply because they are black,” says George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University and author of “Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America.”  And that, says Yancy, is new. 

“Black people experience policing every day, even if it’s just a look or a gaze,” he says. “What social media is doing is magnifying the elephant in the room in such a way to reveal to white people the reality that black people experience all the time.”

What’s fueling the sudden attention? The use of viral Internet memes at a time of heightened racial tensions in the U.S.

The current firestorm was set off in May by a white woman, Jennifer Schulte, who was rechristened BBQ Becky after she called police on two black men for using a charcoal grill at a public park in Oakland, California. The police eventually advised the men charcoal wasn’t permitted in that part of the park, but the YouTube video of the interaction — with Schulte on the phone arguing with other residents — went viral. Three weeks later the community threw a BBQ’n While Black cookout at the lake where the incident occurred.

“Hello, I’d like to report black people minding their own business,” joked one meme showing a stern Schulte in dark sunglasses, blue hoodie and pulled back hair with a phone pressed to her ear.

Quickly the Internet photoshopped Schulte into scenes from “Black Panther” and into a famous painting of the Last Supper. She was pictured reporting Rosa Parks for sitting at the front of the bus, NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem and Obama for wearing a tan suit while he was president. “Saturday Night Live” even had her show up during the “Weekend Update” and the credits.

Last month a white woman in San Francisco dubbed “Permit Patty” got the meme treatment after she called police about an 8-year-old girl selling bottled water outside her apartment building to raise money for a trip to Disneyland after her mom lost her job.

Erin Austin, the girl’s mother, recorded Alison Ettel, who said she was calling the police because the child didn’t have a permit. When Ettel saw she was being filmed, she crouched behind a wall. “You can hide all you want, the whole world’s going to see you,” Austin tells her in the Instagram video.

And it did. Memes of Ettel quickly spread: “Hello 911,” reads one. “I’m scared for my life a little girl is selling water bottles.” According to a transcript of the 911 report, Ettel called to ask if a vendor operating without a permit was legal and was transferred to the police, who did not show up. In the aftermath, she resigned as CEO of a medicinal marijuana dispensary.

More: ‘Black people aren’t believed’: Videos exposing everyday racism hailed as new activism

More: Starbucks arrests: Restaurant racism is as old as the U.S.

More: Bigoted customers make life hell for minority workers, but here’s how to fight back

Memes are a shorthand communication, quick bursts of images or videos wrapped in humor and created to be passed around the Internet, often with hashtags, to send a political or social message. These messages only grow louder and travel farther as people pick up on them and add their own humor or viewpoint.

At first, people filmed the incidents out of fear they could end in violence when police arrived. Then they became teachable moments about racism. 

“Memes are part of this emergent social media vernacular making racist incidents more visible,” says Benjamin Burroughs, a professor of emerging media at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

And that’s forcing more people to recognize and reckon with white racial attitudes and behavior in a way they never have before.

A white man in North Carolina dubbed “ID Adam” who called police on a black mother and her child at a community pool was fired from his job. A South Carolina woman dubbed “Pool Patrol Paula” lost her job and is facing assault and battery charges after allegedly striking a black teen and using the N-word at a community pool and then biting an officer during her arrest.

Two employees at a CVS drug store were fired after one accused a Chicago woman of trying to use a fraudulent coupon and the other called police. And a white female motorist near San Francisco who cut off a black couple in her Audi and then screamed racial slurs at them reportedly met a similar fate after the video was posted on social media.

“The pervasiveness of technology, that can help in an incident like this” to hold people accountable, Officer Herman Baza, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, told local television station KTVU.

People often think of racism as major acts of aggression, but sociologists say smaller scale acts, sometimes referred to as microagressions, are more common. They can include everything from disapproving looks to chastising remarks for perceived infractions of racial etiquette, social norms dating back to slavery days and Jim Crow laws on racial segregation that dictated how black people should behave in public and interact with white people.

The way white people caught in these videos on social media lay claim to public places amount to individual acts of gentrification, sending the message: This is my space and you can only behave here the way I say you can, Yancy says. 

“If it’s a white girl selling lemonade, a white woman is not going to call the police and say: ‘Hey, there is a suspicious person selling lemonade without the appropriate permit. I want the police to come,'” says Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke sociology professor who studies race.

A white man in North Carolina dubbed “ID Adam” who called police on a black mother and her child at a community pool was fired from his job (Photo: Jasmine Edwards/Facebook)

White people have a long and dangerous history of calling the police on black people for simply going about their daily lives, says Anne Rawls, a sociology professor at Bentley University, who has studied this phenomenon for decades and has dubbed it “citizen callers.”

She and Meghan Hollis, a criminal justice professor at Texas State University, estimate that 80% of policing involves responding to citizen calls for service.

Rawls recalls one police dispatcher rattled by a phone call from someone reporting six black kids for simply walking into a sandwich shop together. “If I don’t dispatch a car and something happens, we’re liable, so I have to dispatch a car,” she says the dispatcher told her at the time. 

Sometimes the police officer warns callers they could be charged with making a false police report if it happens again. Other times they go through the motions of responding and then move on, Rawls and Hollis say.  

What’s different now is that callers are no longer hiding behind their phones, Rawls says. “They are getting into people’s faces,” she said. “They are feeling emboldened.”

America has a legacy of racism going back hundreds of years, so what’s giving people new license to confront blacks and other minorities in public spaces?

John Powell, who leads the UC Berkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, blames President Trump’s rhetoric on race and immigration and his equating activists protesting racism with neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump’s supporters, like the president himself, don’t see it that way. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 86% of Republicans said he wasn’t racist, compared to 47% for the entire country.

The total number of hate crimes in the 10 largest cities in America jumped in 2017 for the fourth straight year. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University found a 12.5 percent increase in incidents reported by police last year in cities such as Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles. Brian Levin, co-author of the report, attributed the increase to greater “incivility” in national politics, citing policies such as Trump’s travel ban from several majority-Muslim countries.

Rawls says the outing of white people on social media has begun to challenge what language and behavior is considered acceptable. It’s also making people confront an uncomfortable reality, that the people being caught on film are not Ku Klux Klan members, but seemingly average Americans all over the country who could be their friends, family members or neighbors, evidence that racial attitudes are deeply entrenched in American society and cross political lines.

“If we were all wearing bodycams, we would catch ourselves doing similar kinds of things,” she says.

The awareness growing through viral social media posts is a start, but technology has its limits and alone can’t curb racism or microaggressions, sociologists say.

The 1991 police beating of Rodney King after a high-speed chase through Los Angeles was caught on camera by a bystander. The graphic video was broadcast into homes across the nation and around the world, yet the officers were not convicted.

The Black Lives Matter hashtag, created after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2013, has been used nearly 30 million times on Twitter — an average of 17,003 times per day — dramatically raising awareness of the type of escalation black people fear from whites and from the police yet police shootings of unarmed black people have not stopped.

Even more visceral are the live-streamed videos of fatal police shootings, such as the footage filmed by Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who in 2016 broadcast on Facebook the bloody and emotional aftermath as a police offer pointed his gun through the window, her four-year-old daughter in the backseat. Last year a jury acquitted the Minnesota police officer in the shooting outside St. Paul.

Lasting change won’t come from Facebook or Twitter, but from mobilizing all races to fight injustice together, Bonilla-Silva said.

“I am not saying we shouldn’t complain on social media. I am not saying we shouldn’t demand apologies, demand resignations and demand that some people be fired,” he said. “But I’m saying is, if that’s all we do, we will probably not succeed in achieving equality.”

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