Racial profiling is a focal point for activists, some of whom have lost loved ones, triggering calls for overdue reforms
Even before Cephus "Uncle Bobby" Johnson picked up the phone on Feb. 27, 2012, he wasn't having an easy day. His nephew, Oscar Grant, would have celebrated his 26th birthday on that date if he had not been killed by a gunshot wound on Jan. 1, 2009.
Grant was shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle while lying face down on a train platform, an incident that was caught on film, prompted riots in Oakland, drew international scrutiny, and became the subject of the award-winning film Fruitvale Station by Oakland filmmaker Ryan Coogler.
In the years since Grant's death, Johnson and his wife, Beatrice X, founded the Oscar Grant Foundation to develop a support network for families who've lost loved ones due to police violence. It was his involvement in this work that led Johnson to be contacted that day, and informed that a 17-year-old boy named Trayvon Martin had been gunned down in Florida one day earlier.
It wasn't a police shooting but nevertheless, "We knew at this point that we had to go to Florida," Johnson recalled. "What we've decided is that whenever a family experienced that, we would definitely try and get to them."
Fast forward to July 13, almost exactly three years after violent protests erupted in Oakland following the news that Mehserle, who was charged with second degree murder, had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter instead. A new wave of demonstrations flared up as word spread that George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who killed Martin, had been acquitted.
"We weren't surprised," Johnson, who returned to Florida last month to observe the jury selection process for Zimmerman's trial, told the Guardian. "But it was still painful."
The verdict in this high-profile case has brought discussions about racial profiling and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system to the forefront. Even President Barack Obama touched on the theme in comments to White House reporters on July 19, saying, "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."
At the national level, new findings on "implicit bias" — unconscious prejudices that research in psychology has shown can persist in individuals (including poorly trained police officers), even if they consciously reject racial stereotypes — has started to inform policy debates around racial profiling.
"Policy needs to recognize that implicit bias exists," Maya Wiley, founder and president of the New York City-based Center for Social Inclusion, told us. "Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill last year to prohibit racial profiling in law enforcement. That bill, if made law, would collect data on stops by race, as well as provide resources for training. That is a step in the right direction."
But things get complicated, Wiley says, because "research shows that people of color, women, the elderly, may all experience discrimination as a result of implicit bias. There is no remedy in the law for this. ... I think what is important now is to fight Stand Your Ground Laws which empower people to act on their implicit biases."
At a July 16 rally held on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, Rev. Malcolm Byrd, pastor of San Francisco's First A.M.E. Zion Church, illustrated his point about racial profiling by donning a hoodie and sneakers at the rally.
"I wanted to come looking suspicious," he explained. "I wanted to give you an image that America has of young black men. I look suspicious. This is my country. I love my country. Yet, I look suspicious."
Last year, Mayor Ed Lee's proposal to introduce a stop-and-frisk policy, which would have allowed police officers to randomly stop individuals who appeared to be suspicious in an effort to get weapons off the streets, was abandoned in the face of widespread community concern.