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Even high-ranking officials with OPD, which has a formal partnership with Nextdoor, have admitted that the department is sometimes forced to respond to baseless suspicions about residents of color — the kind of profiling that can go unchecked in online groups. "If ... they're all feeding off of the same bias, then that could be harmful," said OPD Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa. He later added, "Fear can really drive the application of bias."
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.
When I first met Audrey Esquivel for coffee in the Laurel district, she handed me a grainy photocopy of a one-page document dated June 15, 1937. The report, from the government-sponsored Home Owners' Loan Corporation, offered a formal description of the housing characteristics and desirability of the Fruitvale district in East Oakland. Based on information from a City of Oakland building inspector, the report stated that the neighborhood's "favorable influences" included its convenience to local transportation, schools, and shopping centers. There was, however, one main "detrimental influence" that made the neighborhood undesirable: "proximity to area [infiltrated] by Negroes." And the area would likely become increasingly less desirable over the next decade due to continued "infiltration," the report added.
- Bert Johnson
- Audrey Esquivel, a Glenview resident, was profiled in her own neighborhood when a nearby resident feared she might be trying to break into her home.
Esquivel, who is mixed-race Black and lives in the nearby Glenview neighborhood, recently stumbled upon the document while reading about "redlining" — the decades-long process by which the government and banks systematically enabled white neighborhoods to prosper with mortgage loans while denying housing opportunities to communities of color. Like cities across the country, Oakland became very segregated because of redlining with wealthier white communities thriving in the hills and poorer Black neighborhoods languishing in the flatlands.
"We can show how the history of the neighborhood is playing out over time," said Esquivel, who is a member of the Neighbors for Racial Justice group. "We went from this time when segregation such as this was legal, and it was okay to be openly racist and little Johnny could call Black people the 'n-word.' Now, it's 'Don't call them anything. We're all just human.' There's never been any education on how to successfully transition to integration."
Oakland is much more integrated today than it was in the 1930s, although the hills are still largely white. In the 94602 zip code — which includes Glenview, Upper Dimond, and Oakmore — whites make up 46 percent of the population, Blacks make up 18 percent, and Latinos comprise 14 percent. The East Oakland flatlands neighborhoods to the south are majority Latino or Black.
Although Oakland may have come a long way since the days of redlining, Esquivel said that subtle racial tensions and prejudices are pervasive in her neighborhood and that she often encounters white residents who are, to varying degrees, uncomfortable with the presence of people of color. When she moved from North Carolina to the East Bay, she thought she would be joining a progressive community — one in which she would not feel ostracized or unwelcome due to the color of her skin. But the fears that her white neighbors have when they see her are real and damaging, she said.
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.