Racial Profiling via Nextdoor.com

Sam Levin, East Bay Express, October 7, 2015

The strange glances are starting to become more frequent. James Fisher, a fourteen-year-old freshman at Oakland Charter High School, has noticed that as he gets older, more people on the street eye him with suspicious or fearful stares. “Some of them just look at me, and then they’ll look away,” he said. “Or sometimes, I go into stores, and they look at me like they think I’m going to do something bad.”

James is a mixed-race, dark-skinned Black teenager who is soft-spoken and looks about three years older than his actual age. On a recent afternoon last month, I chatted with him and Emma, his thirteen-year-old sister, at their house in the Upper Dimond neighborhood in the Oakland hills. The two siblings told me about their first weeks of high school and how they have enjoyed the freedom at times to walk around Oakland’s Chinatown district without their parents.

But they never walk around their own neighborhood alone.

The tree-lined residential street of large single-family homes where the Fishers live more closely resembles suburbia than a densely populated city. Positioned at the top of a steep hill near Dimond Canyon Park, their house feels worlds away from the busy urban bustle of MacArthur Boulevard and the Fruitvale district just to the southwest. On the surface, their block looks like an ideal place to raise kids–safe, family-friendly, and quiet. Although their individual street is very diverse–with about ten Black or mixed-race kids now living nearby–white residents are by far the largest racial group in the surrounding area. And it’s in this neighborhood, perhaps more so than any other part of Oakland, that James feels most like a target for the uncomfortable glances that are becoming increasingly common in his life.

But he and his parents are not just worried about hurtful stares from neighbors or passersby. Over the last two years, their neighborhood has become overrun with racial profiling–but not by police, rather by mostly white residents incorrectly assuming that people of color who are walking, driving, hanging out, or living in the neighborhood are criminal suspects. These residents often don’t recognize that they may have long held racial prejudices or unconscious biases, but recently, they’ve been able to instantly broadcast their unsubstantiated suspicions to thousands of their neighbors with the click of a mouse.

Nextdoor.com, a website that bills itself as the “private social network for neighborhoods,” offers a free web platform on which members can blast a wide variety of messages to people who live in their immediate neighborhood. A San Francisco-based company founded in 2010, Nextdoor’s user-friendly site has exploded in popularity over the last two years in Oakland. As of this fall, a total of 176 Oakland neighborhoods have Nextdoor groups–and 20 percent of all households in the city use the site, according to the company.

On Nextdoor, people give away free furniture or fruit from their backyards. Users reunite lost dogs with their owners. Members organize community meetings and share tips about babysitters and plumbers. But under the “Crime and Safety” section of the site, the tone is much less neighborly. There, residents frequently post unsubstantiated “suspicious activity” warnings that result in calls to the police on Black citizens who have done nothing wrong. In recent months, people from across the city have shared with me Nextdoor posts labeling Black people as suspects simply for walking down the street, driving a car, or knocking on a door. Users have suggested that Black salesmen and mail carriers may be burglars. One Nextdoor member posted a photo of a young Black boy who failed to pick up dog poop and suggested that his neighbors call the police on him.

White residents have also used Nextdoor to complain and organize calls to police about Black residents being too noisy in public parks and bars–raising concerns that the site amplifies the harmful impacts of gentrification. On Nextdoor and other online neighborhood groups–including Facebook pages and Yahoo and Google listservs–residents have called Black and Latino men suspicious for being near bus stops, standing in “shadows,” making U-turns, and hanging around outside coffee shops. Residents frequently warn each other to be on the look out for suspects with little more description than “Black” and “wearing a hoodie.”

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In some Nextdoor groups, when people ask their neighbors to think twice before labeling someone suspicious, other users attack them for playing the “race card” and being the “political correctness police.” Some groups have even actively silenced and banned the few vocal voices of color speaking up on the websites, according to records that I reviewed.

This sometimes toxic virtual environment has real-world impacts. Residents encourage each other to call police, share tips on how to reach law enforcement, and sometimes even alert cops and security guards about suspicious activity they’ve only read secondhand from other commenters. I spoke to longtime Oaklanders who say the profiling is getting worse, noting that they have recently had neighbors question them on their block or in their own driveway–suspicious of whether they might be up to no good. People of color described stories of white residents running away from them, screaming at them to leave a shared garden space, and calling police on young children in their own home. In some areas, the profiling is further exacerbated by the growing presence of private patrol officers whom residents have hired to guard the streets.

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Now, a group of Oakland residents calling themselves Neighbors for Racial Justice is trying to fight back against the rampant profiling online and in their neighborhoods. But Nextdoor officials and the white residents who control and dominate the online groups do not appear to be taking their concerns seriously or willing to make substantive changes.

And as long as the profiling and prejudiced online posts persist, Mitsu Fisher, the father of James and Emma, is not letting his kids play outside or walk the streets of their own neighborhood without supervision. Mitsu made that an official policy in February 2014 after a patrol officer in the Oakmore neighborhood–who was working for a private security company and was not supposed to be armed–chased and shot a Black teenage boy suspected of committing a burglary, according to police. The fact that a private guard shot a young suspect was upsetting enough to Mitsu, but it was the response from his neighbors online that led him to truly fear for his own kids’ safety.

On Nextdoor and a neighborhood Yahoo group, residents celebrated the private security guard for shooting the teenager–and organized to buy him a thank-you gift.

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For people of color living in Oakland neighborhoods that are still predominantly white, many of the concerns regarding racial profiling stem from community and police efforts to fight crime. Even as overall crime continues to decline here, Oakland consistently ranks as one of the top ten cities for violent crime per capita. In terms of crime prevention efforts, much of the neighborhood-level organizing has focused on robberies, burglaries, and car break-ins–the criminal offenses that can plague certain areas in waves and shake people’s sense of security in their own neighborhoods or homes. As a snapshot, through mid-September, in OPD’s Area 3–which includes Lakeshore, Eastlake, Dimond, Laurel, and Fruitvale–there had been 651 reported robberies, 1,388 burglaries (893 of which were car burglaries), and 348 aggravated assaults.

But OPD also responds to a considerable number of calls from citizens concerned about the people they see in their neighborhoods: Across the city during the past two years, according to data that the department provided to me, police have received an average of roughly 730 calls for suspicious people or vehicles every month.

Through Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meetings and other local organizing groups, residents in the hills have pressured the city for years to devote more police officers to patrolling their streets and investigating property crimes and violent offenses in their neighborhoods. Motivated by the belief that OPD prioritizes resources in high-crime areas and does not do enough to protect their homes in the hills, residents have repeatedly taken matters into their own hands. Some have formed traditional neighborhood watch groups in which volunteers walk the streets. Others have installed security cameras. And many neighborhoods have launched private email listservs that enable residents to efficiently communicate with their neighbors. In the early days of the listservs, the idea was that residents could use the online communities to coordinate efforts to push for police officers–and also share tips about suspicious activity or crimes in real time.

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