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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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The issue became much more urgent for her after she was profiled in her own neighborhood in 2013. Esquivel had asked her neighbors on Glenfriends, the Yahoo group, if anyone had lemons to spare. A white woman responded and said she could come over anytime and grab some from her tree — even if she wasn't home. When Esquivel stopped by one morning a few days later, she plucked some lemons and then rang the front doorbell to see if the woman was home so she could say thank you.

The woman looked out the window and refused to open the door. Esquivel recalled seeing the woman tell someone on the phone, "No way I'm opening the door." The woman, it turned out, thought Esquivel was trying to break into her home. "I was absolutely visibly shaken," Esquivel said. "I just started crying." She said she was so upset she couldn't even drive anymore; her partner, who is white and had waited in the car, had to take the wheel.

After that incident, Esquivel felt that she had to do something to speak out about the profiling in her own neighborhood. She subsequently joined Neighbors for Racial Justice, a small group of both white residents and people of color who came together in 2013 to speak out against prejudiced posts on Nextdoor and on Yahoo and Google listservs (many of which remain active). The group, which now has roughly twenty members, has given presentations on racial profiling at community meetings, hosted film screenings on racial inequities, led Black Lives Matter vigils, and has brought its concerns to OPD, Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meetings, and Nextdoor.

The group has also written guidelines about how to report suspicious activity online, including encouraging users to focus on behaviors — meaning specific actions that suggest criminal activity — and emphasizing distinct characteristics, such as shoes, facial hair, tattoos, and car model. Race must be secondary to all that, and if you can't describe behaviors and other specific descriptors, then don't post. Otherwise, "We see African-American men in every single post not doing anything suspicious," said Porter.

To illustrate the clear racial biases in people's posts and language, Porter provided me with a handful of the rare Nextdoor Oakmore posts that feature suspicious people who are white. In clear contrast to the posts about Black men — described as "thugs" and "thieves" with baggy clothes or hoodies — users described white suspects in more sympathetic terms. One, for example, described a "clean cut, college age-ish white guy" who had a suspicious door-to-door sales pitch. Another described a "Hippy White guy" who was literally standing in someone's backyard. A third posted a photo of two suspicious white men with a lengthy disclaimer, stating that if someone could identify them as neighbors, she would "apologize to them personally for thinking they were up to something."

Black neighbors never receive this kind of benefit of the doubt, Porter said, and even when residents subsequently prove the innocence of a profiled person, there rarely are apologies or even public acknowledgements that the suspicion was false. On the contrary, Neighbors for Racial Justice has faced a significant uphill battle in its efforts to push moderators of the online groups to actively discourage racial profiling and adopt explicit, enforced policies against discriminatory posts.

On Glenfriends, Esquivel has asked her neighbors on multiple occasions to consider how people of color might feel about their questionable posts. In response, she has faced harassing, aggressive, and bullying comments. For example, she once wrote a post that said in part: "Do you realize when you send fear-based emails that put folks on HIGH ALERT for a person of color, without describing truly suspicious behavior, vehicle description, or anything beyond skin color, you are targeting ME?"

One neighbor responded: "Where the hell do you get off, Esquivel? Is your presumptuous, condescending, ignorant profiling of White neighbors the full measure of your mastery of racial sensitivity? [A neighbor] reported suspicious activity of yet another crew of black thugs in very temperate, neutral language that was verified by [a different neighbor's] video cameras."

Esquivel subsequently asked for that commenter to be removed, and although some supported her, many defended the commenter, saying he had free speech rights to voice his opinion and that his language did not constitute abuse. Eventually, the moderator of the discussion, who is a white man, banned Esquivel from posting on Glenfriends.

"I'm one of the few voices of color that dares to speak on this listserv and now I'm censored!" she said in an interview. "So, you're not hearing from any Brown or Black people."

On Nextdoor, moderators are called "leads," and they are often one of the founding or early members of a neighborhood group. They manage their neighborhood's Nextdoor Crime and Safety Resources section and can remove inappropriate messages and close comment threads. In the Oakmore group, Neighbors for Racial Justice has had significant conflicts with longtime lead Hugh Bartlett, who is white and has shut down discussions about race issues and Black Lives Matter on multiple occasions, arguing that they are not relevant to Nextdoor. For example, Nomura posted an Express article about racial profiling on BART — and Bartlett closed the discussion to comments saying it was not appropriate for a group focused on neighborhood issues. However, he has permitted discussions on coal exports in Oakland, pesticide use in the Bay Area, and Oakland teacher contracts.

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