Is fashion a crime in San Jose?
By Raj Jayadev
LAST MONTH at a Special City Council Meeting on Police Issues, Councilwoman Nancy Pyle made a statement that nobody saw coming: "Don't look like a gangbanger if you don't want to be picked up as a gang member." The community organization I work with, Silicon Valley De-Bug, thought this was crying out for some kind of response, so we held the Gang-Banger Fashion Show at City Hall. The idea was to point out how absurd it was to hear a comment like that from an elected official. If nothing else, it's got to be the first time "I'm Too Sexy" was blasted from a boombox in front of the rotunda.
The thing about Pyle's advice is that it can seem somewhat innocuous when taken out of the context of the meeting. She was going on to say, "If I was arrested, I would—," when the chorus of boos from the audience got so loud she had to stop talking—which is a shame, because thinking back, I really wish I'd heard what Pyle would do if she was arrested.
The reason the boos came so sharply (NAACP representatives got out of their seats) was that the comment was completely dismissive of the hours of public testimonies offered that evening to the council about being racially profiled, harassed and disrespected by the San Jose Police Department. Rather than take the public comments, which were stories told by young and old of many different ethnicities, and offer some empathy, Pyle told us in essence that police misconduct is the public's fault.
And the statement was painfully out of step with the reality of what had actually been discussed that night. Out of the over 100 public statements, and reports presented by the Independent Police Auditor and City Manager that evening, no one previously had even brought up the issue of gangs.
To be fair, Pyle's comment was merely an extension of a position laid out earlier by Councilman Forrest Williams—that young people need to be trained better on how to deal with authority. His words were said in a conciliatory tone, so they appeared less cutting, but Pyle's comments were just the talk-radio version of the same argument. Bobby Lopez, head of the Police Officers' Association, came to Pyle's defense by saying, "Gangbanger is not her terminology. It's their terminology." There is a lesson to be learned for every councilperson in every city across the country in this: nothing good comes from trying out hip slang at public forums.
Of course, the public has heard this logic before, just in a different context—"He was asking for it," referring to a young person who wears his pants too baggy and gets messed with by the police, sounds eerily similar to "She was asking for it," referring to a woman who wears a short skirt and gets sexually assaulted. Both are victims that are portrayed as causes of their own troubles. We have been exposed to the dangers of blaming the victim for women, but apparently it can still apply to people of color who are profiled due to their culture.
The mounting evidence of racial profiling and police misconduct in San Jose is indisputable. The fact that Mayor Reed had to call a Special Meeting on Police Issues should be a big enough hint that the "safest city" has some issues. Now consider the escalation of complaints lodged at the Independent Police Auditors Office, which reached an unprecedented 444 in 2006, the two Human Relations Commission public forums attended by hundreds of community members who recounted stories of being racially profiled and harassed, the Grand Jury report that concluded racial profiling does exist in San Jose, plus a use of force report study issued by the SJPD that shows a disproportionate use of force on Latinos and Blacks.
For those who believe Pyle simply made a politically insensitive faux pas after a long night, read the statement she issued after the Gang-Banger Fashion Show. After saying the SJPD are "human and like the rest of us have room to improve," Pyle continued: "However, people who come into contact with police whether they may be perpetrators of a crime, or not, have room to improve also and must take responsibilities for their actions."
Of course responsibility for personal actions is a part of a shared civic understanding. But in San Jose, we don't have a Community Auditor, we have a Police Auditor, and that's because of the inherent power difference between a civilian vs. a sworn officer. For the City Council to place the onus on the public to end police misconduct is to shirk their responsibility as civic leaders.
To Nancy Pyle and any other councilmembers who think that's the why to handle the growing chorus of complaints about Rob Davis' tenure: Don't look like an elected public leader, if you don't want to be one.
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