Once again, as leaders of the NAACP in the State of New Jersey, we must come together to condemn the visceral and systemic racism that erodes our society. This time, racism led to a former elected official calling the police on a nine-year-old Black girl doing something positive for her community—all because he apparently felt scared.
As long as Black girls are presumed to have lost their innocence, Black people are profiled as dangerous, and the Black community has reason to fear responding authorities, Black New Jersey residents can never live in safety. We have a right to exist, freely and unquestioned, in the same spaces as other communities, yet we are forced to use vigilance amongst ourselves and for our loved ones in public spaces. This cannot be what freedom of this Nation looks like. Just ask Bobbi Wilson and her mother Monique Joseph.
On October 22, 2022, nine-year-old Bobbi was in her Caldwell neighborhood and experimenting with a home-made concoction to kill spotted lantern flies, a laudable goal in line with New Jersey’s Stomp It Out campaign. Apparently, however, Bobbi’s presence was threatening to her neighbor Gordon Lawshe, a former Caldwell council member and leader of the town’s Republican party, who called the police on her.
In a since released recording of the dispatched-call, Lawshe called Bobbi—a nine-year-old—“a little Black woman” and stated “I don’t know what the hell she’s doing. Scares me though.” When asked for a description, Lawshe said Bobbi was a “[r]eal, real small woman. Real tiny” and mentioned she was wearing a hood.
When the responding officer showed up, however, all he saw was Bobbi. In the officer’s body-worn camera, both clearly appear confused: Bobbi wondering why police were approaching her, and the officer perhaps wondering why he was told to come there. Bobbi’s mother Joseph appeared shortly after and is rightfully equally in shock at the situation.
As any child would after seeing the authorities talk to their parents about their actions, Bobbi had to ask whether she was in trouble. Of course not, and thankfully the responding officer made that clear to Bobbi and her family.
We do not know what Lawshe saw that made him confuse a nine-year-old girl for a “small woman,” but we do know that Bobbi was never a threat. Even when the responding officer explained the situation to Lawshe, he continued to put the blame on this innocent girl proclaiming: “What a weirdo, huh?” and then asking “What next?” Lawshe’s actions here are nothing short of brazen and horrendous.
First, we must commend the responding officer’s reaction. Should there ever be any question on how law enforcement should engage such calls, this should be considered a model. The officer never escalated the situation and effectively conducted an investigation to determine the purpose of Lawshe’s call. As past practices have shown, such law enforcement interactions when investigating members of the Black community do not always go so positively.
Next, the profiling of the Black community when in public spaces raises important questions on cognitive biases that even the best of allies to the community must work towards unlearning. Would Lawshe have called the cops on Bobbi if she was a white girl? Would he have called if she was a white adult? What if Bobbi asked Lawshe’s permission to walk around her own neighborhood? Again, we cannot answer these questions, but know that biases and feelings of (white) entitlement often led to situations such as this.
Finally, those undersigned call for better accountability of our elected officials in New Jersey. Regardless of intent, the effect of Lawshe calling the cops on Bobbi was to make a little Black girl afraid of doing something positive for her community when in a public space. The Caldwell GOP should condemn such harm and make clear there is no room for such behavior in its politics. In all of New Jersey, we must stand against encroaching anti-Black sentiment that poisons politics for the rest.
Never again should something like this happen. But we’ve said this before, and we know it will continue until all of us finally take a hard look at how racism continues to manifest in our society. United, we simply ask: will this finally be the end?
Richard T. Smith, President- NAACP New Jersey State Conference
Gregg Zeff, Legal Redress Chair- NAACP New Jersey State Conference
Darryl Jeffries, President- NAACP Oranges and Maplewood Branch
Deborah Smith-Gregory, President- NAACP Newark Branch
Roger Terry, President- NAACP Montclair Branch
Jasmine Jones, President- NAACP New Jersey State Conference Youth and College
Derek Demeri, Esq.