A young girl’s fascination with the spotted lanternfly forces a community in northern New Jersey to grapple with racist ideas and what happens when police get a call from a black child.
Nearly a month after a neighbor called the police to report the death of 9-year-old Bobbi Wilson, her mother, Monique Joseph, hoped the incident would spark a deeper conversation about blacks and browns Discrimination and prejudice faced by ethnic children.
“I want to move this forward and turn it into a positive situation. How can the community learn and get better?” Joseph told CNN on Monday.
On October 22, Bobbi walked through her community in Caldwell, New Jersey, spraying a homemade concoction to kill lanternflies. The fourth grader first learned about the spotted lanternfly last summer. Once she discovered that invasive species were damaging trees by feeding on leaves and sap from their trunks, she wanted to stop the infestation. On this fall morning, she’s excited to see if a recipe she found on Tik Tok works.
“That’s her business,” Joseph told CNN. “She’ll kill lanternflies, especially if they’re in trees. That’s what she’ll do.”
So when a call from her neighbor led to police pulling over and questioning the child, Joseph said she was confused and disturbed. On the phone, Gordon Rauchy told the dispatcher, “There’s a little black woman walking and spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees in Elizabeth and Florence. I don’t know what the hell she’s doing. But it scares me.”
When asked for a description, Lawshe told the dispatcher she was a “real little woman” wearing a “hood.”
According to Joseph, Lawshe initially told her he thought Bobbi was either a “lost little girl” or an “old lady with dementia”. He apologizes immediately, but Joseph doesn’t understand why he’s calling the police instead of figuring out who the girl is himself, especially since their family knows each other and has been friendly for years.
Lawshe’s attorney, Gregory Mascera, told CNN in an emailed statement, “He (Lawshe) didn’t want to get involved in a confrontation, so he called Caldwell police to investigate the matter. Instead of calling 911, Mr. Lawshe called the police non-emergency dispatch Hotline.Mr Lawshe has no reason to believe he would cause anyone harm by calling the police.
According to Marcella, the next morning, Rauscher tried to apologize again to Joseph and her daughter.
“Mr. Lawshe told Mrs. Joseph that if he had known that it was her daughter he had seen he would not have called the police. Mrs. Joseph did not accept Mr. Lawshe’s apology.
In a country chronically rife with police killing of unarmed black and brown children, Lawshe should have understood that he was putting her daughter at risk, Joseph noted. They had been next-door neighbors for almost eight years, so not only did she not understand why he didn’t know Bobbi, she also couldn’t understand why he would treat a 9-year-old girl like a grown woman.
Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, told CNN that the incident highlights the “adultization bias” that young black girls like Bobby face in American society.
In 2017, the center released a quantitative analysis of “Girlhood Interrupted: The Obliteration of Black Girls’ Childhood,” showing that adults perceive black girls to be less innocent and less deserving of protection than white girls, and explaining how this bias makes black girls Girls targeted by police dealt harshly.
“It’s a very pervasive form of bias that doesn’t know boundaries, in terms of what areas it happens in. In the emergency room, we see it impacting the treatment and diagnosis of black girls. In schools, we see it in the form of There are harsher and more frequent forms of discipline against black girls,” Epstein said in an interview with CNN.
While Epstein noted that the police handled Bobbi very well, she also pointed to situations where they didn’t — like last year when a Rochester officer handcuffed a 9-year-old black girl and put her in the back of the police car, and said ‘you’re acting like a child’, before pepper spraying her as she cried for her father.
There are “statistics that clearly show that black people, regardless of age and gender, are treated more harshly and violently than white people. If you don’t know, you should be,” Epstein added.
From that day on, Barbie changed, Joseph said. She’s confused but still trying to process everything, just like the rest of the family.
“I’m her mum. I’m doing everything I can to keep her safe from harm.” But with continued support comes constant reminders of her experience of being pulled over by police.
Once the police realized Bobbi was a child, he waited for her until Joseph came across the sidewalk to see what was happening.
“Am I in trouble?” Joseph remembered Bobby asking as soon as he arrived. Joseph pulled her daughter closer while both she and the officer assured her there was nothing wrong.
“When she asked that, I knew she was scared when she held back,” Joseph said. “I immediately went into mom mode.”
Caldwell Mayor John Kelly told CNN he was “appalled” by the incident. He said he immediately apologized to Joseph upon hearing the call and assured her that she and Bobby had his support.
Kelly said he wasn’t prepared to label the incident racist, but he would be naive if he thought racism didn’t exist in Caldwell and across the country.
“The fact that this is a black family in a predominantly white neighborhood certainly brings race into the equation,” he said.
Calling the police for a 9-year-old girl is very disturbing, regardless of the individual’s race, Kelly said.
Upon getting out of the car, the responders quickly realized that Bobbi was a preteen girl and saw her just catching lanternflies. That immediately de-escalated the situation, Kelly said, and he thanked police for their handling of the situation.
Later, the West Caldwell Police Department invited Joseph and her daughters for a tour of the station and assured the family that there was no reason to be afraid of them.
Joseph said she’s had a lot of support, with some friends in the area even setting up a GoFundMe to “support Monique, Bobby and Hayden”.
Sister Hayden, 13, spoke at a City Council meeting on Nov. 1 to discuss the impact of racism and the emotional impact on her 9-year-old sister of Lawshe’s careless call to the police.
“She’s not only doing amazing things for our environment, she’s doing things that make her feel like a hero,” Hayden said during her speech at the city council, with Bobby standing beside her.
“What Mr. Gordon Lawshe did to my sister was extremely offensive, traumatic and scarring to my family. I can confidently assure you that she will never forget it,” she added.
After hearing about Bobbi’s mission to save nearby trees from lanternflies, the Caldwell Environmental Committee voted unanimously to honor Bobbi with one of their annual sustainability awards – given to those who help improve the town’s environment. They plan to formally honor her with the award at a Dec. 6 city council meeting.
“Bobbi Wilson is the recipient of this year’s award for her hard work in eradicating lanternflies from trees in our streets. We are very proud of her efforts and are delighted to recognize her efforts with this certificate, ’ they said in an emailed statement to CNN.
After footage of the council meeting went viral on social media, the family began to receive national support from the likes of science writer Jason Bitter and Yale University assistant professor Ijema Opala.
Bittle is a freelance writer whose articles on scientific research and human-animal conflict have appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Last month, National Geographic published a story he wrote about the spotted lanternfly.He says
CNN He was outraged by Bobbi’s story and wanted to give her his science-related children’s book for free.
“To me, that’s the worst insult to that little bit of miracle she’s going through,” Bittle said.
Bittel also organized a Twitter campaign seeking donations of science books, animal stickers and other biology-related items to Bobbi.
“People just want to make sure that this budding naturalist, scientist, chemist … she doesn’t lose her spark,” Bittel said.
Joseph told CNN that Bobby reads every night, so she was “very excited” to receive the books from Bittle and his colleagues. Opala is an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health where she directs the Black Girls Go to Yale project. On November 15, she invited Bobby and her family to visit Yale University.
During the tour, Yale Entomology surprised even Opara by announcing during the visit that they would ensure that Bobbi’s name was always attributed to the lanternfly or any other specimen she contributed, said the collections manager for entomology at the Yale Peabody Museum.
“It’s beautiful to be able to replace the memory of someone calling the police because she did something that turned her on, and now people are applauding and rewarding her,” Oppara said.
“They don’t want her to lose her passion and enthusiasm for this work.”