The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police reinvigorated a movement that started when Ferguson police killed Michael Brown six years before. Both incidents started after someone made a call to 911.
Black Lives Matter protests drew attention to systemic problems in American policing. Police involvement often leads to incarceration. Films like 13th and books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow have drawn attention to gross injustices in that aspect of the criminal justice system, as well.
But legacies of inequity don’t appear only when the police arrive on the scene or when a judge hands down a sentence. As shocking as it may seem, even the 911 emergency number itself was created in part to thwart demands for racial justice.
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In 1967, the Civil Rights movement had been in motion for over a decade. Given the continued existence of police brutality and urban poverty, many feared the movement had stalled. When police violently broke up a Black celebration in Detroit and beat a Black cab driver in Newark, it set off a “long, hot summer” of mass uprisings across the nation (History). Thousands were arrested and dozens killed when the National Guard and Army deployed to over a dozen American cities to “restore order” (Britannica).
In the aftermath, President Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to study to causes of the summer’s “disorders.” The Kerner Report recommended ending discriminatory policies and investing in Black communities. But the Commission also recommended equipping law enforcement with tear gas and military equipment, infiltrating Black neighborhoods with secret police, and adopting a “universal emergency services telephone number.” The objective: to “[aid] counterinsurgency by linking police forces and enabling more effective surveillance of militant groups” (In These Times). Though the primary objective of such a number would be repressing popular uprisings against injustice, the commission noted that “civil disorder control plans can often prove useful in dealing with a variety of common and recurring problems” (Eisenhower Foundation, page 522).
This marked the creation of 911 — a single number nationwide to call police, fire, or emergency medical services. 911 is now the emergency response number across all of North America (CBC). Today, it’s hard to imagine a world without such a commonsensical system. But just as white supremacy, police brutality, and mass poverty continue to the present day, so too do issues with the emergency dispatch system.
Individuals who call 911 to get medical assistance for a family member in a mental health crisis may find their loved one facing down a police officer’s loaded gun. In fact, around half of those shot by police are dealing with mental health issues. Undocumented immigrants have called 911 in an emergency and ended up detained by ICE. It is inaccessible to many deaf and hard-of-hearing people in areas without text-to-911 (FCC, Smart Hearing). Because of the racist nature of policing, white people often feel far more comfortable calling emergency services than people of color.
This was likely the case for a white student who called 911 because her Black classmate was napping in a dorm (Slate). A white mother called 911 because she was displeased with her son’s haircut (CafeMom) while an Ohio man called because he had smoked too much weed (People). While those who feel protected by law enforcement make spurious emergency calls, disinvested neighborhoods suffer from longer emergency response times. Spanish-speakers in Los Angeles sometimes wait for twenty minutes to be connected to an operator (L.A. Times). In a medical emergency, this can mean the difference between life and death (UCSF).
This doesn’t mean you should feel guilty for calling 911 if you break your arm. I’m also not suggesting that diversifying our emergency contact list solves racial equity entirely. In a society with pervasive structural inequities, we must reckon with the systemic inequities found in emergency response.
In response to inequities in the emergency response system, groups in oppressed communities are taking action. Collective Action for Safe Spaces trains people to respond to harassment and assault on the street and in the service industry. The Creative Interventions Toolkit provides ways to interrupt interpersonal harm without involving law enforcement (CI). Critical Resistance’s Oakland Power Projects hosts workshops on de-escalating emergencies and preventing overdoses (OPP). Organizations nationwide provide first-aid training on how to stabilize people with gunshot wounds. There are community-based alternatives to calling the police all around the country (What’s Next Magazine, Don’t Call the Police).
We should all use an over-burdened emergency response system with discretion, especially given the dangerous consequences that can follow from police intervention. We can also acknowledge the sad story of how this system came to be as we support efforts to build real community safety today.
911 was developed in response to protests in the 1960s.
The system still has adverse effects on people of color, immigrants, and people with mental health issues.
That’s why groups around the country are creating new infrastructure to deal with emergencies.