All good Berkeleyans know that police harass innocent minority people in places like Orange County or Texas, right? It doesn’t happen here in Northern California—well, maybe in Oakland or even San Francisco, but certainly not in Berkeley, right? We have a Police Review Commission. Our cops all went to college. They know better. Uh-huh.
A couple of weeks ago, our friend Laurette (not her real name) came to Berkeley about nine o’clock one weekday morning for an appointment with a new doctor, whose address was on Dwight between Ellsworth and Dana. She downloaded a map from Yahoo, and her husband dropped her off, along with her nine-month-old son and his stroller. The street number she had turned out to be part of a multi-unit building, with a parking lot in front. She went up to the front door, which was closed, and rang the doorbell. No answer. She rang again—still no answer, so she tried the doorknob, thinking it might lead to a foyer, but it was locked. So she pushed the baby in the stroller back to the sidewalk, started down the block, map in hand, and took out her cell phone to call the doctor’s office to check the address.
Just then, a police car zoomed up next to her, tires squealing, and stopped in the middle of the street. The driver jumped out and ran over to block her path. “Don’t move! Put your hands behind your back! Down on the ground!” he said.
Now, a few details. Why do I think this woman’s telling the truth? Because I trust her—our family has known her for almost three years. She even babysits for my granddaughter, and if we didn’t trust her implicitly, she wouldn’t be doing that.
She’s French, from Paris. She’s here with her husband, a scientist working in an important research organization, probably with major security clearances. Her English is pretty fair, but not perfect.
Momentarily confused, she did what she was told and sat down on the ground. “What’s the problem?” she asked. “Don’t ask me questions—I ask the questions, not you!” the policeman said. She describes him as short, blue-eyed, would-be blond but with shaved head, “militaristic looking” and “nervous.”
By this time she was pretty nervous herself, in a state she described as “grand peur” (great fear). She says what particularly scared her is that he was alone, and she was afraid of what he would try since there were no witnesses. She told him she didn’t speak English very well. “Oh yes you do!” he said. Then she realized she couldn’t keep a good grip on the stroller from the ground, so she stood up again and asked if she could pick up the baby. “No!” he said.
He demanded her bag, a diaper bag, which he searched, finding nothing of interest. Then he asked for her wallet, which he looked through, finding her I.D., which he took back to the car, presumably to check her identity on his computer. After he’d done that, suddenly his attitude changed. He got out of the car again and was all apologies. By then three more police cars, each containing a couple of officers, pulled up behind him, and soon everyone was apologizing profusely.
It seems that she was on Blake, not Dwight as she’d thought. The door she’d tried belonged to a woman who was peering fearfully out a window and called 911, saying that “a Mexican woman in a pink dress” was “trying to break into my house.”
Oh, one more detail you’ll need to understand this. Laurette is of North African ancestry, with deep olive skin, abundant dark hair and big brown eyes. Why are you not surprised to learn that she’s a dark-skinned person?
And does anyone really think that if the caller had said “there’s a blond woman at my door” four police cars would be the result? If a blond woman with pink skin was pushing a baby in a stroller down Blake at 9 a.m. while talking on her cell phone and looking at a map, would she have been ordered to put her hands behind her back and get down on the ground?
When I went over to Laurette’s house on Sunday to talk to her about this story, I took along our friend Cyril to interpret. He’s another French scientist, also of African descent, with dark skin and kinky hair. He lives near the place where this happened, and he says he’s often been stopped by the police, once just for crossing the street outside of a crosswalk late at night.
After the apologies started, Laurette said, she started screaming at the cops. Why, she asked, did they assume, without even investigating, that a woman with a baby should be treated as a criminal? Well, they said, the baby might be a decoy. Oh sure, it happens all the time in Berkeley—desperate women steal babies and use them as decoys for daring daylight home invasions.
And what if she’d actually been a Mexican woman, also lost on the way to the doctor, but without Laurette’s green card, education, bourgeois confidence and relatively good English? Suppose that woman didn’t understand the instructions, or panicked, and ran? What would have happened then?
Pierre, Laurette’s husband, went on the Internet later and looked at the police reports posted there, but since there was no arrest he couldn’t find any record of what happened. He called the Berkeley Police Department and learned that he could fill out a complaint form, but since there were no independent witnesses he decided it would be futile.
He’s been a U.S. citizen for several years, as is their son, who was born in Berkeley. Dark-skinned immigrants have never been treated well in France, so Laurette and Pierre are under no illusions, but they’d hoped the U.S. would be different. But now they’re thinking that maybe the United States isn’t the right country for them after all. They’re talking about moving to Germany.
When I spoke with them on Sunday, I told them that many Americans, especially in Berkeley, still do believe that it’s supposed to be different here. I told them that I’d write up their account of what happened to them, without their real names since they’re afraid of unspecified reprisals. I urged them to file a complaint with the Berkeley Police Review Commission, not that it would do them any good, but on behalf of the next person harassed. I told them that Americans say that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” and that filing the complaint would be their contribution to the vigilance which is every citizen’s duty.
And I told them that in this piece I would challenge Berkeley city officials to find out how a law-abiding young mother could be terrorized by the police at nine o’clock in the morning on a city sidewalk. I’d like to hope that, even without a complaint, somewhere in our city administration or on our city council someone would be shocked enough by this story to investigate what happened. Anyone who’d like to talk to Laurette can call me, and I’ll put them in touch.