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The End Result of ‘Karen’ Panic

This is what happens when you keep ruining people’s lives for the crime of calling 911.

Last week a woman was raped by a stranger on a Philadelphia train for eight minutes and none of the other passengers intervened or called 911. Security footage shows the suspect, Fiston Ngoy, sitting down next to the victim and trying to talk to her briefly before, in the words of Upper Darby police superintendent Timothy Bernhardt, “he just completely overpowered the woman and forcibly raped her.”

According to a statement from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, “The assault was observed by a SEPTA employee, who called 911. … There were other people on the train who witnessed this horrific act, and it may have been stopped sooner if a rider called 911.”

Last summer saw the national spread of the pejorative term “Karen,” which denigrates the supposedly entitled behavior of calling authorities on a person of color.

Now we see the fruits of that meme.

Should we be surprised that no one called 911 when, again and again in the last 18 months, ordinary citizens have had their lives ruined for doing just that?

A lot of Karen-ish behavior is actually laudable, exactly the kind of informal enforcement of public norms on which public safety and social cohesion invisibly rely.

Christopher Cukor, who made headlines in 2019 for hassling a black man who slipped in the apartment complex door behind him, was only doing what many buildings’ policies require, making sure only residents and their guests are allowed inside. San Francisco is a high-crime city, so keeping out unauthorized trespassers who claim to be visiting someone in the building is not a pointless legalism.

The man, Wesly Michel, taunted Cukor during their encounter, “I’m recording you right now. You’re just going to be the next person on TV.”

He was right about that, although his taunts were in bad taste. Cukor later revealed that his father was murdered in 2012 after calling 911 on a man who was “hanging around” his property and “says that he lives here” and “is looking for someone named Zoey,” according to the call transcript. The man fatally struck Cukor’s father in the head with a flower pot before police arrived.

What would have happened if someone had called 911 on Fiston Ngoy? According to police descriptions of the security footage, he ripped the victims clothes off. You would think any bystander could see that a crime was in progress and a 911 call was justified.

But when Ma’khia Bryant was shot by police in the act of attempting to stab a girl with a knife after saying (as caught on video) “I’m gonna stab the fuck outta you, bitch,” commentators in the Washington Post and NPR leaped to defend Bryant as the latest martyr to blue violence. The officer was accused of overreacting to a teenage knife fight.

If it had turned out that the Philly train passengers were witnessing the misdemeanor of open lewdness rather than the felony of rape, anyone who called 911 could have been turned into the next Karen, which, depending on the circumstances, can lead to public shaming, losing your job, and being prosecuted for a hate crime.

The original Karen of 2020, Amy Cooper, was accused of committing literal violence against Central Park birdwatcher Christopher Cooper because the police could have shot him when they arrived in response to her 911 call. But calling 911 on someone is not literal violence. Raping a woman on a crowded train car is.