February 15-21, 2006

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Rick Callendar

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Federal Intervention: Silicon Valley NAACP President Rick Callendar says the Department of Justice has agreed to mediate the dispute between the police and the local African American community about racial profiling.

Downtown Crossfire

After the shootings in October, the hot topic in SJ is how downtown's nightclub scene should be policed. Charges of racial profiling are fanning the flames.

By Najeeb Hasan

THERE ARE some 40 black-and-white squad cars lined up on Almaden Boulevard in downtown San Jose—and it's not even closing time yet. The glistening double row of police cars is there on this Thursday night because of a "hyphy" rap show featuring, among others, Keak Da Sneak and Dem Hood Stars, at Parkside Hall on the east side of Almaden.

Ironically, on the west side of the street, at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts, a very different type of event is also in progress—the Broadway version of Disney's The Lion King.

"It's that Lion King crowd," jokes Sgt. Sergio Carabarin, the Police Department's ranking officer in the entertainment district, to a passer-by who inquires about the police presence. "That after-dinner crowd is just crazy."

But to a reporter from Metro, Carabarin confirms that the police have beefed up their presence for the rap concert.

"Supposedly they pre-sold 1,800 tickets," Carabarin says.

Toward the end of the night, however, his officers found out only 600 people attended the show.

As an officer across the street from the Parkside videotapes the concert-goers filing in and out of the show, an aspiring local rapper handing out free CDs of his work outside the entrance takes a dim view of the police presence. "They made people get off the block," he says. "You know the deal. That's why they got 40-something cops over here. You know the deal."

But Carabarin says he feels the extra presence is necessary, and hints at a threat of gang violence.

"It's some of the same bands as the night of the Ambassador's shootings," he says. "They have a history of bringing [rival] groups of people from East Palo Alto and Oakland."

Where Are the Numbers?

Those Oct. 22 shootings near the now-closed Ambassador's Lounge on San Pedro Street resulted in three injuries, including an Ambassador's bouncer, and three arrests. Owner Menassa Abinadar reopened the club the following week—after renaming it B-Hive—and claimed that, in the weeks following the shootings, police targeted African Americans and Hispanics who frequented his club for traffic stops and illegal searches. B-Hive closed last month, and Club Miami, the Latin-themed club formerly on Santa Clara Street, recently opened at that address under the new name Miami Beach Club.

On Nov. 15, the City Council passed a controversial ordinance giving the chief of police power to close, for 30 days, any club considered to be a safety risk. Meanwhile, the Santa Clara County civil grand jury has launched an investigation into the claims of racial profiling.

Police have disputed allegations of racial profiling and say that extra officers had been deployed to the neighborhood as a precautionary measure. But they haven't come up with the hard numbers that would make their case. Instead, they say the results from the department's new computer system for tracking demographic data on vehicle stops are "flawed due to human error." In response to a request for that data, a representative said demographic numbers could not be released until police validate that the system is working. In other words, the police claimed they have bad numbers, which they cannot release.

"Yeah, the data is no good," says Silicon Valley NAACP President Rick Callender with a note of sarcasm. "They say their data is no good—the problem is that all they have is black people in their data, if they have any data."

Walter Wilson, a member of the Downtown Ordinance Task Force and the former vice-president of the local and state NAACP, says the department made the same claim about the demographic numbers to the grand jury.

"I'm sorry," says Wilson, "but nobody's going to insult my intelligence with that nonsense."

Survey Says

Unlike the department, the NAACP does have some data; namely, an online survey emailed by the organization to about 8,500 people who were on the mailing list for the Ambassador's nightclub. A total of 706 responded, and of the 706, almost 39 percent, 267 people, reported that they had been stopped by police in downtown San Jose within the last six months. Almost half of those who were stopped indicated that they did not consider their traffic stop "legitimate." 360 respondants gave their ethnicity, and about 82 percent of those, or 293 people, said they were African American or Latino. The survey has been challenged, however, for not being methodologically sound.

One of the respondents to the survey, a San Jose resident who identified himself as an African American, told the NAACP: "They [the police] pulled me over and said my music was too loud, I told them it couldn't have been because my amplifier was blown. He then said I was driving too fast, I told him I couldn't have been because me and a friend were ... driving slow to see where these girls were that we were supposed to meet." The respondent then recounted how he was told to sit on the ground, a request he considered unreasonable for a traffic stop. He asserted that he was then was ticketed and forced to take a breathalyzer test, which he passed. "If you went to the B-hive (where mostly blacks go) ... once the club is released, we exit to a throng of police shining lights in your face, while at the very opposite end of the block, the white clubs let out ... and they are allowed to stand in the street talking to women, until as late as they want to, without any prompting from the police."

Another respondent, who also identified himself as African American, was upset about the nature of questions he was asked by police when he was stopped. "I don't feel that the first thing an officer should ask me when I am stopped is do I have any weapons or warrants for arrest, before they even ask me for my drivers license and registration," he told the NAACP. "I have been out with my friends of other races and when they have been the drivers they never receive those kinds of questions at all."

The refrain in the survey responses is often the same: many who identified themselves as African American felt they were stopped for minor infractions, searched without justification and asked inappropriate questions that sometimes pertained to their race.

"Once they were done searching my car, they learned that I was a recording artist/producer," one wrote. "As if a young black male living in San Jose can't just drive a Cadillac because it's a good American car! Then another officer made me sing a song for him to prove that I was really a musician."

Not Just Black And White

One Bay Area venue manager, who has featured bands at his venue that were playing during the Ambassador's shootings—and who asked to remain anonymous so police don't identify his venue—says he doesn't entirely blame the police, either.

"The police don't quite understand the difference between Keak Da Sneak and Mos Def," he says. "The just frown on urban music as a whole. I don't think violence is perpetuated by the band, but there are certainly some elements within those who listen to those bands who follow that lifestyle."

But he says police policy has smashed head-on into economic policy, threatening the viability of downtown's nightlife scene. For one thing, he says, venues are losing money by cutting back on hip-hop shows.

"As a business owner, there's a tremendous amount of headache and political red tape," he says. "And even though I will put on whatever I want to put on, ultimately it's not worth it. To be honest with you, the money that we can make on a rap show is way more than most reggae shows and most rock shows. The money's great, but ultimately the club does not want to create violence in downtown, and asks, Is it worth it making 8 grand tonight—to make 10 grand tonight? So, yes, ultimately we have cut back about 25 percent of what rap shows that we are choosing."

Meanwhile, Callender, of the NAACP, says that the U.S. Department of Justice, upon his request, has agreed to enter the profiling dispute between the African American community and the police department as a mediating party. "I'm going to challenge you to find any show that generates 40 squad cars," he says about the police's strategy for last Thursday's Keak Da Sneak show, pointing to the fact that there were no reports of violence before, during or after the show. "Even the Shark Tank, when you have the tank full of 25,000 people, you don't need 40 squad cars. What did they have? One squad car for every five people? What [the police] are trying to say is that there is a link between hip-hop and thuggery. Well, how many fights were there at that show? How many shootings were there at that show? That's your answer."

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