Not long after a grand jury decided not to indict a white New York police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, a new hashtag took over Twitter: #CrimingWhileWhite.
It started Wednesday when Jason Ross, a writer for “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” sent out a tweet: “Busted 4 larceny at 11. At 17, cited for booze + caught w gun @ school. No one called me a thug. Can’t recommend being white highly enough.”
An hour later, Ross addressed a tweet to, as he called them, “OTHER WHITE PEOPLE,” urging them to share their own stories of the times they escaped punishment for misdeeds. “It's embarrassing but important!” he wrote. “Let's get #CrimingWhileWhite trending!”
Ross unleashed a fair amount of jokes but also real stories that made 140-character comments on race in America.
As of Thursday morning, the hashtag had more than 250,000 mentions and remained at the top of trending items on Twitter.
Cecily Kellogg took to Twitter discuss a 1981 incident. “At 13 I stole a car with my friends & drove it 2wks before we got busted. Only one charged was black #CrimingwhileWhite.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Kellogg said: “I’ve thought about that story as a youthful escapade my whole adult life, and I don't think until I saw the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag I realized how hypocritical it was that he actually got a sentence and we all got community service. Even though we all confessed.”
Kellogg, like many of the participants in the hashtag, noted they already recognized their privilege as a white person before even sharing their personal stories. The hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite solidified something she already knew that she was “able to get away with stuff simply for being a girl and being young and being white.”
The announcement that there would be no indictment of the New York police officer came less than two weeks after a grand jury decided not to indict a Ferguson, Mo., officer after he shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man. The grand jury said there was insufficient evidence to indict Officer Darren Wilson and released evidence portraying Brown as the aggressor in the fatal confrontation.
“This sort of issue has been such a steadily increasing problem, and its prominence is increasing in the public, but nothing’s really changing,” Andy Paul told The Times when asked why he felt inspired to recount what happened when, soon after his college graduation, he was pulled over by a police officer in Oxford, Miss:
“Got pulled over for a busted taillight once. My insurance card was expired, and I had a couple drinks at dinner. Let go. #crimingwhilewhite.”
“We participate in these sort of hashtag activism things, but I’m not sure if politicians and grand juries are reading hashtags,” Paul added. Paul said he was especially willing to share his story following the second non-indictment of a police officer, noting that the Staten Island decision was “like pouring salt in the wound.”
“The fact that I can have this discussion with you a year and a half later is kind of proof of the problem in way that a white male can talk about this with the L.A. Times, and a black male is dead – for doing much less than I did.”
With the large number of tweets confessing to both crime and privilege of race, black users of Twitter also joined in to share their stories under the coinciding hashtag #LivingWhileBlack. Those tweets told a very different story about race in America.
“I'm 18. Times that by 3. That's an estimate on how many times I've been followed around a store or searched by police.#LivingWhileBlacK,” noted Twitter user Gerald Hunley.
Robyn Kopp shared her experience on #CrimingWhileWhite, noting: “I never think about that time when I was 19 and I did something stupid. The only thing traumatic I remember about that, was me telling my mother and my mother getting mad at me.”
At 19, Kopp says she dined and dashed from a restaurant and was later found by the police. She paid the bill and was never charged.
“I dined and dashed -- cop found me at the movies, I paid the bill and he left. I was rude but not arrested and not killed. #CrimingWhileWhite.”
Kopp’s tweet has been shared more than 900 times. The response, she says, has been both negative and positive. To her, it was more than just tweeting; it was about taking the opportunity to examine her own privilege as a white woman and stoke a conversation on social media.
Kopp added, “The #AliveWhileBlack hashtag that’s come up as a corollary to the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag… it’s just, none of it is surprising to me, but it is a really poignant and terrifying portrait of America.”