Nextdoor.com, a website that bills itself as the "private social network for neighborhoods," offers a free web platform on which members can blast a wide variety of messages to people who live in their immediate neighborhood. A San Francisco-based company founded in 2010, Nextdoor's user-friendly site has exploded in popularity over the last two years in Oakland. As of this fall, a total of 176 Oakland neighborhoods have Nextdoor groups — and 20 percent of all households in the city use the site, according to the company.
On Nextdoor, people give away free furniture or fruit from their backyards. Users reunite lost dogs with their owners. Members organize community meetings and share tips about babysitters and plumbers. But under the "Crime and Safety" section of the site, the tone is much less neighborly. There, residents frequently post unsubstantiated "suspicious activity" warnings that result in calls to the police on Black citizens who have done nothing wrong. In recent months, people from across the city have shared with me Nextdoor posts labeling Black people as suspects simply for walking down the street, driving a car, or knocking on a door. Users have suggested that Black salesmen and mail carriers may be burglars. One Nextdoor member posted a photo of a young Black boy who failed to pick up dog poop and suggested that his neighbors call the police on him.
And in the end, even in California, even in the Bay Area, when you can anonymously tip the cops that a scary looking brown person is on your street, people just jump on the damn opportunity, don't they?
White residents have also used Nextdoor to complain and organize calls to police about Black residents being too noisy in public parks and bars — raising concerns that the site amplifies the harmful impacts of gentrification. On Nextdoor and other online neighborhood groups — including Facebook pages and Yahoo and Google listservs — residents have called Black and Latino men suspicious for being near bus stops, standing in "shadows," making U-turns, and hanging around outside coffee shops. Residents frequently warn each other to be on the look out for suspects with little more description than "Black" and "wearing a hoodie."
"These posts cast such a wide net on our young Black men," said Shikira Porter, an Upper Dimond resident, who is Black. "You start seeing this over and over again, and you understand quickly that, oh, it's the Black body that they're afraid of."
In some Nextdoor groups, when people ask their neighbors to think twice before labeling someone suspicious, other users attack them for playing the "race card" and being the "political correctness police." Some groups have even actively silenced and banned the few vocal voices of color speaking up on the websites, according to records that I reviewed.
This sometimes toxic virtual environment has real-world impacts. Residents encourage each other to call police, share tips on how to reach law enforcement, and sometimes even alert cops and security guards about suspicious activity they've only read secondhand from other commenters. I spoke to longtime Oaklanders who say the profiling is getting worse, noting that they have recently had neighbors question them on their block or in their own driveway — suspicious of whether they might be up to no good. People of color described stories of white residents running away from them, screaming at them to leave a shared garden space, and calling police on young children in their own home. In some areas, the profiling is further exacerbated by the growing presence of private patrol officers whom residents have hired to guard the streets.
So yes, if you somehow think people of color are somehow safer from harassment or racism or prejudice online in cyberspace, you're sorely mistaken. It just ends up being another place where being black or brown is a major liability...and in some instances, fatal.