In the United States, there is growing discussion on social media about the phenomenon of white people calling the police when they see a black person doing something entirely normal, or when they perceive a black person not showing enough ‘respect’.
When Yale student someone called the police. When Tenessee real-estate developer inspected a house in Memphis, someone called the police. When Oakland resident Onsayo Abram set up a barbeque in the park, someone called the police.fell asleep in the library while writing an essay,
Today I saw a variation on the theme: someone threatening to call the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when he became annoyed by two women working at a cafe speaking Spanish to each other.
Many people have made the point that this is linked to President Donald J. Trump’s unpleasant rhetoric about ethnic minorities (and indeed, everything). He has set a terrible example which incubates racists attitudes and brings out the worst in people. Others say that this kind of racism was always present in the society and it is only thanks to social media that we know these incidents are systemic, not isolated (it is almost a decade since professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr was arrested for breaking into his own home).
But these incidents also illustrate something about civil rights that I had not understood until I started working for English PEN, and which I don’t think many other people appreciate, which is that ambiguous laws can erode our civil liberties.
In cases like the one above the explanation given by the person who called is that they believed someone was behaving ‘unusually’. In their judgement, this subjective suspicion is enough to warrant investigation by the police.
In reality, one citizen with an imperfect knowledge of the law and an inflated sense of their own righteousness has simply denounced a fellow citizen. The target of the impromptu investigation is prevented from going about their business in the world, and makes their day worse. When these incidents happen repeatedly, the cumulative effect on a person’s well-being might be quite profound.
In my own line of work we see how badly worded, subjective laws can present ambiguities that in turn chill free speech. Someone called the police when some Liverpool students tweeted about regicide. Someone called the police when Goldsmiths student Bahar Mustafa tweeted #KillAllWhiteMen. Someone called the police when feminist Linda Bellos (who holds controversial views on transsexual rights) said she would defend herself if she were attacked. In all these cases the complainant erroneously believed that a crime had been committed.
When human rights and social justice activists complain about relatively small invasions of our liberties and rights, we are often branded as being too ‘politically correct’ or members of the ‘awkward squad’. Shouldn’t we conserve our resources for the big human rights violations?
No. Our civil liberties only remain strong if we defend them against even the most minor of infractions. Altering a word or two in a law, or tinkering with the minutae of regulations and guidelines may seem to outsiders like a job creation programme for activists. But in fact these kinds of actions are crucial, because they are a bulwark not only against further erosion of protections (the fabled slippery slope or the boiled frog), and because clearly stated rights and understood rights ensure that citizens do not exploit uncertain laws to disrupt the lives of their ideological opponents.