On October 22, 2020, 9-year-old Bobbi Wilson was excited to put to the test a mixture she had created to kill spotted lanternflies. She had learned about the invasive species’ threat to the local tree population during the summer and created an insecticide she learned about on TikTok.
Bobbi was peacefully working on her sustainability experiment when her neighbor, Gordon Lawshe, called the police on her, telling the dispatcher that a “little Black woman” was walking and spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees on Elizabeth and Florence.
Gordon Lawshe from #Caldwell, #NJ. Called the cops on a 9 year old black child for killing lantern flies. They are next door neighbors. And when calling the police she referred to this child as a “tiny woman” . Please RT pic.twitter.com/EMIKs0qPrt— outside the bag cereal (@sodapressedd) December 4, 2022
“That’s her thing,” Wilson’s mother, Monique 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.”
The police arrived and did their best not to upset the young girl, assuring Wilson and Joseph that they had done nothing wrong. However, the mother couldn’t believe that the police were called on them by a neighbor they knew.
“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,” Lawshe’s attorney, Gregory Mascera, told CNN.
Bobbi & her sister inherited a crew of Yale Aunties who will love on her and her family forever! Special thanks to @AileenIlianaPhD @lukieash18 @YaleBPA for quickly mobilizing to help make her visit to @yale so special! (7/) pic.twitter.com/nrkC2Qwiwg— Dr. Ijeoma Opara (@IjeomaOparaPHD) November 17, 2022
Rebecca Epstein, the executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, says that the incident may have been an instance of “adultification bias,” where young Black girls are treated as if they are much older than white girls of the same age.
“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.
Despite the turmoil that Bobbi Wilson's family initially endured, her mother acknowledged that they have been able to persevere.— The Daily Beast (@thedailybeast) December 11, 2022
“[We’ve] been blessed with the positive side of it,” she said, explaining that she saw the ordeal as a spiritual experience. https://t.co/BDGEAlpmGW
The fact that a 9-year-old girl had the police called on her for any act is a depressing sign of the times in America. But thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. In the aftermath of the incident, a community of people stood up for Wilson and praised her for her dedication to sustainability.
A group of Black female scientists at Yale hosted Wilson and her family in November, where she toured various laboratories and was invited to submit lanternfly specimens to the university’s entomology department. The Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions honored Wilson with its Sustainability Award after learning about her work with spotted lanternflies.
“We were thrilled that she was doing that,” Ann Marchioni of the ANJEC told the Daily Beast.
Wilson was given the award on Tuesday, December 6, and science communicator Jason Bittel was on hand to talk about spotted lanternflies and how he got into science writing.
“When I saw what happened with Bobbi, my heart immediately just sank,” Bittel said, according to New Jersey Hills. “Because what I saw in her I was doing as a young boy. We were celebrated, if anything, no one called the police on us or chided us in any way.”
Bittel said that Wilson’s dreams could have been crushed the day the police were called on her. But the community stepped up to preserve her passion for science. To promote her interest in science, Bittel presented Wilson with a tub full of interactive materials and gave books to her mother so her daughter could learn more.
“When this incident originally happened, I had one goal. It was to change the trajectory of that day for Bobbi,” Joseph said. “I can’t say I’ve done it all myself. It wasn’t just me, it was the community. … It was friends near and far that understood what happened.”