My Seattle neighborhood debates racial profiling

racial profiling

The Magnolia peninsula as seen from downtown Seattle (Vmenkov, via Wikipedia)

Since becoming New To Seattle in 2011, I have lived in Magnolia. It is situated on a hilly peninsula jutting out into scenic Puget Sound–and connected to the rest of Seattle by just three bridges over railroad tracks. Magnolia has the feel of a remote island even though it is less than three miles from the edge of downtown Seattle. For decades this relative isolation has suited many of its 20,000 residents, proud of and thankful for the neighborhood’s reputation as the safest part of Seattle.

But this has been rattled in recent months by an increase in burglaries–owing to a low base, the percentage jump is high although the actual number of offenses remains low for Seattle–car prowls and assorted other incidents, including one truly disturbing episode involving a man naked from the waist down. The response from somewhat panicked neighbors include creation of a private non-profit to organize security patrols paid by residents. An informational session at a local church drew a full house and attracted TV coverage.

Then there’s been the considerable chatter in this typically liberal Seattle neighborhood–which is nearly 90% white–about racial profiling.

One of the seminal posts on Nextdoor Magnolia, a private social media site, came from a Magnolia resident whose bio says he grew up on New York’s Long Island. “Last Sunday as I was leaving 24th and Emerson, I saw a light blue low-rider (gangster?) car turning on to 24th,” he wrote. “They looked like gangsters in banana’s [sic] and hats, but on the chance of sounding racist or profiling, they looked more at home in south-center [an area known for gang activity]. Just letting everyone know.”

There were immediate objections. “What is inherently suspicious about a light blue low-rider car, banana’s and hats? one person wrote. “What do you suspect them of? What did they DO other than turn a corner in their car?”

“As I can see,” another  Magnolian chimed in, “the only ‘crime’ being committed was someone driving in our neighborhood dressing in a way and driving a car that [the original poster] doesn’t approve of. Seriously?! That’s really gross. :(”

“That’s nifty that we can all go politically correct,” the Long Island native responded. “Whether you call it profiling or not, if it looks suspicious, I’ll trust my instincts on that one. Here’s my advice: If something strikes you as odd, don’t be AFRAID to mention it.”

“Back we come to the whole profiling issue,” wrote a 14-year resident. “Nobody should have to follow a dress code to feel like they won’t be profiled in our neighborhood, and that is truly what we are talking about. Whether they are out for a morning walk or coming home on the bus or driving to their job…or what ever … Now bad behavior is a whole different issue, and THAT is the one that we should all be focused on…PEOPLES ACTIONS matter NOT peoples LOOKS.”

Another thread that suggesting hooded persons walking around were sketchy by virtue of their garb also triggered a storm of protest. “I am increasingly flabbergasted by some of the posts in the community,” one indignant resident wrote. “It is always great to be aware of your surroundings, but some of the recent posts about suspicious and unusual behavior along with others about every hooded person they see walking around are bordering on paranoia with a dose of mob mentality. Calling someone that walks around the area a suspect is at best leaping to conclusions without any foundation.

“My husband and I frequently take walks around Magnolia, and he normally takes daily early morning walks. As a matter of practicality, he wears a hooded sweatshirt this time of year as the mornings are often chilly and breezy. As of late, he is often confronted with cars slowly circling back to get a better look at him. Perhaps the drivers are the same as those that have posted to this forum. As of today, a police cruiser followed him on part of his walk.”

Yet a third set of threads concerned people living out of RVs legally parked on streets along the edge of Magnolia. One post claimed the occupants were all thieves and the source of much of the local crime. The word “gypsy” was bandied about, although from the context it wasn’t clear whether that referred to an ethnic group or just people without a fixed-place home.

The attack on RV residents also provoked an outcry. “What proof is there that crimes are being committed by any of the people who are parking here?” one person wrote.

Added another, “The assumption that these people are criminals isn’t a fair one unless there is some proof. I go by there all the time and have never seen anyone doing anything objectionable. These are obviously people down on their luck. It isn’t necessarily a place most of us would want to camp. I say let them be until they become bad neighbors. After all, some of us have bad neighbors who actually live in houses! Just sayin’.”

These were some of the more civil comments. Other responses were so personally pointed that the original commenter apparently took down her post.

In light of this charged environment, consider this: One of the public schools sent out an alert that “a man in a gold mini-van” had approached a mother and child at a bus stop and said he was from Seattle schools transportation with instructions to pick up the student. When the mother pulled out a cellphone to take a picture, the van sped off. Pretty soon a police investigation was started and a picture was posted online of the van and the man.

Except: It turned out the man was from Seattle school transportation and was supposed to pick up the child. “Police have made contact with the individual in this case and verified that he is a transportation provider with legitimate business at the school,” the Seattle Police Department blogged. “There will be no further investigation …”

So far, the expressed concerns about suspicious vehicles and suspicious persons and suspicious clothing and suspicious RVs haven’t led to regrettable actions against innocent persons.

So far.

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