Racial Profiling Via Nextdoor.com 

White Oakland residents are increasingly using the popular social networking site to report "suspicious activity" about their Black neighbors — and families of color fear the consequences could be fatal.

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Since Bolton first heard about Nextdoor, the site's user base has grown exponentially in Oakland and now includes nearly 43,000 total members spread out across 31,000 homes in the city, he said. When I met Bolton in early September, he told me that 2,000 Oakland users had joined in the previous thirty days. In order to join, users have to verify their addresses and use real names — so that when police officers send out messages, they know they are reaching city residents. Bolton said the department doesn't have access to neighborhood posts and doesn't monitor crime and safety messages unless users send them directly to OPD.

Since Nextdoor launched in 2010 with its first neighborhood group in Menlo Park, Oakland has been at the forefront of the website's expansion. Headquartered in downtown San Francisco, the company expanded nationally in October 2011 and now boasts more than 75,000 groups with an average of 100 new neighborhoods joining every day. The site, co-founded by tech entrepreneur and CEO Nirav Tolia, has also partnered with more than 1,200 government entities, mostly police departments, throughout the United States. That includes more than 35 law enforcement agencies in the Bay Area. The Nextdoor Oakmore group was one of the first neighborhoods on the site, and OPD partnered with the company before it had even rolled out its platform for public agencies.

Today, the five largest Nextdoor neighborhoods in Oakland are Adams Point, Golden Gate, Maxwell Park, Crocker Highlands, and Oakmore, according to the company. Because Oakland has long had active Yahoo and other email groups, Nextdoor was an easy sell for many neighborhoods, said company spokesperson Kelsey Grady, in a recent interview. "Oakland has been a community that has been interested in organizing for a long time. The adoption has been so great there."

In Oakland, roughly 20 percent of all Nextdoor conversations are about crime and safety. The rest cover events, lost and found, free items, classifieds, and recommendations. In my review of Nextdoor crime posts from neighborhoods in North Oakland, East Oakland, and around Lake Merritt, I found that the vast majority of comments about suspicious behavior involved Black suspects. In a given month in a single neighborhood, out of several dozen total crime and safety posts, a small number of posts — usually three to five — typically feature descriptions of suspicious behavior with questionable justifications. And in many more posts that cite reasonably suspicious behavior or actual alleged crimes, users described suspects with few specifics beyond "African American," male or female, old or young.

click to enlarge Shikira Porter, an Upper Dimond resident, has asked her neighbors to stop racially profiling Black Oaklanders  on Nextdoor — but has faced significant pushback from Nexdoor users and the group moderator. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Shikira Porter, an Upper Dimond resident, has asked her neighbors to stop racially profiling Black Oaklanders on Nextdoor — but has faced significant pushback from Nexdoor users and the group moderator.

"I get so nauseous and so angry," said Porter, the Upper Dimond resident, who is also a member of Neighbors for Racial Justice. When I met her for coffee, she handed me a stack of Nextdoor Oakmore printouts with racially biased reports of suspicion.

One user told people to be alert after seeing an "African American driver" inside a white commercial van, wearing a "bright green vest," parked on the street at 2 a.m. — nothing else suspicious. In a post this summer, a resident warned others to watch out for "two young African Americans, slim, baggy pants, early 20s" who said they were looking for a lost dog. Noting that they did not have "anything like bags to carry stuff out of a house they might break into," the woman said the situation may be "benign," but added, "I have a sense that it wasn't." In another post, a man warned of a "nefarious individual" — a Black youth who appeared to be sixteen years old — who came to his door saying he was looking for his friend. Another posted about a Latino man, describing him as a "suspicious character" who appeared "visibly nervous" and was "hiding near the bus stop."

In another case, a user suggested that a Black salesman working for a security company and going door-to-door was clearly casing homes in search of a place to burglarize. Even after a resident confirmed with the company in question that he was an authorized salesperson and posted that on the message thread, people still chimed in saying he seemed shady and could be a potential threat.

These kinds of posts aren't isolated to the hills. In a North Oakland neighborhood, one woman recently titled a post "Attempted Robbery" and described a "lighter skin colored African American about 6'3" who "kept in the shadows as he approached," then seemed to hesitate near her and her husband and son. "That guy totally seemed like he was up to no good," she wrote. There was, based on her description, no attempted robbery or even any verbal or physical contact whatsoever, but after receiving encouragement from fellow commenters, she called the police to report the man.

Near Lake Merritt, residents have increasingly used Nextdoor to organize coordinated noise complaints against music and parties in the park — in some cases, mostly white users of the site lament about the activities of people of color who have long hung out and held social events there. Earlier this year, OPD responded on Nextdoor, saying police would be increasing patrols around the lake in response to people's complaints about noise and parties.

Some Black residents and activists say people of color who have lived for a long time near Lake Merritt are now subject to harassment. "These people aren't thugs trying to rob you — these are people who actually live around here," said Davey D Cook, a Black radio journalist and longtime Oakland resident. He credited Nextdoor for the increased police presence around the lake — including recently when a group of cops responded to calls from a white man about a small Sunday night drum circle exclusively made up of people of color.

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