my own private lantern law

lantern law sculpture

This sculpture by Kapwani Kiwanga is an abstract representation of a Black person carrying a lantern in early America. From the show at MIT’s Visual Arts Center

In colonial America, lantern laws required that African Americans travel at night with candles. The law, presumably, was designed to address the fears that people had of Blacks. Simone Brown, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, describes these laws further in an interview about her work on surveillance of Blacks:

Lantern laws were 18th century laws in New York City that demanded that Black, mixed-race and Indigenous enslaved people carry candle lanterns with them if they walked about the city after sunset, and not in the company of a white person. The law prescribed various punishments for those that didn’t carry this supervisory device. Any white person was deputized to stop those who walked without the lit candle after dark.

I was reminded of lantern laws recently, as I have had to confront these issues. Last year, I was walking home from teaching my night class on social theory. I was on the sidewalk, about four blocks away from my home. It was in the evening, approximately 9:30 pm. I was briskly walking along and a car pulls up.

An older female voice says, “Hey, you.”

I was surprised. I was listening to a podcast and was deep in thought. My neighborhood is very quiet at night, so I expect few people to talk to me, except for the occasional jogger who says hello.

“May I help you?”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m sorry. What is this about?”

“You are walking.”

“Of course I am. I am walking home.”

“You should wear something different. You are wearing something dark.”

This really was odd. I was wearing a sports coat, dress slacks, and a collared shirt. It was dark colored, but certainly appropriate. I was flustered.

“You should wear something light colored so people can see you.”

I am a person who tries to minimize conflict. I did not want this situation to escalate. I said, “Thank you. Good bye.” And walked away faster. The lady in the car, a sedan, I think, took it as the end of our interaction and drove off. I told my spouse about this incident and we thought it was odd.

A few nights ago, a similar thing happened. Last week, I went out for one of my evening strolls. I really enjoy walking as it clears my mind and helps with my weight. I will walk around the block a few times and then just pace in front of my house. Back and forth.  As I still have small children, if my wife needs me, I can quickly come back inside. Since it was cold, I wrapped a small blanket around me.

As I was about to finish up my walk, a police car pulls up to my house. I immediately knew what was up. If this has never happened to you before, let me describe it. Modern police cars have a battery of lights on the top. For emergencies, they turn on the blue and red, the colors that you probably know about. But they can also be used as super-bright spotlights. When this car pulled up, the officer turned the spot lights at me, directly in my face. It’s very antagonizing.

I’ve interacted with police in past, both as a social movement researcher in the field and also as a citizen. So I didn’t panic and I try to be friendly and open. The officer starts with his routine. He asks who I am and what I’m doing. I tell him my name and explain that I’m walking in front of my house.

He asks for my identification. I tell him that I don’t have it because I’m standing in front of my house. He asks for my name, which I tell him, and then he asks how long I’ve been living in Bloomington, which I also tell him. I did have my cell phone on me, since I was listening to a podcast as I was walking. I ask him if I can call my spouse, which I then proceed to do.

The situation gets very strange when the officer says, “We have a report of a man walking around wearing a blanket.”

“A blanket?”

“Why are you wearing a blanket?”

“It’s cold.”

He seems to appreciate this. He does affirm that it is cold. I am surprised that he’s not wearing a jacket. The police car’s spotlights are so bright I can see the hairs on his arms standing up.

I also tell him that I am sorry if I appear upset, but a man should be able to walk in front of his house without the police being called. Fortunately, at that point, my spouse appears. The officer then de-escalates. He quickly realizes that yes, I am very likely a man standing in front of his house and I am wearing a wrap around blanket since it is cold. Later, my spouse tells me that she recognizes him from around town and that a friendly face probably helped cool out the situation. I am glad nothing came of it, but I was very angry that someone, a neighbor or a passerby, was so challenged by my evening stroll that they called the police.

This essay is not really about the police. In fact, the police officer in this story acted professionally, responded to a call, and realized that it was absurd. Rather, it’s about the anxiety that drives people to call the police. It’s about the anxiety that might drive a middle aged lady in an expensive car to call out to a stranger in the night, just to tell him to wear brighter clothes. It’s a fear that reads unknown danger into the act of wearing a blanket. It is about the fear of others that drives surveillance from the lantern laws of colonial America to the modern mass incarceration system. It’s rooted in a general fear of the other and our own historically specific fears of people of color.

I am relatively even keeled. I was angry for a while, but I soon chilled out. I went to work the next day and had a very enjoyable weekend. Looking back, I do feel disappointed. Not for me. I’ll be fine. In the larger scheme of things, my experiences were modest and I’m well educated so I can constructively deal with these sorts of things. Rather, I am disappointed for other people who are subject to surveillance. These interactions don’t always have happy endings. It’s also sad to know that there are people who are threatened if they see a man wearing a dark sports coat on a beautiful Fall evening. It’s an anxiety that cripples us, degrades us, and makes us less human


50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

May 20, 2019 at 5:54 am

Posted in uncategorized

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Just had a conversation today with a police officer about this issue, which he called racial profiling by proxy. From his perspective as someone trying to build better police-community relations, this may be the biggest obstacle to progress. I’ve read some about proposals to change dispatch procedures so that dispatchers ask for a more concrete reason for suspicion than just some White lady feeling anxious, but that would require a culture change in law enforcement. Anyway, I am sorry that this society continues to be so disappointing.

    Liked by 2 people


    May 21, 2019 at 3:38 am

  2. “You should wear something different. You are wearing something dark” I hate when pedestrians and joggers (especially joggers) assume a driver can see them at night. In a street with limited street lights and a speed limit of 45 miles per hour, there are literally only a few seconds before seeing someone and hitting them.


    Prof West

    May 21, 2019 at 1:48 pm

  3. Thanks, Mikalia. I am an optimist and I hope by sharing people can be a little more careful before they call the police.

    @ Prof West: Your make a good point, but in the first incident I was not jogging, walking in the street or at an intersection. I was on squarely on the sidewalk. The person would literally have had to drive up onto the side walk to get near to me. They might have also started the conversation differently, by saying they were worried about my safety.

    Liked by 2 people


    May 21, 2019 at 3:54 pm

  4. I think that pedestrians make the mistake of thinking that a driver in the car can see them as clearly as they can see the car — true in daylight but not at night. So yeah, wear something white at night.

    But maybe the woman was also asking herself: who would be walking in this neighborhood in dark colors at night? And ignoring the Bayesian priors, she comes up with the answer: a burglar. So rather than call the cops, she does a little Jane Jacobs informal social control.


    Jay Livingston

    May 22, 2019 at 8:06 pm

  5. As a driver in a neighborhood where people do walk at night, luckily one with streetlights, I can say I’ve never had a problem seeing pedestrians who are walking on sidewalks and crossing at crosswalks (where, after all, there are often stop signs), no matter how dark their colors. As long as they aren’t wandering the street in the dark spots between streetlights while paying more attention to their phones than their surroundings, we’re ok.

    Drivers are the ones with the big, dangerous machines, and it is on us to drive at reasonable speeds that permit us to understand and react appropriately to our surroundings. It’s not reasonable to ask pedestrians–who may, after all, be walking home from work in the dark suits or uniforms they are required to wear–to change their clothes before making their commute. I assume things are different if you live somewhere where pedestrians are rare, but in urbanized areas, pedestrians need to come first–and I’m not an anti-car radical by any stretch of the imagination.

    Liked by 2 people


    May 23, 2019 at 12:04 am

  6. wear something bright; light whatever as i read this it seems to me to be a case(s) of profiling: plain & simple. Further, having to get ID in front of your own home underscores my point. What Prof tells us here does not happen to white people.

    Liked by 1 person

    Earl Smith

    May 24, 2019 at 4:50 pm

  7. I once took a long walk in moderate weather in daylight with my son in a stroller. I was about a mile from home. A neighbor stopped to ask me if I was all right.

    Yes, I am a straight white male. Yes, she probably already thought I was peculiar. She was like that.

    Your neighbors are going to at least minimal effort to look out for you. Please don’t blame them for their clumsiness. The neighbor who called the police may have thought you had been thrown out of the house.

    When I was in college a neighbor watched a gang clear out our rented house *without* calling the police.



    May 27, 2019 at 4:01 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: