Terence Crutcher was gunned down as his arms were raised on Sept. 16. Four days later, police fatally shot Keith Lamont Scott, a disabled, black man. Just a week after that tragic incident, Alfred Olango, a Ugandan refugee suffering from a mental breakdown, was shot and killed by police in response to a 911 call in San Diego. And over the summer, in a span of 48 hours, two black men were killed by police. Collectively, these recent shootings have intensified the threat of police violence as nearly inescapable for people of color.
While social media has made police shootings incredibly more evident, the argument remains that police brutality is nothing new — cell phones, Facebook, and Twitter have just exposed the problem. But could the parallel issue of gentrification be exacerbating it as well as contributing to an unprecedented uptick in police violence?
In 2014, Alex Nieto was eating a burrito in a San Francisco park when a dog approached him aggressively. Nieto — headed to his job as a security guard — was carrying a Taser on his belt. After an ugly altercation with the dog’s white owner, Nieto then encountered two other white men, who immediately labeled him as suspicious. The cops were called and in a matter of minutes, Nieto died amidst a hail of gunfire. The cops claimed he pointed the Taser at them menacingly, as if that was somehow enough justification to kill, but evidence disputes that narrative.
Despite police claims, Nieto didn’t die because he projected a threat. He died because a few white residents called 911, believing a Latino man — who spent his whole life in this neighborhood — was an infiltrating gang member.
Gentrification’s political consequences are two-fold: not only does the issue conspicuously displace people of color, it also turns them into perceived intruders within their own communities. As the East Bay Express notes, newly arrived white residents in Oakland, California are inadvertently racially profiling the existing black and brown residents by assuming — like Nieto’s peers — they are criminals. Using the neighborhood networking website Next Door, white inhabitants frequently report their minority neighbors as suspicious often “simply for walking down the street, driving a car, or knocking on a door.”
Oakland Police Department has received an average of 730 calls in the span of two years for “suspicious activity.” Similar to the circumstances leading up to Nieto’s death, former Police Chief Paul Figueroa admits these accusations are often baseless and motivated by fear and racial bias.
And in New York, the problem is just as concerning. New York City Council Candidate Thomas Lopez-Pierre expanded upon this dangerous notion in the upcoming documentary “Gentrified,” explaining how gentrification not only culminates in the displacement of minority communities but also “in the death of people.”
Lopez-Pierre referenced a New York Times article on the events leading up to Eric Garner’s death as an example of this phenomenon.
According to the Times, landlord Gjafer Gjeshbitraj was fed up with the mostly black and brown men selling cigarettes outside his apartment complex, so he made a complaint on 311, the community’s hotline website. The New York Police Department frequently checks 311 for spikes in reporting as an indicator of more serious crimes. After Gjeshbitraj’s complaint, the area became a hotbed for arrests and court summonses. Eventually, Garner was one of those targeted by the police.
Intensifying police surveillance in gentrified neighborhoods in order to mitigate crime and violence actually serves the opposite effect. It escalates situations of conflict and tension, turning a racist interpretation into a threatening situation, where the person of color is at the epicenter.
“There’s a very literal violence with the policing that happens with gentrification,” Luis Trujillo, a Los Angeles activist, told TakePart, specifically referring to the heavily militarized responses of police. Trujillo then astutely noted the driving force behind this policing tactic, “For the sole purpose of keeping the neighborhoods consumable.”
Essentially, to keep the communities pristine and polished (i.e. white), you have to quell, control, and demonize the people of color in an attempt to establish a false sense of order and safety. Unfortunately, for all the neighborhood’s residents, regardless of skin color, it only breeds chaos.
Across California, we are seeing this indisputable trend of gentrification emerge. The Mission District of San Francisco, once a vibrant hub of Latino culture, is now whitewashed with hipster cafes and upscale boutiques. Historically black Oakland is slowly turning into a swirling sea of white people demanding holistic pet hospitals and gourmet mac n’cheese. And yet what these municipalities have in common, beyond their affinity for gentrification, is a stark rise in police violence.
Since 2011, San Francisco has experienced a dramatic increase in police brutality. According to data collected by the San Francisco Chronicle, police shootings have skyrocketed in recent years, with the SFPD fatally shooting six people in 2015 — “the highest count in more than 15 years.” From 2011 to 2015, the department reported 16 fatal shootings, a higher number than any other law enforcement agency in the surrounding counties. While the majority of those fatally shot in San Francisco in the last five years have been white, in 2015, that demographic changed as six of the eight killed were people of color.
And a federal review of the police force recently conducted by the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Police Services found that SFPD was more likely to stop and search African-American and Latino drivers, noting a clear pattern of racial bias in the "progressive" city.
Not only have shootings increased in recent years, but so have use-of-force incidents, such as “grabbing a suspect by the wrist to placing one in a choke hold or firing a gun.” The SFPD's reported incidents skyrocketed in 2015 when it hit 1, 051 incidents, a 20 percent increase since 2009. In places that are becoming heavily gentrified — like the Mission District — the number of incidents increased by 50 percent, from 96 to 145 in 2015. Furthermore, the aforementioned DOJ review found that the department is not adequately investigating these use-of-force incidents or even appropriately addressing incidents of bias misconduct.
The nearby Oakland Police Department is also grappling with a similar element of corruption. The police force seemed as if it was progressing in recent years compared to its former notoriety as an agency mired in misconduct and brutality. Yet those notions were swept aside with the recent underage sex scandal and 2015’s alarming police shootings statistics.
Reports have revealed that OPD disproportionately kills African-Americans at the third highest rate in the country (San Francisco doesn't fall too far behind as the eighth deadliest city for police shootings ). Not only are cops killing a disproportionate number of black people, but African-Americans in Oakland have a 25 percent chance they will end up in handcuffs during a police encounter.
And across the country, the threat of police brutality against people of color is becoming increasingly more urgent and deadly as 2015 data revealed unarmed black people are killed at a rate five times greater than their white counterparts. Reporting from The Guardian found that in 2015, 32 percent of African-Americans and 25 percent of Hispanics and Latinos killed by the police were unarmed compared to the 15 percent of white people killed.
San Francisco was once seen as a tolerant, multicultural community, but thanks to the tech boom and subsequent sprawling gentrification, it’s turned whiter and richer. And with that rapid change in demographic, police might be sensing a greater pressure to ensure the area fits a certain (ahem, white) standard. Systemic racism has always been present within the police force, but now police have a greater incentive to pull the trigger.
And gentrification has spiked across America in recent years, as more and more Americans have sought out urban lifestyles. Nearly 20 percent of lower-income neighborhoods have seen an increase in gentrification since 2000 compared to the 1990s’ mere 9 percent rate. This means better economic growth, but also displacement and additional requests for police surveillance, an influx that spawns greater animosity.
The bottom line boils down to the fact that when you have more police on the street “keeping an eye” on the people of color, systemically fraught relations are bound to turn violent.
Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters