A little girl’s fascination with spotted lanternflies has forced a North New Jersey community to grapple with perceptions of racism and what happens when police are called on Black children.
Nearly a month after a neighbor called police to report 9-year-old Bobbi Wilson, her mother Monique Joseph hopes the incident can spark a deeper dialogue around discrimination and the biases Black and brown children face.
“I want to move ahead with this and turn this into a positive situation. How can a community learn and be better?” Joseph said to CNN Monday.
On Oct. 22, Bobbi was walking through her Caldwell, New Jersey, neighborhood, spraying a homemade mixture to kill lanternflies. The 4th-grader had first learned about the spotted lanternfly last summer. Once she found out the invasive species damages trees by feeding on the sap found in leaves and tree trunks, she wanted to stop the infestation. On this fall morning, she was excited to see if the mixture whose recipe she found on Tik Tok would work.
“That’s her thing,” Joseph told CNN. “She’s going to kill the lanternflies, especially if they’re on a tree. That’s what she’s going to do.”
So, when her neighbor’s call led to police stopping and questioning the child, Joseph said she was very confused and upset. In the call, Gordon Lawshe told the dispatcher, “There’s a little Black woman walking, spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees on Elizabeth and Florence. I don’t know what the hell she’s doing. Scares me, though.”
When asked for a description, Lawshe told the dispatcher that she was a “real tiny woman” and wearing a “hood.”
According to Joseph, Lawshe initially told her that he thought Bobbi was either a “lost little girl” or a “little old lady with dementia.” He immediately apologized, but Joseph couldn’t understand why he’d call the police instead of figuring out himself who the girl was, especially since their families knew each other and have been friendly for years.
Lawshe’s attorney, Gregory Mascera, told CNN in an emailed statement that, “He (Lawshe) did not want to become involved in a confrontation, so he called the Caldwell police to look into the matter. Mr. Lawshe did not call 911 but called the police non-emergency dispatch line. Mr. Lawshe had no reason to believe that he would be putting anyone in harm’s way by calling the police.”
According to Mascera, Lawshe attempted to again apologize to Joseph and her daughter the following morning.
“Mr. Lawshe told Mrs. Joseph that had he known that it was her daughter that he had seen, he certainly would not have called the police. Mrs. Joseph did not accept Mr. Lawshe’s apology.”
Joseph points out that, in a country perpetually plagued with police killing unarmed Black and brown children, Lawshe should understand that he put her daughter in harm’s way. They’ve been next-door-neighbors for nearly eight years, so she can’t understand not only how he didn’t recognize Bobbi but also why he’d see a 9-year-old girl as an adult woman.
This incident underscores the “adultification bias” that young Black girls like Bobbi face in American society, Rebecca Epstein, the executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, told CNN.
In 2017, the center released “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” a quantitative analysis showing that adults perceive Black girls as less innocent and less worthy of protection than White girls and explaining how this bias subsequently makes Black girls targets of harsh treatment by police.
“It’s a very pervasive form of bias that does not know boundaries, in terms of which fields it occurs in. In emergency rooms, we’re seeing it affect the treatment and diagnosis of Black girls. In schools, we’re seeing it come up in the form of harsher and more frequent discipline against Black girls,” Epstein said in an interview with CNN.
While Epstein noted the police handled the situation with Bobbi extremely well, she also pointed to times where they didn’t – like last year when a Rochester police officer handcuffed a 9-year-old Black girl, put her in the back of a police car, and remarked “you’re acting like a child” before pepper-spraying her as she cried out for her father.
There are “statistics that unequivocally show that Black people of whatever age and whatever gender are treated more harshly and violently than white people. And if that’s not known, it should be,” Epstein added.
Joseph said Bobbi has not been the same since that day. She’s confused and still trying to process everything, much like the rest of the family.
“I’m her mom. I’m doing my job to shield her from as much as I can.” But with the continued support comes the constant reminder of her experience being stopped by police.
After the officer realized Bobbi was a child, he waited with her until Joseph came walking down the sidewalk to see what was happening.
“Am I in trouble?” Joseph recalls Bobbi asking once she arrived. Joseph pulled her daughter close while both she and the officer reassured her that nothing was wrong.
“When she asked that, I knew that while she was holding it in, she was scared,” Joseph said. “I immediately went into mommy mode.”
John Kelly, the mayor of Caldwell, told CNN he was “horrified” by the incident. He said he immediately apologized to Joseph once he heard about the call and assured her that she and Bobbi had his support.
Kelly said he’s not prepared to label the incident racist, but that he’d be naïve to believe racism does not exist – in Caldwell and nationwide.
“The fact that this was a Black family in a predominately White neighborhood certainly introduced race to the equation,” he said.
Calling the police on a 9-year-old girl, regardless of the race of the individuals, is very troubling, Kelly said.
Once the responding officer exited the vehicle, he quickly realized that Bobbi was a preadolescent girl and saw she was only catching lanternflies. This immediately de-escalated the situation, according to Kelly, who was thankful for the police’s handling of the situation.
Later, the West Caldwell Police Department invited Joseph and her daughters to tour the station and assured the family that there’s no reason to be afraid of them.
Joseph says she she’s received a lot of support, and some friends in the area have even set up a GoFundMe to “support Monique, Bobbi and Hayden.”
Older sister Hayden, 13, spoke at a city council meeting on Nov. 1 to discuss the racist implications and the emotional impact of Lawshe carelessly calling the police on her 9-year-old sister.
“She was not only doing something amazing for our environment, she was doing something that made her feel like a hero,” Hayden said in her speech to the city council, Bobbi standing right beside her.
“What Mr. Gordon Lawshe did to my sister was extremely offensive, traumatic, and scarring towards my family. I can confidently assure you guys that she will never forget this,” she added.
The Caldwell Environmental Commission voted unanimously to award Bobbi one of their annual Sustainability Awards – given to those who have helped to better the town’s environment – once they heard about Bobbi’s mission to save the neighborhood trees from lanternflies. They plan to formally grant her the award during the Dec. 6 city council meeting.
“Bobbi Wilson is a recipient of this award this year as she has tried very hard to eradicate lantern flies from the trees on her street. We are very proud of her efforts and are happy to give her this certificate to recognize her efforts,” they said in an emailed statement to CNN.
After clips of the council meeting went viral on social media, the family began receiving national support from people like science writer Jason Bittel and Ijeoma Opara, an assistant professor at Yale.
Bittel is a freelance writer whose articles on scientific studies and human-animal conflicts have been published in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Last month National Geographic published a story he wrote on spotted lanternflies. He told
CNN he was outraged about Bobbi’s story and wanted to send her free copies of the science-related children’s books that he’s written.
“This, to me, was the worst possible affront to that little bit of wonder that she was experiencing,” Bittel said.
Bittel also organized a Twitter campaign seeking donations to Bobbi of science books, animal stickers, and other biology-related swag.
“People just want to make sure that this little budding naturalist, scientist, chemist … that she doesn’t lose her spark,” Bittel said.
Joseph told CNN that Bobbi reads every single night, so she’s “really excited” about receiving the books from Bittel and his associates. Opara is an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, and she runs the “Black Girls Go to Yale” program. She invited Bobbi and her family to Yale University and gave them a tour of the institution on Nov. 15.
During the tour, to the surprise of even Opara, Yale Entomology announced they’ll ensure Bobbi’s name is always attributed to the lantern flies or any other specimens she contributes, according to the Entomology Collections Manager of the Yale Peabody Museum.
“It’s beautiful to be able to replace that memory of somebody calling the cops on her for doing something that she was excited about to now people clapping, awarding her,” Opara said.
“They don’t want her to lose her fire and her passion for doing this work.”