As a young woman, I was a first-hand witness to racial profiling and police injustice. It irrevocably changed my perspective about law enforcement...
74 year old white woman
Benicia resident for 6 years
I was born and raised in the Bay Area. When I was a young woman, it was an exciting time. It was a time of activism. Anti-war protests and the Civil and Women's Rights movements were powerful and seemed to be changing the shape of the future as I watched with fascination and anticipation. The world was becoming a better place for the young and the historically disenfranchised. I was looking forward to a more equitable world, and I considered myself to be part of this change. I was optimistic, energetic, educated, and ready to roll up my sleeves.
In 1972, I was an art teacher at Lincoln High School, which is in a very integrated part of San Jose. The school saw their multi-ethnic student and family population as an opportunity to build a mutually respectful and open community, and racial problems were rare if present at all. That year, the YMCA leased an old three story mansion right behind my school and opened up a Youth Center. I was offered the directorship, and I enthusiastically accepted. It didn’t matter to me that I was working two full time jobs. I was in my early 20’s with lots of energy. It was meaningful work, and I was ready to take on the world.
The Teen Center was a fun place for kids to hang out after school. The old building had lots of passageways and interesting spaces to explore. We put a pool table in the old formal dining room. Kids and adults worked together to fix up the old place with donated paint, hammers and gardening tools. After school was out, the music came on, and the Center became a place of youthful activity. My job was wonderful. I walked around making sure things were flowing and that the staff and students were engaged in healthy activities. When adolescent tempers flared, I was on hand to redirect and facilitate a peaceful conclusion.
And then one afternoon, my ideals were shattered. It was around 4pm when a group of 8-10 of my teenage boys got into an argument on the front lawn that escalated quickly. By the time I got to the scene, it had turned into a fist fight. It was very public and very loud. The boys were all around 16 and 17 years old and were nearly adult sized. They were of mixed ethnicities, and, although I don’t remember the precipitating cause, it was not about race. Of that I am certain.
I had been ineffectively trying to de-escalate the energy for about 15 minutes when the police showed up. Apparently, a concerned neighbor had called upon hearing or witnessing the scene. The two police officers who pulled up were white. They didn’t ask any questions. They pushed me aside and ignored my protestations. They simply pulled their guns and ordered the Black kids - not the white kids - to back down. When that didn’t happen immediately, they threatened to shoot. The boys, still wrapped up in their argument, kept fighting even after the guns were drawn and they were being threatened. I don’t even think they noticed. Then a shot was fired, and one of my kids went down. He was one of the Black students. The fighting abruptly stopped.
I was in shock. I watched in disbelief as the officers took a report, primarily calling out the Black youths who were part of the fight. An ambulance was called, and my injured student was taken away. He died later that day.
This was a fight that I am certain I could have eventually stopped. It was a fist fight, one without weapons. This was the kind of fight that hormonally charged teenage boys typically engage in and then it’s over. No one was going to be seriously hurt. No property was being damaged. No outside parties were involved. No one’s life was in danger. Not until the police showed up.
This was the first time I witnessed abject racial targeting by law enforcement. Although it was and tragically is still a common experience, as white woman I had not been privy to the blatant imbalance of justice until that moment. All of the boys in the fight were equally involved. Less than half of them were of Color, and yet, it was Black ones who were in the sights of the officers’ guns. It was the Black boys who were blamed. And it was the Black kids who suffered the consequences. No charges were levied at these officers. The family of the boy who was killed suffered their pain quietly and without protest. I sat with the family and did an announcement and an article for the school, but no more came of it. The community mourned, and then it was over. I lost my enthusiasm for the job and moved on when my contract was up. Teen Center eventually closed and the building was razed.
Today, we recognize and challenge the prejudices of law enforcement, the injustices of the racial profiling, and the “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude of some of our law enforcement agents. I’m glad to see a movement towards better police training, integration of social services, more conscientious use of weapons, and oversight over law enforcement agencies, but we have a long way to go. My fifty year old memory of watching helplessly as a young man, for whom I was responsible, was killed just because he was involved in a teenage scuffle and his skin happened to be Black. It has left an indelible imprint upon my soul.
Comments are closed.