How Karens Created the Proposed CAREN Act

Published March 4, 2021

Within the last two years, the "Karen" meme has circulated widely throughout the internet, making its way into California's State Capitol.

Within the last two years, the "Karen" meme has circulated widely throughout the internet. This meme originated from the various examples of middle-aged white women typically sporting pixie cuts, throwing tantrums in public. The "Karen" label applies to various entitled behaviors that range from asking to speak to the manager, refusing to wear a mask and extreme displays of exerting white privilege. Videos featuring white women unjustifiably calling the police on individuals of color have gone viral across social media platforms. One notable video coined the name "Barbecue Becky," a variation of the Karen meme. With almost ten million views on YouTube, the video showcases "Becky" racially targeting a black family for having a barbecue at a lake and accusing them of engaging in illegal behavior. Unfortunately, children are also not exempt from the wrath of Karens. Another white woman, "Permit Patty," called the police on an eight-year-old black girl who was selling water outside her apartment complex to raise money for a trip to Disneyland. "Patty" claimed that the child was selling bottled water without a permit and proceeded to report her to the police. This video recently reached over twenty million views on YouTube and is just one of the many absurd cases of "Karens" abusing emergency resources for their agenda.

These incidents have prompted San Francisco politician Shamann Walton to introduce the CAREN Act, inspired by the infamous "Karen" meme, at a San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting. The CAREN Act stands for Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies, and it works to criminalize racially motivated emergency calls. Though filing a fraudulent police report is illegal in California, there are no consequences for people who make racially biased emergency calls under existing laws. This ordinance, however, will penalize those who are found to exploit community resources to perpetuate their hate and bigotry.

This legislation shares similarities to AB 1550 proposed by Assemblymember Rob Bonta from Oakland, California. This statewide bill labels discriminatory 911 calls as hate crimes and dissuades people from weaponizing law enforcement for racially motivated purposes. In his online press release, Assemblymember Bonta stated that the amendments to AB 1550 will provide a civil remedy to victims of these calls and will establish civil liability for the perpetrators. Anyone who makes a discriminatory non-emergency call is subject to a misdemeanor and up to a year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine if convicted. Bonta also reassured his constituents that the goal of this bill is not to discourage utilizing 911 when in danger but to prevent the "further [deterioration of] community-police relations and [its contribution] to the inaccurate and harmful over-criminalization of black and brown communities." The act would protect millions of Californians from being subject to demoralizing, demeaning, and unnecessary scrutiny by law enforcement and by the public. Altogether, it would lessen the number of viral "Karen" videos appearing online. 

Across the rest of the United States, other states are considering adopting similar bills, with New York, Oregon, and Washington being three of the strongest supporters for the CAREN Act. 

AB 1550 is currently working its way through the Senate Committee on Public Safety, awaiting a second reading after being amended in June 2020. The amended AB 1550 is available to read for more information. 

Update (1/22): AB 1550 has yet to move past the Senate Committee on Public Safety after its re-referral in July 2020. New York and Washington, however, have made progress signing respective laws that outlaw the use of emergency services to report nonemergencies and target protected classes. New York Senate Bill S8492 was signed in June 2020, preceding the signing of Washington Senate Bill 5135 in May 2021. Additionally, Oregon revised its criminal statutes, classifying the improper use of emergency reporting systems as a misdemeanor.