Living My Parents' Jim Crow in South Beach San Francisco
According to a PBS News Hour segment featuring visually impaired Professor Georgia Kleege of UC Berkeley,[i] people with disabilities feel the eyes of everyone riveted on them as they move in public. Even the visually impaired have an uncanny ability to feel the gaze of thousands of eyes singling them out. Likewise, people of color feel stigmatized as we travel throughout the social order, as if violating the unspoken rule of no black faces in white spaces. The sudden presence of police enforcing this rule confirms black folks’ suspicions.
This common white/black dance unfolded as usual one Saturday in my South Beach neighborhood choreographed by social construct, a construct my Southern parents danced until their move to California. Dance rule breakers who violate this covenant must be punished, even if it’s an eight-year old child. In a departure from the play however, social media helped write police out of the script by a well-crafted June 2018 Social Media Post dubbing the aggressor "#PermitPatty."
In short, my neighbors, who live just blocks away from me, had a dust up and police were averted from the scene. Nonetheless, to this day, this interaction between my neighbors remains in the b-roll of many journalists, heavily relied on to illustrate white peoples’ abuse of emergency calls to police which in turn jeopardize the lives of their black neighbors. Those of us of color are always left with the impact of these callous, indifferent and seemingly malicious summons of law enforcement onto our bodies.
George Floyd, who, we well know suffered under the knee of a Minneapolis Police Officer until he gasped his last breath, is one of those bodies. Though we’re wanting to point to excessive use of force by the officer as the main act, we must also factor into this tragedy, into this unnecessary death the role every day citizens and every day neighbors played in Mr. Floyd’s demise. Would he be alive today with a thorough vetting of the store clerk’s impulse to raise the alarm on a rather mundane, non-violent allegation? Could the store clerk, who took time to “shoot the breeze” and “chit-chat” with the 911 dispatcher,[ii] have exercised restraint and resolved the issue outside of law enforcement? If this clerk had time to socialize with the operator on the 911 call, could he have used that same time to weigh other options rather than endangering a black man?
Profiling by Proxy
Implicit Bias training is routinely given to members of San Francisco’s Police Department as part of the Department of Justice reforms. Bias awareness training is celebrated as a means to uncover buried prejudice people denied they have. While these efforts are designed for city employees, community members must also test themselves for hidden bias to avoid harming their neighbors of color through frivolous accusations.
One of the cutting edges of police reform includes defining how the non-police community members contribute to biased policing. In particular, cases like that of #PermitPatty. These actions and attitudes are termed Profiling by Proxy:
When an individual calls the police and makes false or ill-informed claims of misconduct about persons they dislike or are biased against—e.g., ethnic and religious minorities, youth, homeless people—police must be careful to avoid “profiling by proxy.”
These actions by the public manifest in calls to the San Francisco Police Department and are published quarterly in a document titled 96A Reports. The 4th Quarter 2019 report shows that nearly half of all subjects reported (47%) were Black.[iii] This is quite disproportionate to the scant 5.6% African Americans shown in the 2019 U.S. Census American Community Survey.[iv]
While we all feel the pain of George Floyd’s death, while we are in disbelief that a public servant could torture a human being so callously in front of our eyes, we really can’t distance ourselves from the officer. What we can do is to keep looking deeply into our own hearts and complete a fearless, moral and thorough investigation of our own hidden bias that escapes our consciousness. Then and only then can we contribute to preventing our prejudices from perpetuating the harm and dehumanization of people of color in this land we love so well.
[i] GEORGINA KLEEGE, Lecturer, UC Berkeley: “It’s a common experience for people with disabilities to feel that they are being stared at or to notice they are being stared at. And in fact, blind people can feel that, too, a kind of collective intake of breath even if nobody says anything, you can tell when you attract attention.” July 6, 2017, PBS News Hour
[ii]Operator: Alright (sigh).
Caller: How is your day going?
Operator: Not too bad.
Caller: Had a long day, huh?
Operator: What's your name?
Caller: My name is [redacted].
[iii] Suspects' descriptions gathered from incident reports shows that 47% of the subjects reported to police, directly or through dispatch, or those observed by a member during a self-initiated contact are Black.