A 9-year-old Black girl was afraid to leave the house after a neighbor called the police on her while she was catching spotted lanternflies, her mother said in a moving town council speech.
On the morning of Oct. 22, in Caldwell, New Jersey, fourth-grader Bobbi Wilson had found a recipe for an environmentally-safe lanternfly spray on TikTok, and wanted to try it out on the nearby trees she saw that were infested.
She’d been learning about the invasive species in class, her family said, and wrote a paper on their environmental impact. The influx of spotted lanternflies across the Northeast has become a viral topic, with many homemade solutions and government-recommended methods to help stop the spread of the insects, including the “see it, squish it” campaign.
While Wilson was testing the solution out on her street, neighbor Gordon Lawshe, who public records show is 71, spotted the child walking about and called the police, according to Wilson’s 13-year-old sister Hayden.
Monique Joseph, Wilson’s mother, recited the recording Caldwell police received from Lawshe’s 911 call at a town council meeting earlier this month alerting local officials to the treatment of her daughter in their majority-white town.
“There’s a little Black woman, walking, spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees,” Joseph read aloud. “I don’t know what the hell she’s doing; it scares me though.” Lawshe also mentioned in his call that Wilson was wearing a “hood” and said she was a “real small woman... you can’t miss her.” The child is still under five feet tall, according to her family.
“Racism, intentional or not, is still racism,” the mother of two said. “To hear my neighbor using triggering words that have resulted in the deaths of too many Black and brown children and adults at the hands of the police. ‘Black,’ ‘hoodie,’ ‘I’m scared.’ Those are triggering words.”
The American police have a long history of brutalizing unarmed, young Black children after 911 calls, a symptom of systemic racism that has triggered social movements like the Black Lives Matter movement, “______ While Black” and discussion-spawning memes like Barbecue Becky. Tamir Rice was just 12 years old when, holding a toy gun, he was killed by police in a park to which they were dispatched following a 911 call. Thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo was shot and killed by a police officer after raising his hands in surrender. Ma’Khia Bryant was 16 years old when she called the police for help, and was then shot and killed by them. The Children’s National Hospital reported in 2020 that Black children were six times more likely to be shot to death by police than their white peers.
Hayden Wilson emphasized that when Lawshe called the police on Bobbi, she was not on his property, and that Lawshe knows her family. They have lived across the street from each other for almost eight years, according to local press.
“She was not only doing something amazing for our environment, but she was doing something that made her feel like a hero,” Hayden said, in a speech also addressing council.
Wearing bright circle glasses and patterned orange flannel pants, Bobbi stood by her older sister as she gave her statement to the council.
“Bobbi, how many lanternflies do you think you captured or killed?” a councilperson asked Wilson. “A lot, I think,” she replied. Wilson also shared the nontoxic recipe she found, which consisted of apple cider vinegar, water, and dish soap.
The town council told the two girls that they have “the governing body’s full support.” Caldwell mayor John Kelley told The Daily Beast that “it is clear that a line was crossed. My heart goes out to Monique and her two girls.”
Lawshe’s attorney Greg Mascera said on Friday that his client did place the phone call, but denied that the act was racial profiling. “All the cop did was drive by, but the mother’s assertion that [her daughter is now] afraid of cops is absurd,” Mascera said.
Lawshe served as the co-head and treasurer of the Caldwell Republican Committee and, according to his LinkedIn, is the Caldwell Community Center membership director. He is also a former local councilperson.
Joseph urged the town leadership to open a conversation about the impacts of racial discrimination in Caldwell, hoping this could be a “teachable moment” on racial bias for the community.
“My 9-year-old daughter was afraid to go outside the next day,” she said. “It is unfortunate that she understands exactly what could have happened to her if we lived somewhere else in this country.”