In the fall of 2013, two African-American high school students in CLA's Spotlight on the Arts internship program were subjected to harassment by San Francisco police. The video that tells their story, What If This happened to You? is particularly timely in the light of current discussions about police/community relations and racial profiling.
Jameisha, an intern in a photography program, was stopped by the police and questioned about the 35 mm camera she was wearing around her neck. She was walking to a Spotlight workshop for students in our year-round program.
Omari, a graphic arts intern, was on his way home from school when he was removed from a bus and handcuffed for a fare violation. Would the police intervention have been different if Omari was white? Typically MUNI officers issue citations for such violations.
In a recent article in the New York Times, Ian Ayres, a law professor at Yale, describes a study about "discretionary accommodations" that showed statistically meaningful differences in the treatment of white and black bus riders: "Bus drivers were twice as willing to let white testers ride free as black testers (72 percent versus 36 percent of the time).”
When two out of seven teens in our program experienced racial profiling within a week, it got the attention of our staff, Senior Program Manager Jill Roisen and Shana Lancaster, then Program Director. Of the 30 participants in the summer program, we annually extend invitations to up to 10 students to continue their internships during the school year. The students who are invited back are selected because of their good attitudes and work habits. They often continue to work for the same employers, expanding their skills and deepening their relationships with their supervisors and with our program staff, who hold monthly workshops with them.
Jameisha was continuing her internship at Intersection for the Arts with a photography program, First Exposures, which had exhibited her photos. Omari was working at the Mission Cultural Center of Latino Arts. When they described their interactions with the police at a Spotlight workshop, the group decided to focus on advocacy and asked to speak with a civil rights attorney.
They also decided to make a video to document their experiences, learning interviewing techniques and production skills as part of the process. The video includes recommendations provided by Chris Bridges, a Racial Justice Project Fellow at the ACLU, about how anyone should respond if stopped and questioned by the police.
What If This Happened to You? was shown to a group of youth and police at a forum presented by the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Association. Craig D. Wilson, an African-American police officer, said he was shocked that "this is still happening in San Francisco today." He described a similar incident that happened to him when he was a teenager, and recommended that the video be shown during the police department's training academy.
Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford Professor of Psychology and recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Award," has worked with several police departments, presenting studies that "show what implicit bias is, and how it’s different from old-fashioned racism." Her empirical research about racial perceptions and biases was described in a recent interview in the New York Times: "I don’t think this alone can change behavior,” she said. “But it can help people become aware of the unconscious ways race operates. If you combine that with other things, there is hope."
Izza, one of our student producers, echoed this optimism when she described the purpose of the video: "We also hope that this film can start conversations at the higher level of the SFPD so they can improve the way they treat young people. We are concerned about the lack of respect as well as the violence that has occurred to us and around us, especially when it comes to young people of color.”
And in any event, they have documented their concerns through a tangible means of expression -- that can be its own reward.
Alma Robinson, Executive Director
California Lawyers for the Arts