A Black mother says that her daughter has been left traumatised after her neighbour, a white man, called police on the 9-year-old because he says he was “scared” after seeing her spray the grass to protect against an invasive species.
The 22 October incident has come back into the public discourse after body camera footage and a recording of the 911 call was released by the Caldwell Police Department in New Jersey earlier this month.
In the 911 call, Gordon Lawshe, a former co-chair and treasurer of the Caldwell Republican Party, can be heard flagging the 9-year-old Black girl’s presence to the dispatcher and incorrectly labels her as an adult woman.
“There’s a little Black woman, walking, spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees on Elizabeth and Florence,” Mr Lawshe can be heard while making a call to the non-emergency line. “I don’t know what the h*** she’s doing, scares me though,” he says before adding the additional details that she was “really tiny” and had a “hood” on.
Police body camera footage shows an officer from the Caldwell Police Department responding to the call. As he approaches the young girl, who is blurred out of the video footage for privacy concerns, he asks her “what’s going on.” The 9-year-old explains how she’s treating the grass with a spray to protect against an invasive species of lantern flies.
In New Jersey, the state has initiated a “Stomp It Out” campaign to encourage residents to kill the spotted bug that’s known to suck the sap out of plants and trees and leaves them dry.
The fourth grader from Caldwell, Bobbi Wilson, has had a keen interest in the state’s fight against the bug, which is native to China where it has more natural predators to keep the species in check.
“She wanted to feel like she was doing something and it was the one thing that she could feel powerful doing, you know, and she’s saving a tree,” her mother, Monique Joseph, told Pix11 in an interview a few weeks after the traumatising incident.
After seeing a viral TikTok video that showed viewers to use a solution of vinegar and water which is then sprayed on grass to kill the invasive species, the child was quick to hit the streets to test it out.
On one of those days, Bobbi was abruptly disturbed when a neighbour – who her mother claimed has lived on the same street as them for the past eight years – called police on her.
"You don’t call the police on a 9-year-old. You call the police when there is danger. Bobbi was not a danger to anyone,” Ms Joseph said to News 12 New Jersey in an interview this week.
The video footage with the police officer quickly shows how the call was unnecessary and commends the young girl for her work in keeping her neighbourhood ecosystem safe from the predatory species.
When leaving the Caldwell neighbourhood, the officer can be heard interacting with Mr Lawshe. After the officer explains to the former New Jersey Republican Party treasurer what the little girl had been doing with the spray bottle, Mr Lawshe quips, “What a weirdo,” before the policeman drives away.
Shortly after the incident, Ms Joseph and her older daughter, Hayden, spoke out about the incident in front of the Caldwell town council. They described how her neighbour had unnecessarily “put her daughter in harm’s way”.
“Racism, intentional or not, is still racism,” Ms Joseph said, emphasising how the immediate repercussions of the 22 October incident had left her daughter fearful of going outside the next day. “I am not here to label anyone, only to share my point of view as a Black woman, a Black mother and a Black resident in this town.”
“I want this to be a teachable moment for our town on racial bias, diversity, equity, and inclusion and how we together can assure that going forward little Black and brown children in this town can feel safe,” she said.
In her comments at the town council, Hayden pointed out that Mr Lawshe knows her family and he could’ve raised them with her mother.
“No kid should have to be scared in their own town on their own street,” Hayden said. “I can confidently assure you guys she will never forget this.”
Ms Joseph and Mr Lawshe have not spoken with one another since the 22 October 911 call, she says. But she has attempted to broker a mediated meeting between herself and Mr Lawshe with the Caldwell police as the intermediary, but he has declined.
“He did apologise under the guise of telling me he was reporting a lost little girl,” Ms Joseph said, according to The Progress.
After hearing the recording of the 911 call, she admits that she’s been left feeling that it wasn’t about a missing child.
“He used triggering words that have led to the death of too many Black and brown children and even adults. ‘Black,’ ‘I’m scared,’ ‘She’s wearing a hood,’” Ms Joseph said, hinting at previous instances where Black children have been profiled and, in some cases, shot by police officers for their attire.
“I just wanted to have a conversation with him as a neighbour, as Bobbi’s mom and as the woman who lives across the street from him,” she said. “He needs to understand what he did. Whether he is aware of it or not, he needs to understand the hurt it has caused.”
For his part, Mr Lawshe has retained legal representation and maintains that the accusations stemming from this phone call amount to defamation.
“Since Mr. Lawshe has been accused of being a racist, he and his family have received threats to their person and property,” Mr Lawshe’s lawyer said, according to CNN. “Mr. Lawshe and his family have been defamed and will continue to be defamed until the innuendo and direct accusations and attacks against Mr. Lawshe and his family cease.”
The viral incident, which sparked national feedback and a chorus of support for the frightened Black girl, led to an assistant professor at Yale University tracking down Bobbi and her family so that she could coordinate a private tour of the famed institution’s science labs.
Dr Ijeoma Opara, founder of the University’s Substance Abuse & Sexual Health Lab, put out a call on social media to assist in tracking down Bobbi after she saw the coverage of her run-in with the New Jersey police last month.
Not long after that initial call was posted, Dr Opara was posting a picture on her personal Twitter account with the young girl beside her as she detailed her visit to Yale where she embarked on “a Black girl led science tour.”
“Twitter fam, thank you for helping me to find the family of the 9 year old girl from NJ who had the police called on her by her neighbor for collecting lantern flies. I connected with them & invited them to @yale for a Black girl led Science Tour! Yesterday—HISTORY was MADE,” tweeted the Yale professor on Thursday.
Twitter fam, thank you for helping me to find the family of the 9 year old girl from NJ who had the police called on her by her neighbor for collecting lantern flies. I connected with them & invited them to @yale for a Black girl led Science Tour! Yesterday—HISTORY was MADE (1/) pic.twitter.com/NV1CGp8Qss
— Dr. Ijeoma Opara (@IjeomaOparaPHD) November 17, 2022
A GoFundMe has been set up on behalf of Ms Joseph’s daughter by a family friend, with proceeds from the online fundraiser going towards the family “primarily as relates to educational programs, activities and tuition for the girls,” it reads.