During every campaign I’ve ever worked, the field team faces a consistent problem:
Someone calls the cops on a canvasser of color, for nothing more than walking through the neighborhood with a clipboard and some door hangers.
Every. Single. Campaign. And it doesn’t happen to white canvassers.
Some resident, usually white (although not always), calls the cops about suspicious characters roaming the neighborhood. In the best case scenario, the cops roll their eyes at Karen or Chad, notify the canvassers that they’ve received a complaint and move on.
These cops are few and far between.
In my experience, most cops agree with Karen and Chad that Black and Latine people walking through a white neighborhood are up to no good. They track down those canvassers and demand that they leave (and not politely). Not wanting to cause trouble and following our instructions, the canvassers usually do.
By now, you may be thinking “What’s the big deal? The cops ask them to leave and they do. No harm. No foul.”
Lots of harm. Big foul.
There’s the pervasive belief that the cops only talk to someone if they’re doing something wrong. As soon as that person shows they’re not doing anything wrong, all is well, right? Wrong.
Any law abiding citizen who is stopped by the cops for no reason will feel a stigma. Pile on law enforcement’s terrible record of violence against people of color, and we have a recipe for lots of harm and a big foul against justice. Many people of color have lived a lifetime of “the talk;” getting stopped by the cops for no reason must be terrifying.
This throw-back to Jim Crow literally prevents you and the team from getting the work done. More importantly, it’s a manifestation of white supremacy culture that we, as progressives, are committed to disrupting.
Many of us who aren’t people of color automatically leap into “savior” mode and try to fight the power (the cops, the racist residents) right away, before considering the needs of the people who have been harmed.
Shout-out to Izzy Goodman of Better Outcomes Campaigns for her suggestion to call the local precinct at the beginning of the campaign. Let the leadership there know that canvassers will be in the neighborhoods exercising their first amendment rights to free speech and getting out the vote. If your campaign has a relationship with the union that represents officers in that jurisdiction, let them know too.
When it happens in your campaign anyway, there are three steps to take.
1: Protect the Well-Being of Canvassers
Your first priority is the well-being of the canvassers. If they don’t feel safe – both physically and emotionally – they can’t do their jobs, the campaign can’t get contacts and our equity values have been undermined. Talk with the canvassers to ask about their experience and how they feel about it. Ask what would make them feel safer, both physically and emotionally. (And remember, if you don’t share identity with the canvassers, their experience will be different than yours.)
2: Talk to the Cops
Next, call the local precinct to report the incident. Spoiler alert: they will get defensive. However, it’s important to talk to them about it anyway. The cops have to know you’re watching and it will send a message to the canvasser that you took them seriously. (Be careful not to identify the canvassers to the cops. Don’t make it worse.)
The cops will also probably insist that if a resident calls them, they have to respond. Really?!?! There are lots of residents “on the wrong side of the tracks” that might disagree.
If your campaign has a relationship with the appropriate law enforcement union, try asking a union staff person or leader to communicate with their members or counterparts in police management.
3: Report Back to Canvassers
Finally, report back to the canvasser. Tell them what you said to the cops and how you will protect their safety going forward.
Is this really hard?
Yes. Does it take time away from everything else you have to do? Yes. Will it give you anxiety to talk to the cops (on purpose)? Probably.
Not doing it undermines the campaign work, and even worse, our values of equity and inclusion. Disrupting white supremacy culture means disrupting it everywhere, including in our campaigns.