Chris Lollie was waiting in front of his kids’ day care to pick them up one day when the Minnesota man said a security guard approached him and started asking questions.
“He walked up to me and … asked me what I was doing there, and I told him, ‘I’m waiting for my kids,’” Lollie, 28, said. The guard called the police, which, initially, Lollie thought would help him.
“I was excited for the police to come, more or less just because I expected them to get there and say that I was in a public area and they had no reason to ask me to leave,” he said.
Three St. Paul police officers arrived and started demanding Lollie explain why he was there. As Lollie started recording the encounter on his cellphone, the situation began to deteriorate. Surveillance video showed him being Tased, put on the ground with his hands behind his back and eventually arrested.
His story is a familiar one. In the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Eric Garner chokehold case in New York, mass protests and “die-ins” have erupted across the country, with people rallying behind sayings such as “hands up don’t shoot” and “black lives matter.” Celebrities, including basketball star LeBron James, have donned T-shirts with the words, “I can’t breathe,” and social media has exploded with hashtags suggesting that Brown and Garner’s deaths are not isolated cases.
Two hashtags in particular, #AliveWhileBlack and #CrimingWhileWhite, have sparked a national conversation, as thousands have used it to share experiences about race and prejudice in the United States.
#CrimingWhileWhite is a string of confessionals from people tweeting about crimes they allegedly committed and got away with, they say, because of their race.
underage drinking and smoking pot in Central Park at night, cop asks for our IDs, tells us to "wrap it up" and leave #CrimingWhileWhite— Indira (@sr_Relm) December 9, 2014
I was drinking wine on my DC stoop when cops passed right by me to detain my black neighbor for drinking beer on his. #CrimingWhileWhite— Eric Wingerter (@EricWingerter) December 4, 2014
In response to the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag, Jamilah Lemieuz, a senior editor for Ebony.com, started #AliveWhileBlack.
“I watched #CrimingWhileWhite go viral very quickly and on some level I appreciated it,” Lemieuz said. “But after a while it felt like humble bragging you know like, ‘Look at what we are able to get away with it.’ We needed to hear how black people are treated by the police.”
#AliveWhileBlack quickly took off in the Twittersphere. Many in the black community believed like they had to tell their own stories, ones that had long been ignored.
#alivewhileblack SUV full of women leaving bachelorette party. Cops pull us over w/4 guns drawn-we 'fit the profile' of 2 male robbers.— Ruby Lathon, PhD (@RubyL) December 5, 2014
“We’re feeling angry, we’re feeling tired, we’re feeling aspirated, saddened and terrified that we just can’t live a normal life, that our normal is different than anyone else’s,” said Ruby Lathon, a Holistic Health and Wellness consultant in Washington, D.C.
For Lollie, a musician, these stories are echoes of his own.
“I make music about social injustices, where I talk about police brutality. [There’s a song] called 'Curtain Call,' first verse entails there's line, where I say, ‘Stand strong, stand with your rights,’ indicative of the situation we're in and what we need to do to not allow them to incite anger in us,” he said. “I do this because it's something I live every day, me and my kids.”
After the incident in January of this year in front of his kids’ day care, Lollie was charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and obstructing legal process, but the same day the surveillance video surfaced later in July showing his arrest, all the charges were dropped. He and his attorneys, Andrew Irlbeck and Paul Applebaum, are now suing the city of St. Paul and the three officers involved. The police officers deny any wrongdoing.
Lollie’s video may have helped his case, while other videos, like the one showing a police officer putting Eric Garner in an apparent chokehold, ignited a firestorm in this country that continues to reverberate.
Rallying around these hashtags has given way to conversations that may otherwise never have taken place.
“There’s a whole segment of society that doesn’t want to talk about race and the way they are trying to shut that down is to say that people talking about race is actually racism,” said Eric Wingerter, the vice president for communications at the Kapor Center for Social Impact in Oakland, California. “But no, choking a man to death is actually racism.”
Some doubt how much these hashtags can really inspire change, begging the question of whether they are just oversimplifying and labeling a larger discussion.
Shonda Rhimes, the director and producer of TV hits like ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” gave a commencement speech at Dartmouth, in which she said hashtags should not be mistaken for activism.
“A hashtag is not helping,” Rhimes said. “#YesAllWomen #TakeBackTheNight #NotAllMen #BringBackOurGirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething. Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag.”
While Jamilah Lemieuz understands Rhimes’ point, she believes sparking the discussion in the first place is contributing to the greater good.
“Hashtag activism or conversations were never meant to be the end of all the offers, feeling sorry for the world’s ills. The same way that putting black female characters on “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” is not a revolution.
“But it may be a revolutionary act. So having representation in media on both social media, on television, and across the Internet, and in magazines changes the way that people see Black folks, you know,” Lemieux said.
But it remains to be seen whether discussions about #CrimingWhileWhite, and being #AliveWhileBlack, will ever bridge a racial divide or polarize us even more.