From "BBQ Becky" at Lake Merritt to a Starbucks employee in Philadelphia, accounts of police being called on black people trying to go about their daily lives have been well-documented.
Last week, the Voice published a story on an apparent racial profiling incident in our own backyard. On July 8, Sunnyvale resident Erika Martin, her sister Faith Martin-Ware and their children were stopped in their car trying to leave the Safeway on Shoreline Boulevard by police investigating a theft reported by store employees.
According to a heavily redacted Mountain View Police Department incident report, employees and customers in the store believed the family had sent the children in to grab items off the shelves and take them back to the car, and that the kids reportedly stocked a cart full of goods as a ruse to create a distraction. Police were told Martin entered Safeway and headed toward the back of the store, and that at one point she "made eye contact" with a black man in his 30s who was also considered a possible shoplifter. The initial call to police indicated the man may have known Martin and her family, arousing suspicion that they could be working together on the purported heist.
In reality, there was no ruse, no theft. Not only was Martin never in the Safeway in the first place -- she waited in the car while her relatives shopped -- but she was never given a description of the individuals supposedly involved or the items taken from the store. The children weren't running in to create a diversion -- they wanted to ask Safeway bakery staff for a free cookie. The adults were there on a mission of mercy, dropping off hygiene products and other items for homeless people on their way home from a church service in Palo Alto.
Police blocked the family's car and told Martin she was "associated" with a reported theft before asking a series of questions about the alleged theft. Officers spoke with the store manager, who told police she saw a woman taking things from the store but couldn't say what was taken. After about 26 minutes, police determined the theft report had no merit and Martin and her family were free to go.
It appears Mountain View police responded appropriately to what was reported as a possible theft in progress at the Shoreline Safeway, where they say they've responded to 10 theft calls over the last year. (Although police initially told the Voice that officers had only stopped the family for 10 minutes, when in fact it was closer to half an hour, according to Martin and the department's incident report).
While we don't entirely know Safeway's side of the story -- Shoreline store employees declined to comment and referred the Voice to a company spokeswoman who issued an apology without mentioning the family -- this apparent case of racial profiling bears resemblance to the incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks earlier this year. Like Martin and her family, the two black men arrested and accused of trespassing at the coffee shop were deemed suspicious when they were merely going about their business.
The incidents shed light on uncomfortable truths -- that people of color are often accused of wrongdoing based on their race, and bystanders can easily become complicit. Amidst the hashtags and social media outrage that these cases often spawn, there's an opportunity for increased self-awareness. Everyone can -- and should -- examine the biases that affect how we treat each other. We can also stop being bystanders and start standing up for each other when these situations develop.