At 4:48 a.m. on a Sunday, Leonard Pitts Jr. woke up to a call from the police department in his Maryland suburb.
“The caller identified himself as the Bowie Police Department and asked if I'd looked outside my window lately,” Pitts says. “He tells me that half the city of Bowie’s police department is at my front door, and they've received a call that I've murdered my wife, and I need to come downstairs."
The Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist for The Miami Herald says that in the dark hours of the morning on that June 30, he was “swatted.”
Swatting is a form of online harassment — sometimes called a high-stakes prank — that utilizes local police forces to provoke, frighten or even harm a target.
In a swatting incident, someone makes a hoax 911 call that leads police forces — often a SWAT team — to the victim’s house. The presence of those officers, armed and prepared for a conflict like a murder or a hostage situation, coupled with victims who can be unaware of the call, often creates a high-tension situation that can turn fatal. In 2017, an unarmed father of two was killed in a swatting incident.
Victims of swatting attacks include gamers, celebrities and politicians. Sometimes targets’ addresses are posted online, called “doxing,” with calls for the harassment. And since the police are the instrument of harm, experts say the harassment has a disproportionate effect on communities of color.
Since June, two high-profile black writers, who both write about racism, have been targeted: Pitts, and Ijeoma Oluo, a Seattle author who shared her experience on Twitter.
Here & Now's Tonya Mosley spoke with Pitts about being swatted, the response by police and what he thinks needs to be done to stop future incidents.
On what happened after he got that call
“My ‘murdered’ wife is sitting up in bed next to me, trying to figure out what's going on, and who I'm on the phone with it at 4:48 in the morning. And I go downstairs, and they have two spotlights, one on my left, one on my right, and I'm effectively blind. And a voice from somewhere out there in the darkness tells me to put down the cell phone, which I do and to come forward, which I do.
“About halfway across, maybe on my neighbor's lawn, they direct me down to my knees. You know, hands clasped on top of your head, and then somebody comes around and handcuffs me. And they take me over to the back behind the police car and explain to me that they received a call that I've murdered my wife. I didn't find this part out until later, but the caller also told them that I was going to open fire on the police once they responded.”
On why he wasn’t afraid
“It was surreal … Maybe part of it was that I had just awakened, and I'm still at that threshold where you're trying to separate reality from the dream … But I think the bigger part was that the police themselves were not out of control. They were very calm. And once I saw that, and the fact that nobody was yelling at me or cursing at me or threatening me or any of the rest of that stuff, my feeling was that, if we could just go through whatever it was that they needed to go through to assure themselves ... They would see my wife's alive, they're gonna see nothing's happening at the house, and everything I'll be OK. For me, it was just a matter of, ‘Let's get to that moment without anything happening.’”
On the police’s peaceful handling of the incident
“I was pleasantly surprised. Because this was … after the story had broken about the police in [Phoenix], Arizona, essentially brutalizing an African American family over a shoplifting incident. So to be treated as I was, on an assumption of murder, a suspicion of murder... yeah, I was really surprised that it went as well as it did.”
On who might’ve targeted him
“Oh, I'm pretty sure somebody took exception to something that I wrote in the column. I wouldn't be surprised if whoever swatted me has a MAGA hat somewhere in their closet that they wear very often.”
On who should be held responsible for swatting
“Well, the understanding that I have from the police, and it's really, very rudimentary, but that somehow these people are able to route their calls through these internet services, internet providers, and maintain anonymity, and I don't think you should be able to do that. Bottom line, I don't think you should be able to call specifically 911 and maintain anonymity through those means. … So I would like to see something happen there, whether it's technologically, legally, or both, where people can't just, you know, from some random point on Earth, phone in a false call and up end your life.”
On his words for others who may be targeted or feel afraid
“I don't know that there's any magic, comforting words. This is the cost of doing business and particularly in the world that we're in today. … Back in 2007 when I had issue with death threats, with a bunch of neo-Nazis, I was given an award by the National Association of Black Journalists. I kind of jokingly call it an award for not getting killed. But the thing that I said in the acceptance speech was that for a while this was the worst thing that had happened to me. This was a terrible and difficult moment in my life.
“But then I thought about it, and Medgar Evers would have called it Tuesday. Martin Luther King would have called it Tuesday. And when you really stop and think, and look at it in that perspective, look at what others who have come before you have gone through — and they never faltered and they never buckled and they did what had to be done — it kind of puts into perspective what you're dealing with … with some random idiots making phone calls and doing things of that nature. I mean, Medgar Evers would've been grateful for my ‘problem.’ ”
This segment aired on August 21, 2019.
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