A New Jersey mother said she is outraged after a neighbor called the police on her Black daughter for spraying lanternflies on their street.
Monique Joseph said her little girl has been afraid to leave the house after the incident. Joseph took to her local city council to raise awareness to what she has identified as racism in the small town 6 miles northwest of Newark.
“I’m not here to call him names and say he’s a racist. I’m not here to do that, but what I’m here to do is — I have to stand up for my children and for myself,” Joseph told Atlanta Black Star. “I have to do that. That was wrong.”
The older white man who called the police for the “suspicious Black woman” spraying the ground in the Caldwell neighborhood once also sat on the same dais that Joseph aired her grievances to on Nov. 1.
“Racism, intentional or not, is still racism,” Joseph told the Caldwell City Council.
However, an attorney for Gordon Lawshe told Atlanta Black Star his client’s reaction is being misconstrued.
The Caldwell Police Department said they received a call from Lawshe right before noon about a woman walking down his street. The girl he saw is 9 years old, 4 feet 3 inches and weighs about 60 pounds, her mother said.
“There’s a little Black woman walking and spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees,” Lawshe told the dispatcher. “I don’t know what the hell she is doing, but it’s scaring me though.”
“I don’t know what she’s spraying on the sidewalks and the trees,” Lawshe continued.
The dispatcher asks the caller to verify and confirm the details and for a description.
“Real small woman, real tiny. She’s got a hood on. You can’t miss her,” Lawshe said.
Body camera video of the incident shows Bobbi Wilson was wearing a light pink hoodie and an olive green coat jacket that also had a hood attached to it. She had a large, black spray bottle in her hand.
Joseph said she was shocked when she saw a police officer approach her daughter, but Joseph “held her breath” until she received the police report, which she quoted to the city council on Nov. 1.
Calwdell Police officer Kevin O’Neill responded to the scene and asked Bobbi for her mother, who was walking down the street with another neighbor.
“Is he a nut? Doesn’t he live right across the street from me,” Joseph asked the other neighbor.
“I saw it too, and I thought she was doing a school project,” the other woman replied.
Joseph, O’Neill and the second woman talked about the infestation of lanternflies in the neighborhood. Bobbi researched and found a nontoxic solution for the insects that feed on trees. It was a mixture of water, apple cider vinegar and dish detergent. The officer dismisses the incident and informs Lawshe that it was a little girl.
“She was not only doing something amazing for our environment,” Her sister Hayden Wilson told the city council. “She was doing something that made her feel like a hero.”
Joseph told the council that she wanted the incident to be a teachable moment for the town where 12 percent of people are Black.
Joseph and her family are the only Black people in her neighborhood. Lawshe has been her neighbor for eight years, she said. His wife and Joseph have each other’s telephone numbers, and her daughters attended a camp where his wife worked two years ago.
The mother spoke to the Lawshe after the incident, and he explained that he thought Bobbi was an “old lady” and “you can’t be too careful. People are dangerous and crazy around here.”
Lawshe apologized, and Joseph said she hoped he was being truthful but was surprised and “pissed off” when she heard the dispatch call.
What was worse was that he coupled the words “scared” and “hoodie” together, a combination that reminded her of Trayvon Martin’s death she said. The Florida teenager was wearing a hoodie when he was killed by George Zimmerman, who claimed to be conducting a neighborhood watch in 2012.
“It is sickening and scary to hear my neighbor use triggering words that have resulted in the death of too many Black and brown children and adults at the hands of the police,” Joseph told the city council.
Joseph said she then spoke to the police chief about mediating a sit-down with her neighbor, but Lawshe said he rejected the request and said he already apologized.
“He didn’t care to fix it,” Joseph said. “He had the chance to speak to me. I wanted to speak to him. I wanted to turn this narrative around for Bobbi.”
Lawshe’s attorney Greg Mascera said it’s an “unfortunate incident” and his client may have “overacted.”
Still, he believes it has been blown up out of proportion. He is considering legal action against Joseph because his client’s words were misrepresented.
Mascera said Lawshe did not use the word “hoodie” but instead he said “hood,” which have two different meanings. Mascera considers a hoodie a sweatshirt that is pulled over the head, but a hood can be attached to any other type of clothing such as a dress or another shirt.
Still, Joseph said Bobbi was not wearing the hood or hoodie on her head that day and it was “nice out.”
“He knows why he used that word. That’s what my gut tells me,” she said.
The attorney also pointed out that Lawshe has severe vision problems and complications from a couple of heart surgeries last year.
“He wears glasses. He didn’t have his glasses on,” Mascera told Atlanta Black Star “He also has a pin in his leg, and he can’t bend his right knee. So it’s difficult for him to walk. He can walk, but it’s difficult for him to walk. And he also has a severe heart problem.”
Mascera said Lawshe genuinely didn’t realize it was Joseph’s daughter.
“It’s not every day that you see somebody spraying things on trees and on the sidewalk, on a neighbor’s property,” Mascera said.
The attorney also believes Joseph’s outrage over the incident may be politically motivated. Lawshe is the co-chair of the Caldwell Republican Party.
Mascera said he was told that a Democratic councilman who was running for re-election made the call to the police chief to set up the meeting between the two neighbors.
Joseph mentioned Lawshe’s party affiliation at the council meeting last week, but she told Atlanta Black Star that the issue is not political.
“The story is that her neighbor, someone that knows her, called the police on her. She’s 9 years old, and that shouldn’t happen,” she said.
However, Lawshe is a political figure in the town and should be held to a “higher standard,” the mother added.
Joseph said her daughter has been having recurring nightmares since the encounter with the police. She is considering therapy and has been working on ways to spin things in a positive way for the child.
A local newspaper published an article about Bobbi’s lanternfly remedy, and Joseph arranged visits with another local police department. Caldwell Mayor John Kelley has apologized to the family and plans to meet with them to work on promoting awareness in the town.
“It’s all kind of fresh, so I’m hoping that those feelings go away for her,” she said