Things That Go Bump in the Night, Oakland and Berkeley Division

Becky O'Malley
Friday October 30, 2015 - 02:19:00 PM

From ghoulies and ghosties / And long-leggedy beasties / And things that go bump in the night, / Good Lord, deliver us!

With Halloween upon us, let’s talk about fear.

First, let’s reprise my traditional sermon about dangers to kids from malevolent neighbors. I’m making my traditional offer of a hundred bucks to anyone who can prove that a child was harmed by what a stranger gave them on Halloween (unless, of course, you’re the stranger who did the deed). I’ve been making this offer for at least 40 years, and no one has ever claimed it. It’s what the professor in my Cal folklore class called an urban legend. In fact, it now is Number Three on the list of the top 25 urban legends as reported by Snopes.com.

The most popular version of the story used to be that wicked homeowners put razor-blades in apples to injure children, but I haven’t heard that one for a while, probably because it never ever happened. In fact, at our house we usually offer kids apples, individual cookies and wrapped commercial candy, and it’s truly heartwarming to see how many are delighted to choose “real apples”.

Recently there’s been an ongoing discussion of a form of urban legend that’s more pernicious: racial profiling. A recent article in the East Bay Express described a local version:

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.”

The story has spotlighted a great deal of justified concerned, especially among African-Americans and those of us who have Black family members and friends who visit our homes. A sizeable part of the response has been critical of NextDoor.com for airing the hysterical suspicions of some Oakland and Berkeley residents, but that seems to me to be killing the messenger who brings the bad news. 

To its credit, whatever its past history (brought up by some commenters on the Express site) NextDoor now requires participants to register and write using their real names (as do the Express and the Planet). This eliminates a lot of the really crazed racist ranting that you see on sites that allow pseudonyms, but it allows those who are sincere but misinformed prisoners of their fears of ghoulies and ghosties to be challenged by more stable correspondents. 

The fearful folks were around long before NextDoor. Years ago, we had our house painted by a musician friend, African-American. A well-intentioned neighbor, someone we didn’t know at the time, called the police to report that a Black man with a ladder was on our roof. What a waste of time and taxpayer’s money that was, especially because a couple of cops in a car came out to investigate. It would have been much better if that woman, who would never have considered herself racist, had posted her suspicions on something like NextDoor so we could have set her straight immediately. After that our musician/painter friend made sure to wear white coveralls on the job to signal professional status. 

After a link to the Express piece was posted on my local (southeast Berkeley) NextDoor site, close to a hundred people wrote in, most of them critical of those who posted the “suspicious” letters. One man offered to set up a face-to-face discussion in a public place, which seemed like a good idea, but the last time I checked I knew both of the people who like me signed up to participate, and if the meeting took place it would just be preaching to the choir, a confab of the like-minded. None of the fearful folk seemed to want to talk about their suspicions in person, perhaps because (one might hope) they’d already started to question their assumptions after reading the online dialogue and felt a bit embarrassed. 

The same kind of assumptions are directed not only at dark-skinned neighbors engaged in legitimate pursuits, but at “the homeless”, people who live on the street for a variety of reasons, chiefly poverty or mental illness. Some NextDoor correspondents (and yes, I know most of them) have initiated a discussion about whether it’s right to categorize street people on the basis of their eccentric appearance. 

At the last City Council meeting I was approached by a hard-to-parse fellow who takes an active role in public life despite the fact that he seems to live on the street shrouded in a huge sleeping bag and an exotic hat which almost covers his face. He knew my name (I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know his) and after complimenting me on my latest editorial (where does he see it online?) told me how disturbed he was by the NextDoor comments as reported by the Express. I wish I’d told him my favorite quote, from Justice Brandeis: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” 

Speaking of policemen, however, the discussion gets more serious when the people who panic when they see a non-white person in an unexpected setting have guns. That would be the police, much in the news lately for sometimes fatal abuse of power, as effectively highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

A recent New York Times editorial laid out the most recent outrage: Political Lies About Police Brutality. It effectively demolished the totally bogus claim by the FBI Director, a man named James Comey, that “heightened scrutiny of police behavior — and fear of appearing in ‘viral videos’ — was leading officers to avoid confrontations with suspects. This, he said, may have contributed to an increase in crime.” 

Not only is there no data to support that contention, there’s plenty of data to prove the opposite. And those viral videos, while anecdotal in nature, are a powerful illustration of what the data shows as dry charts and spreadsheets. 

Sometimes fear is justified, sometimes not. The White lady in the Oakland hills who panics when she sees two Black guys sitting in their car on her block might learn not to jump to conclusions if she airs her fears on NextDoor and neighbors reassure her, though on the other hand the neighbors who read her post might instead succumb to mass hysteria. But the fear of police felt by most minority people, especially young men, and most justifiably African-American young men, is not hysterical, it’s reality-based: appropriate fear of an inappropriate reaction to imaginary threats. 

Halloween is a good time to reflect on the idea that fear has always been part of the human experience. It’s even possible to enjoy fear—my teenaged granddaughter is getting together with girlfriends to watch horror movies tonight. Fear of strangers, however, based on how they look or how they talk, has no place in the real life world of rational adults. Racial profiling, in its major and minor manifestations, is something all of us, including the police, need to unlearn, and the sooner the better. 

But I don’t think it’s a good idea to ask that NextDoor ban postings that amount to racial profiling. I think it’s much better to let the fearful put their anxieties on the line, and then to allow the more judicious and better-informed amongst us to explain to them, patiently and politely, where and how they’re off base. More light, less heat, always a good idea.