Speaking of Racial Profiling: Part II
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
(Ed.'s Note: On April 3, WireTap covered student walkouts at San Francisco State University in support of Dr. Antwi Akom, who was arrested on campus grounds. The walkout participants argued that Akom's arrest was motivated by racial profiling. Our readers commented that the incident had not received adequate coverage in the media and asked for more facts. Our in-depth investigation below is a result of that request.)
His is not a household name. And while the image of an Afro-haloed Angela Davis raising her clenched fist in a California courtroom stirs up a response in most members of a certain generation, relatively few are familiar with Dr. Antwi Akom or the confident smile he kept on his angular face throughout much of his recent trial. Despite its lack of national coverage, the arrest of Akom, a sociologist and Africana Studies professor, is among the latest incidents to stoke the ongoing national debate on racial profiling. Though Akom's arrest occurred last year, his case continues to pit some students and faculty against the administration at one of the country's most progressive university campuses.
The two central parties involved -- Akom and San Francisco State University's Department of Public Safety -- offer very different renderings of their interaction on the evening of Oct. 25. They do so only through written statements -- police reports, blog postings, and a well-maintained " Justice 4 Akom" campaign website. The criminal proceedings have ended, but because of the lack of resolution on San Francisco State's campus, neither party is speaking to the press. From the various documents that claim to chronicle the evening's events, the following picture emerges.
Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night, Akom pulled his Land Rover into a parking space outside the Ethnic Studies and Psychology building near the heart of San Francisco State University's campus. After checking to make sure his five- and seven-year-old daughters were comfortable in the back, he stood to his full height of 6 feet 3 inches, locked the car doors and hurried toward the building's main entrance. He planned to stop by his second-floor office briefly, just long enough to pick up the books he needed to prepare for a lecture the following day.
Akom pulled open the front door, which had been propped open, but only after walking past Adalberto Guevara, a guard charged with keeping the site secure while a team of electricians installed new wiring in the classrooms upstairs. Guevara stood outside the lobby of the two-story building talking on his cell phone. He followed Akom inside the building and asked him if he worked there. The professor said yes and continued through the lobby and upstairs toward his office. In earlier police interviews, Guevara said he followed closely behind, asking Akom to see his identification card all the while. Guevara later changed his story, admitting that he never asked to see the professor's ID. It wouldn't have been a problem if he had, Akom says. His campus badge was in his pocket all along.
Guevara later told police that he wondered why this man, dressed in a black sweatshirt and sweatpants, was being so confrontational. Why had he gotten within inches of Guevara's face and shouted, "I'm tired of everybody messing with me!" and "Leave me the [expletive] alone!"
Guevara went back downstairs, called his supervisor at Wackenhut Security and explained the situation. Minutes later, 22-year-old officer Brandon Rodgers arrived. With Guevara nearby, Rodgers began searching the rooms on the building's second floor. Soon, Akom emerged from the office door marked "217."
And this is where the initial meeting of an employee of a company on contract with the university and a self-described "scholar-activist" of African-American and Ghanaian parentage morphed into a larger confrontation that would engulf the campus community and, more broadly, California's Bay Area. With Akom's emergence from his office, the accounts of what happened dramatically diverge.
Akom says that he walked out with his arms full of books and, upon seeing the police officer, repeated that he was a professor. He was walking toward the stairwell when Rodgers used force to stop him from behind, and only then, says Akom, did he fight back. At some point, though, the interaction between the two men drew a small crowd that included electricians who were working nearby, an undergraduate student who was studying on the floor and -- after Rodgers radioed for backup -- two additional members of San Francisco State's police force.
Officer Brandon Broach and Sgt. Reginald Parson, both of whom are black, responded to assist Rodgers, who is white. According to their reports, they arrived on the second floor to find Akom pinning Rodgers against the wall, his hands on the officer's chest. Rodgers was shouting "Stop resisting!" To which Akom replied, "Let go of my arm! This is racist! I'm a professor!"
An hour later, Akom was in a jail cell charged with two felony counts of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. His bail was set at $51,000.
What is racial profiling, exactly?
Many questions remain about what happened between the time Akom left his daughters and when he ended up handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser in that same parking lot. Did Guevara clearly distinguish his cell phone conversation from the questions he directed at Akom? How did Guevara describe the incident to his supervisor and, subsequently, to the police dispatcher? Why did neither the guard nor the police ask Akom for his campus ID? Was it Akom or Rodgers who initiated physical contact? But perhaps the question that trumps all of the above is: What is racial profiling, exactly, and has it occurred in this instance?
The term is broadly understood to refer to any law enforcement practice that treats a person as a suspect because of his or her race or ethnicity. Akom and his supporters maintain that had he been a white professor, the evening would not have ended with a trip to jail. To drive this point home, members of the "Justice 4 Akom" campaign wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Danger: Educated Person of Color" on San Francisco State's campus earlier this year when the case was still in court.
But Willie Brown and Louise Renne, the former San Francisco mayor and former city attorney who were hired by the university's president to conduct an independent investigation, disagree. They say that it wasn't Akom's race, but his aggressive behavior that led to his arrest. Guevara and Rodgers both had "reasonable, non-race-based grounds" for questioning Akom's presence in the building.
On March 13, Brown and Renne released their 106-page report, which doesn't include Akom's account of the events (his attorney advised him not to participate in the investigation). Four days later, San Francisco's district attorney dropped all criminal charges, but the university administration is still considering whether it will take disciplinary action. Akom could face dismissal, demotion or suspension without pay based on the California Faculty Association's Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The irony is not lost on Akom's supporters. On a campus that boasts a Cesar Chavez Student Center (located just off the Malcolm X Plaza), an Africana Studies professor may lose his job because of what he sees as precisely the type of inequities he teaches about every day. San Francisco State was the first university in the country to have a full-fledged college -- as opposed to a department, center or institute -- of ethnic studies, and Akom's professional history implies that he is an ideal faculty member.
In 2002, he won an award from the American Educational Research Association for his work as a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California, Berkeley. Two years later, Akom received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation is titled, "Ameritocracy: The Racing of our Nation's Children." In the abstract, Akom writes:
"The perspective I take is that societal racism is not dead; however, a qualitatively new system of racism has developed. This new system of racism combines the ideology of meritocracy -- the belief that individuals succeed or fail according to their own individual attributes -- with color-blind racism-race neutrality, accompanied by token inclusion rather than systematic exclusion of racial minorities."
This thinking resonates with Matthew Shenoda, Akom's colleague in the College of Ethnic Studies. Shenoda's office on campus is two doors down from Akom's, and the officers' and security guard's accounts of what happened that night contradict everything he knows about his friend and colleague of more than two years. He describes Akom as an upbeat, rational person whose work with at-risk youth has meant years of training in how to defuse tense and potentially violent situations.
Shenoda says that what happened to Akom on the night of Oct. 25 is a classic case of racial profiling.
"He's a young, tall, dark-skinned black man with dreadlocks walking into a university building late at night," Shenoda said in an interview. "When we look at the manner in which black youth have been criminalized in the media, Dr. Akom fits that image more than he fits the image of a professor."
Shenoda says it is sometimes unclear whether blackness or a refusal to project a mainstream, professional appearance creates incidents like the one Akom experienced.
"If Dr. Akom had short hair and had on a suit, it's entirely possible this wouldn't have happened," he says.
But he scoffs at the idea, advanced by some in the campus community, that racial profiling isn't a fitting allegation given that two of the three arresting officers were black.
"White supremacy is an ideology that can be embodied by anyone regardless of the color of their skin," Shenoda says. But he emphasizes that the initial conflict was between Akom and officer Rodgers. "The two [black] officers came to deal with whatever was in front of them."
It was Sgt. Parson who called Shenoda the night of the incident at Akom's request. Shenoda says the sergeant was initially vague on the phone, but after some prodding, Parson got to the point: Akom was in police custody and needed someone to take his daughters home.
Shenoda says he pulled into the parking lot not long after 11 p.m., saw Akom's Land Rover and pulled into a spot next to it. He said the girls were crying and clearly knew that something was wrong. He had brought with him a friend who knew Akom's daughters, and who stayed with them while Shenoda went to talk to Akom, who was handcuffed in the back of the patrol car.
"He was upset," Shenoda said, remembering their conversation. "He was concerned about the kids."
Profiling of black Americans less of a story in post-9/11 America
Racial profiling of black men was widely publicized in the late '90s and early part of this decade. Charges of race-based discrimination within the "war on drugs" were buoyed in 1999 when the ACLU both released a report that popularized the term "driving while black" and filed suits against police departments in four states, including California. The April 2001 riots in Cincinnati fueled the debate, as many observers and participants believed racial profiling and police brutality were root causes. Three months after those riots, a Gallup poll reported that 55 percent of whites and 83 percent of blacks believed racial profiling to be a widespread problem.
But after Sept. 11, 2001, the debate shifted. By the end of that month, two Gallup polls showed that a majority of Americans favored profiling Arabs and Arab-Americans and subjecting them to special security checks before boarding planes. Since then, the mainstream media has highlighted Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian communities' fight against racial and ethnic profiling. The profiling of black Americans had become less of a story, until the March altercation between Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., and a capitol police officer at a security checkpoint revived this angle of the debate. Akom's supporters say they hope his arrest will also force the public to question why a black person's presence in certain professional environments would be deemed suspicious or unusual.
"I'm not sure this would have happened to me," said Shenoda, Akom's colleague, whose family is from Egypt. He says he is often stopped in airports but wouldn't expect to have a problem on the campus where he works. "I fit the profile of a terrorist. Dr. Akom fits an entirely different stereotype: of the aggressive, young black man."
On March 22, almost 300 students and faculty members rallied in the plaza outside the Ethnic Studies and Psychology building to protest the Renne-Brown report and to show their support for Akom. The professor, who has resumed his teaching duties, was there but said little that day besides the occasional, appreciative exhortation to those on stage to "tell the truth, tell the truth."
Since then, the campus Senate has met to discuss the report and its implications, and faculty in the College of Ethnic Studies continue to push for a campuswide review and oversight committee to clearly define racial profiling and investigate police complaints.
Dani McClain is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She also serves on the advisory board of WireTap Magazine.