How Racial Profiling Leads to Tasering on BART
A complicated story that isn’t getting any easier to understand
Case # 1401-4266 (BART Police: San Bruno)
January 29: Update! If you follow me at @vidyakaipa, you can retweet and publicize the article using the hashtag #BARTbrutality.
January 30: You can also find the article on Reddit.
January 31: Another update —A response from BART! I’ve reposted the comment here, which you can also find at the right hand side of the screen:
“Ms. Kaipa, the Medium entry you posted titled, “How Racial Profiling Leads to Tasering on BART” reached the BART Office of the Independent Police Auditor (OIPA). Among other things, OIPA investigates certain complaints that it receives involving the BART Police Department. If you, or anyone you know, with information about this incident wishes to file a complaint with OIPA, please do not hesitate to contact us. Email: email@example.com | Phone: 510-874-7477 | Fax: 510-874-7475 | Mail/In-Person: 300 Lakeside Drive, 14th Floor, Oakland, CA 94612 | Web: www.bart.gov/policeauditor | Respectfully, OIPA”
February 13: MAJOR UPDATE.
This story and the corresponding video have been viewed 10K+ each. They’ve been covered by Alternet and Death and Taxes and SFGate and SFist and Huffington Post and KQED, and in the past two days, I have received three requests to give a statement to local news stations. This is why I will not be appearing on television:
- This story is not about me. One of the most meaningful, and repeated, critiques I’ve received regarding this story is my positioning of the policeman’s intervention as intended for my protection. Obviously, I wrote this after experiencing the incident first-hand, and thus it’s from my perspective and infused with my hubris. However, after speaking with the police chief and investigating officers, it appears the official reason for the call was for “public drunkenness.” While I still suspect (perhaps unconscious) racial motivation, as well as a vigilante attitude of protecting an “innocent girl” (I am neither), I cannot speak on record as to the hundreds of microdecisions made by people I don’t know. I can only speak my piece, which I’ve done here, and which should be enough. However, according to the SFGate article (that I somehow did not know was posted), “police were called to investigate reports of a man who was “drunk and harassing patrons” on the train, according to a BART police log.” So… maybe I’m not as egocentric as some people have painted me to be.
- Partisanship or bias only discredits my testimonial. Depending on the news station and the exact words or clips used in coverage, a statement by me can support either side, as proven by the fact that this exact story has already been used to excuse both Robert and the cop’s actions. A news story cannot, in a short clip or one-minute interview, convey the nuance and sophistication of this situation, so I would rather stay diplomatic and present the “facts” (or my perspective of the facts) within a medium I can control.
- I don’t know all of the facts (and I don’t write law). However, “facts” aren’t always aligned with ethical action — I definitely think some laws and protocols are unjust. Again, I believe that “public drunkenness” is a petty charge; I just rode BART a few days ago after a game, and while the entire carriage stunk of beer, no one was stopped, questioned, or otherwise asked to leave. People assuming that “public drunkenness” is in and of itself a valid charge may not ride public transit often or understand the nature of urban transportation, but I’d personally rather deal with a few drunk people on BART than run the risk of being killed by drunk drivers. Many have cited the official guidebook which indicates that public drunkenness is a legitimate violation, but I don’t have the time or energy to explain to all of this people why amendments exist (or why we repealed the 18th amendment or overrode the 3/5 Compromise with the 13th and 14th Amendments or showed at any time in history that laws aren’t always just).
- Neither party is completely “right” or “wrong.” It appears that Robert was on parole, and he’s therefore required to acquiesce to any police command at any time. Again, I don’t know the conditions of this prior arrest, but considering he was just arrested again for “resisting arrest” and then taken to the hospital to recover from the extensive electric shocks he received, I’m not sure that I can make a case for either party being in the right. There’s boundless literature on the rates of incarceration for whites v. blacks, and it’s a valid concern to say that black sentences, parole lengths, and recidivism rates are bloated in relation to overall crime. It’s not inconceivable to assume that his prior arrest was for something similarly redundant (arrested for resisting an arrest that they hadn’t made yet?) and the consequence is that he is now unfairly watched and subject to detention at any time. But at the same time, police officers deal with legitimately scary people all of the time, and sometimes thin-slicing a situation can leave them with incorrect assumptions. Unfortunately, the nature of many situations is to act based on immediate threat, and while I don’t believe Robert posed any (and he was only talking to me, so anyone saying he was threatening anyone else in the carriage obviously was not there…), it’s possible that the initial shock was an honest mistake.
- I don’t think that all cops are bad people. I have to say this, not because I’m worried about retribution, but because this is truly what I believe. As I say later in the article, I’m not anti-cop, and I think the vast majority of the police involved in this incident were doing their best to resolve a confusing situation in the most peaceful of ways. Even the police chief and the investigating officer were friendly and communicative, and have explained their motivations and the follow-up clearly. While I believe this entire situation could have been avoided had the original officer just stayed on board for the two final stops to Millbrae, then confronted Robert either on the empty train or on the platform (the distance to drive between these two stations would have taken five minutes, and his back-up would have been immediately available at the point when he incited action), I understand that as it stands, the police are bound by certain protocol and cannot arbitrarily disobey it. Still, a degree more compassion and flexibility, especially in evaluating the threat, could have been used. Policemen exist to keep the peace, and to do so they have to make sure they’re as objective as possible as to not introduce their own biases into the notion of “protection.”
- I think tasers should be last resort weapons, and should never be used in a crowded train car. That would be my statement. But that’s not what makes riveting television! So while I figure out my “official” thoughts on the subject, I’d rather just let others take the video and debate the topic amongst themselves. And really, that’s the reason why I wrote this — not to push a campaign, but to encourage conversation about a really important topic.
- Some people are garbage. Okay, this is a bit mean, but as long as trolls exist, this is unfortunately true. I was reminded of it today when I read the comments on the several news reports (as though it’s news… I’d been trying for weeks to get someone to cover it, but everyone independently decided today was the day!). I shouldn’t read the comment section, I know, but this one from the Youtube video stuck out to me:
Aaron Lee: “Let’s not water down the legitimate arguments of excessive force by getting behind guys like this. He was hammered, hitting on that girl, touching her hair. She stated, after the fact, that she was not feeling threatened… but hey… maybe that’s a result of her culture’s treatment of women (not stellar…).”
I have to address this because this goes beyond a normal trolling attitude. Okay, maybe this dude isn’t a troll; I don’t know, I don’t know him, and he most definitely does not know me. When people discredit the opinion or action of others based on inherently racist, sexist, classist, etc-ist reasons, they work to fundamentally cheapen the opinions and actions of not only that individual, but all others who fit that demographic. You might question whether this incident was racially-motivated, and it’s ambiguous considering cultural norms are so deeply engrained in our behavior. By being “diplomatic,” I hope to raise those concerns, to question the status quo, to bring some grey to this typically black-and-white issue. However, what Aaron Lee did here was fuel the hellfire of racism, by generalizing and stereotyping based on an absolute lack of information. This attitude is so corrosive to educated discussion on this (or any) topic, because it masks itself in nonchalant, ambivalent, pseudo-anthropologic analysis.
Fuck that. People who actually know me know that I am anything but a docile princess. I have no problem speaking my mind when the situation calls for it (e.g. this blog post or that racist comment) and I don’t put up with sexist or racist bullshit. However, this is precisely why I didn’t want to appear on television — my skin color and my gender do not give others the right to police my behavior. (Plus, do I really need another man telling me how I should feel in this situation? Sexism is alive and well in America too, Indiana Jones.) I’m not going to fight fire with fire, but I will say: check yourself, Aaron Lee, and all other anonymous internet commenters. Unless you feel comfortable with your ethnic heritage or gender being the sole descriptor of your actions or opinions, I would recommend looking at the world with a more granular lens.
Tonight (January 29, 2014), I caught the 9:56 pm Millbrae-bound BART from Civic Center. I usually work late, but I rarely feel threatened — there are always plenty of riders at that time, plus I’m good at putting up defenses. I’m small, but (or maybe because of that) I’m street-smart.
So it didn’t bother me when a few stops later, an extremely drunk black man — whose name I later overheard by the police cuffing him to be Robert — crashed onto the seat next to me. I was near the entrance, in a seating area where four seats faced one another, and the train was relatively packed, so I didn’t feel particularly isolated or targeted. He smelled of booze and his words were slurred, but he asked me about the book I was reading and I could tell that he was harmless. This is an opinion I have maintained and have repeated countless times to several police throughout the whole ordeal.
He continued to tell me how beautiful I was, and how he loves Indians because we’re “classy.” Now, that’s a compliment — anyone can say you’re beautiful and not mean it, but damn, classy sticks with you! So I humored him; when he told me he loves Indian hair (to be fair, I like my hair too) and he lightly touched it, I didn’t say anything or even move away. Maybe this was one of the signs that inspired someone to call the cops, but I can’t be sure because I don’t know who called, or why.
I asked him where he was headed, and he told me he was from East Oakland but that he was going to Richmond, where his sister would pick him up. I suggested he get onto the opposite platform, since this train was headed to Millbrae. He politely asked if he was bothering me and said that he would leave me alone, but that he wanted to keep sitting next to me because I was a beautiful and good person. I assured him that he wasn’t a problem—I have a bizarrely high tolerance for friendly drunk/drugged out randos, and I try to be as friendly (while still maintaining my personal space and safety) as I can be in return. I’ve been pretty weird to people too, but since I’m a small Indian woman, I guess I’ve gotten away with a lot more.
For the remainder of our approximately 20 minute ride together, Robert repeated how beautiful I was, how much he loved Indians, how pretty his wife is (I saw a picture, and I agreed that she was hot), and how he doesn’t care about money. He even offered to help me out in case I needed anything, because he hated money. When I said that I was okay and that he should share it with the homeless in San Francisco, he told me he had been, and that the cops don’t like him because he keeps throwing money away. At one point, his sister called and he updated her on his status; I asked if maybe he should get back to her, and he said he wanted to keep hanging out with me. At another point, my mom called to see where I was, and we briefly spoke in Telugu about what I could eat for dinner.
So the conversation wasn’t scintillating, and I was a bit tired, so I asked him if it would be alright for me to continue reading my book (even saying he could read it with me if he wanted). He told me it was fine by him, then looked as though he might fall asleep himself, only to start talking again about how he hates money and how it’s the root of all problems (to be fair, a widely shared sentiment) and that he has thousands of dollars, in case I need anything, because I was a good person and I was very beautiful and that he would want to marry an Indian woman, but his wife was very pretty as well. I was never concerned about my safety. If I really felt worried, I would have moved, or I could have indicated my discomfort by at the very least moving my backpack and phone away from him. Not only did I do neither of these things, I continued to engage, smile, laugh, and generally go along with the conversation.
So I was just as surprised as Robert was when a BART policeman boarded the train at San Bruno and (in his defense) politely asked him to disembark so that he could ask a few questions. I didn’t realize until a few minutes later that someone had specifically called the police, reporting Robert for some unknown reason. Robert didn’t want to go, understandably, and asked why he should get up. I vouched for Robert — I told the cop that he wasn’t bothering me, and that it was totally okay with me if he wanted to continue on. The cop repeated (again, in his defense, in a friendly tone) that he just wanted to ask a few questions, that it wouldn’t take too long, and that Robert would be free to get onto the next train. Robert said no.
After a few relatively civil back-and-forths, the cop lightly touched his shoulder, saying “come on, let’s just talk on the platform.” Robert shook him off. This continued for a bit. Eventually, it escalated to the point where the cop was physically pulling him up from the seat with two hands, and Robert was pushing the cop off him. When both men were standing, Robert cornered by the door to the next carriage and the cop standing in the path to the main entrance, Robert asked again and again why the cop wanted him to get off the train, and that he hadn’t done anything. These are valid questions. The cop kept repeating that he didn’t want any trouble, but that he would just need him to step off the train for a minute and that he’d be free to get back on after answering a few questions. Since the train had been stopped for a while, I guess this is when the drama garnered the full audience attention.
At one point, Robert got very aggravated and tried to sit down again, or maybe it was that he was just shouting and the cop got tired of trying to peacefully usher Robert out of the train. So he pulled out his taser and told Robert that if he didn’t disembark the train, he would tase him.
This is where it gets very stressful. Up until this point, no weapons were involved, and both men were within their rights to have acted in the way they had. Before you jump to conclusions, think about it from the cop’s perspective. The cop was summoned by an anonymous tip, and having surveyed the situation, he probably thought it was within reason that a small woman might have felt threatened by a big drunk guy. Even me insisting that it was okay might have seemed like a polite gesture, rather than a true indication of the situation. It’s also entirely possible that when I spoke to my mother in Telugu, the anonymous caller thought I was asking for help. Whatever. There’s motive. Plus, he’s a cop; generally if a cop asks you to do something, you do it at risk of punishment if you don’t. It’s messed up, but it’s kind of the purpose of having a police force in the first place.
Of course, from Robert’s perspective, the whole ordeal is fucked up. He literally didn’t do anything, and on top of that, he was a genuinely nice guy. We were having an admittedly uncomfortable conversation, but only because I was tired and didn’t want to talk to anyone, not because I didn’t want to talk to him. So he was completely in the right to ask for what reason the cop wanted him off the train, and to not get off until that question was answered. Unfortunately for him, he ran.
To the cop’s credit, he didn’t pull the trigger right away. He gave ample warning, enough so that the man on the diagonal seating (next to where Robert was standing, backed against the doors to the next carriage) had bodily covered the woman next to him in anticipation of the scene that was seconds from occuring. Robert moved around the carriage, at one point sitting next to me again. At this point, I genuinely feared being accidentally tased myself; the taser points a red laser beam at its target, and I saw that target slip to me for a split-second.
Throughout this entire situation, the man diagonal and I were trying to calmly talk both the police and Robert down. The man was telling Robert that it’s not worth it, that he should just go talk to him, all while joining me in telling the cop that Robert didn’t do anything wrong, and that there’s no reason to pull out the taser. Even if I wanted to move, I couldn’t go anywhere unless I jumped over the seat I was in, so I was slightly panicked but trying to lessen the damage.
Unfortunately, Robert didn’t “cooperate,” and the cop shot him. Watching someone get tased is one of the worst things I have ever seen—I can’t imagine actually being tased. Robert limply fell over onto the seats in front of me, crying and twitching, and the cop leaned over to lift him outside. Robert tried to get up again, and the cop threatened to tase him a second time. Finding that he was too heavy, the cop ended up dragging him to the entrance. (The soundtrack of this memory will always be the man diagonal incredulously breathing, “oh my god… oh my god.”) The cop called for backup, and a few others came in time for Robert to regain some control and start resisting again. As the cops cuffed him and held him down, Robert tearfully shouted that he hadn’t done anything wrong, that everyone on the train saw, that we take videos and pictures and prevent another Rodney King incident. Despite the two other officers physically restraining Robert, the initial officer tased him a second time, with a sickening five-second shock that was both excessive and unnecessary. (You can find this moment at 2:30 in the video — this is the moment at which many friends and family members have said they couldn’t stomach watching it anymore.)
Fuck. My heart wrenched. I’m slightly embarrassed about my cameo in the videos, because at several points, I was tearing up or was very visibly upset. (My ex hated that about me — that I’m too empathetic— but I think this is a situation that warrants it.) Between telling the increasing flood of cops that Robert was innocent, I made eye contact with Robert and told him over and over again that he didn’t do anything wrong, but that he shouldn’t resist in case they hurt him more. To their credit, the cops that came afterwards were as compassionate as they could be in the situation. He was kicking around (understandably), but they were gentle and nicely told him they wanted him to stop kicking them so that he could sit up on a bench and drink some water. He wouldn’t, eventually breaking down crying uncontrollably and repeating that he hadn’t done anything. Watching him get strapped into a body-binding contraption so that they could move him, while he plaintively cried his innocence, might have broken the last intact piece of my heart.
An officer asked if I would give a statement, and I immediately stepped off the train in compliance. The man diagonal joined me, and together we testified that Robert hadn’t done a thing, that he was asking a reasonable question (as to why he should get off the train if he hadn’t done anything), and that the taser was unnecessary. The cop doing the questioning was the last to the scene, so hopefully his personal judgment doesn’t cloud the report, plus he seemed fairly sympathetic (even goading me to remember to state that Robert never took the offensive nor laid a hand on the officer). I gave him as much information as I could, though he wouldn’t need much to figure out that this whole ordeal was a terrible mistake. Still, I was shaking—my hands only stopped trembling by the time I got to my car, a good half hour later. I emailed the officer who took my statement to add that I only felt afraid when the taser was on me, but at no point before, but I don’t know how much good it’ll do.
I’m hesitant to jump to the “police brutality” conclusion, because the aggression wasn’t totally unprovoked. Yes, the cop definitely shouldn’t have used the taser, but at the same time, Robert shouldn’t have resisted the cop for so long. That being said, Robert should have never been stopped in the first place, because he wasn’t posing a threat. And did I sincerely worry that weapons were involved? Not until the taser was pulled out, at which point I suddenly realized that if Robert had a gun, this situation would get a lot uglier, a lot faster. But he didn’t have a gun (thank god), which makes this almost even more depressing (as if that’s possible).
Because the reason that he was asked to leave the train was because he was a drunk black man, talking to a young non-black woman. And he was assumed to be violent, potentially packing heat, which is what necessitated the need for the taser. And he was carried away in a full-body restraint because he was resisting arrest and kicking out, a totally normal reaction to being tased and cuffed for no reason.
Maybe I shouldn’t blame it on race, but it’s completely appropriate in this case. All of the famous cases, Oscar Grant being the most recent, revolve around this exact problem. The race card works against him at every step, even when it’s actually in favor with me. If it had been a drunk white guy, talking to me about how much he loved Indians and touching my hair, I probably would have walked away or pretended to disembark at a station only to reenter a different car. But because of a (perhaps somehow racist) kinship I feel with my fellow POC, I let the conversation go on to the point where someone else thought I might be in danger.
So now what? What are the options for BART, and for this man? BART police aren’t entirely bad, and speaking as someone who has to traverse the Civic Center station regularly, it’s good to have them around sometimes. I’m also not as anti-police as my fellow Berkeley liberals; as a small Indian woman, I pose very little threat, so I generally have very positive experiences with police (in America). On the other hand, there’s a dangerous balance between genuine safe-guarding and being overzealous, and those who tip the scale have come under incredible scrutiny. Oscar Grant, the closest corollary to this, became a martyr when thousands of people across the Bay appropriated his death as a means to protest police brutality and racial profiling.
And for Robert? What will make him feel better, or at the very least human, about this terrifying experience? Free BART tickets? A public apology? A lawsuit? And what’s worse: this probably isn’t the first time this has happened to him. Maybe not the tasing, but the suspicion, the police hostility, the demoralizing reality of being an “other” in certain highly racialized scenarios. Since Robert is innocent, there aren’t too many avenues to take to rectify the situation, though there are many to make it worse (for instance, one bystander suggested that he might be booked for resisting arrest). In a best-case scenario, the cops take him to the hospital, don’t bill him (aforementioned way to add insult to injury), then drive him to his house with a sincere apology and a fat settlement. But I doubt that’ll happen, and from what it sounds like, Robert’s not interested in money anyway.
So really — what’s the best-case scenario? There is none, and that’s what makes this so awful and heartbreaking and outrageous. A man sits next to a woman on public transit, is asked to leave the train, doesn’t, then gets tased, dragged, cuffed, forcibly bound, and carried out. It’s really not more complicated than that, and yet there are no methods of recourse that will make this go away as easily as it happened. Robert is going to continue hating the cops, perhaps as a response to a lifetime of similar cases making situations like this more and more common, feeding the culture we live in now where black men antagonistically mistrust police and fuel a reciprocally negative relationship. There are plenty of rappers and spoken word poets and sociologists and generally aware people who can expand on this (or you can just listen to Mos Def’s entire Black of Both Sides album), but my point is simple: this shit is out of control.
Somehow, some people think we live in a post-racial society.
Feeling helpless? I know how that is. Pick any of the following action items to start:
- Share this piece with as many people as you can (especially helpful: journalists, civil rights advocates, the ACLU, etc). Social media links are at the bottom of the page, and “recommending” the article on Medium itself helps it stay in the “Trending” category.
Twitter: Use the hashtag #BARTbrutality to spread the word.
Reddit: You can find the link here.
- Call San Bruno BART police to inquire into the follow-up. (I’ll be doing this one first.)
- Find out if there are video cameras on the trains / get a copy of the footage. (Likely will require a subpoena.)
- Get a copy of the complaint that inspired the police intervention. (Likely will require a subpoena.)
- Find Robert’s personal information. (Might be a long shot.)
- Inform Oscar Grant’s family and PR team to see if they have any recommendations on next steps.
- Figure out more next steps.
Thank you all so much for caring about this incident. I didn’t even comprehend, until I watched the video footage, how incredibly dehumanizing, unnecessary, and extraordinarily violent this reaction was. There are hundreds of organizations doing something — I’d like for this account and video footage to help in some way.