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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"When we see new people coming in and using these apps, it's very discouraging," said Theo Williams, a Black Oakland native and one of the musicians who had to face police questions over his drum circle. "It's like now you have a new acronym — 'partying while Black!' ... It's disturbing and sad."

In Adams Point last March, multiple users publicly complained about a Black boy who was apparently not picking up his dog's poop. After one woman described him as a "very nice African American young boy who regularly walks a rather scary looking pit-mix," and asked for suggestions on how to get him to pick up the dog's waste, one commenter suggested she call police. That commenter wrote: "Not picking up poop from your dog is against the law — it's a health violation." This commenter also suggested she contact the boy's school. Another man chimed in with an image of the boy: "Here's his photo. OPD might find this handy."

Later, the commenter who posted the photo suggested that the city aggressively target his family with fines, writing: "I'm sure they don't have that kind of money... but they could at least put a lean [sic] on their home and vehicles."

click to enlarge Cedric Bedford-Chalale, a longtime Adams Point resident, was horrified when members of his Nextdoor group encouraged each other to call the police on a young Black boy who hadn't picked up his dog's poop. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Cedric Bedford-Chalale, a longtime Adams Point resident, was horrified when members of his Nextdoor group encouraged each other to call the police on a young Black boy who hadn't picked up his dog's poop.

Cedric Bedford-Chalale, a longtime Adams Point resident and Nextdoor user, was shocked by the conversation. "That was really crossing the line," said Bedford-Chalale, who is Black and provided me with copies of the comment thread. "To call the authorities about something as small as dog shit? This is how little black Boys end up getting shot." Bedford-Chalale said it feels like the racist posts are constant in his neighborhood. "Every time there's a Black person, it's 'Call the police! Call the police!'"Bedford-Chalale, who said he is one of the few voices of color who comments in his Nextdoor group, has at times posted comments raising concerns about racial profiling. When he does, few appear to support his message, he said. And sometimes, Bedford-Chalale's neighbors go beyond simply stating their disagreement with him. On multiple occasions, users have flagged his comments about profiling as abusive or inappropriate, he said. One time after he posted about profiling, a user complained to Nextdoor that Bedford-Chalale wasn't using his real name on the site, which wasn't true. Nextdoor, however, temporarily suspended his account.

When users face accusations that they are engaged in racial profiling on Nextdoor, they often respond with one or more of several common defenses. For instance, they argue that if residents have a bad feeling about someone, it's better to be safe than sorry and that residents should trust their instincts and inform their neighbors. When pressed about the potential harm of a post that describes a "Black male" with few other characteristics, residents argue that descriptions of race are relevant and they should share every detail of a suspect or suspicious person — even if all they can recall is race.

I've also read posts in which Nextdoor users argue that commenters who raise concerns about racial profiling are engaging in victim-blaming — that residents who have faced traumatic crimes in their own neighborhoods or homes are understandably frightened for their safety and have a right to post their suspicions without being called a racist. They sometimes further argue that a majority of the suspects committing the crimes affecting their communities are Black, and that, as a result, it's logical to be suspicious of people of color they don't recognize.

Except for the comments made by a few blatantly racist trolls, the majority of biased posts in these groups appear to stem from a place of genuine fear and concern. But activists argue that residents should proactively work to check their biases and recognize that, statistically, only a tiny fraction of Oakland's Black population is engaged in criminal activity.

Debby Weintraub, a white Rockridge resident, has twice had burglars break into her home — including a recent incident in which suspects took more than $10,000 worth of her family's belongings, including many sentimental items. As a victim of these crimes, she said she understands the pain and fear that people in her neighborhood feel, but said she is still disturbed that people freely publish their suspicions even when there's no evidence of wrongdoing. She said she tries to recognize that her own suspicions are simply not worth broadcasting. "I certainly don't want to go around suggesting that somebody who might've made me feel uncomfortable for whatever reason is necessarily [a suspect]," she said. "I don't want to live my life like that."

Esquivel, the Glenview resident, said there is no acceptable defense for suspicious activity posts that turn all people of color into crime suspects in their own neighborhoods. "When lives are on the line and personal safety is on the line, it ceases to be okay to air these kinds of beliefs," she said. "And this is ineffective crime reporting. You need to target the suspicious behavior. Skin color is not a crime, and skin color is not a suspicious behavior."

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