Public Safety or Racial Profiling? Mistah F.A.B. Alleges Harassment by the OPD

Mistah F.A.B. (Bert Johnson)

When Mistah F.A.B. opened a storefront for his clothing line, Dope Era, on the 4500 block of Market Street in North Oakland nearly a year ago, he was realizing a lifelong dream.

The rapper and activist, whose real name is Stanley Cox, grew up in the neighborhood; he's made giving back to the community his mission since he first rose to fame during the Hyphy movement of the early aughts. For the past 10 years, he’s hosted backpack giveaways for kids, handed out turkeys at Thanksgiving, and organized Easter egg hunts and anti-gun violence basketball tournaments, among other grassroots endeavors. His philanthropy even earned him an honorary distinction from the former mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, in 2014.

F.A.B. at his store during a Respect My Vote event in 2016.
F.A.B. at his store during a Respect My Vote event in 2016. (Emma Silvers / KQED Arts)

With Dope Era — which stands for During Oppression People Evolve, Everyone Rises Above — he envisioned a small business that would provide job opportunities to North Oakland residents and set an example for responsible community development. But since Mistah F.A.B. has been in business, he alleges there's been an unwarranted and disproportionate police presence at his store -- something he sees as an example of racial profiling in an increasingly gentrifying Oakland.

In a recent interview at the store, F.A.B. told KQED Arts he’s noticed police officers parking on both sides of his business, sometimes several times a week, and asking his customers suspicious questions.

“There have been several people who have been pulled over leaving my shop, and the first question is, ‘Did you buy some drugs?’” he said, adding that this kind of attention makes his largely black customer base uncomfortable given the historically turbulent relationship between the community and law enforcement. “I wanna know what the difference would be if there was a hundred white kids standing on the corner. Would it be patronizing [the store], or would it be loitering?”

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Kiongozi Binaumo, a neighbor from Market Street, corroborated F.A.B.’s claims. “I’ve never seen anything foul happen around there,” he said. “I sit and watch the police all the time park around the corner and just watch, wanting something bad to happen, wanting to intervene. They harass people coming in and out of the store.”

Inside Dope Era
Inside Dope Era. (Emma Silvers / KQED Arts)

Asked for a response to the allegations, the Oakland Police Department sent an email. “We are looking further into the statements made by Mr. Cox,” wrote Officer Marco Marquez, an OPD media relations representative. “One of our goals in our strategic plan as a police department is to strengthen community trust and relationships. Part of what that looks like is considering potential damage to public trust when implementing crime fighting strategies.”

Mistah F.A.B. says that his status as a local celebrity has made Dope Era a bustling, attractive destination in the otherwise quiet neighborhood. Many of his customers are young black men, which he says has prompted unwarranted suspicion.

“I represent, and I walk with this neighborhood on my back everywhere I go,” he said. “So to see the barbershop [next door], a black business, and to see this shop — that’s inspiration to these kids. We represent hope in a desolate place where they don’t see a lot of positive images of young, black males.”

Mistah F.A.B. did admit that there has long been police presence in the neighborhood because of its history of crime. In 2017, according to CrimeMapping.com -- a database the Oakland Police Department uses to make crime data available to the public -- there have been nine cases of assault, six cases of burglary, and eight cases of motor vehicle theft within a quarter-mile radius of Dope Era stretching from 40th Street to the south and 54th Street to the north. For comparison, within a quarter-mile radius of the 4300 block of Piedmont Avenue, the center of the nearby, upscale Piedmont Avenue shopping district, the site reports three cases of assault, three cases of burglary, and seven cases of motor vehicle theft this year.

Still, F.A.B. is adamant that his store is being unfairly targeted. He should not be criminalized for opening a business in the neighborhood where he grew up, he says, even if it is a high-crime area.

“If you have someone that you’re looking for, go get them! Grab them! But don’t come out here and sit on our business,” he said. “In almost two years, there’s been no crime here. There’s not been a gun shot; there hasn’t been anything in comparison to what used to go on on this block on the normal. We’re policing the community. We’re governing the community. We’re helping and aiding others to do something for themselves. So how are we a nuisance?”

F.A.B. made sure to note that he was not calling out the OPD as a whole. “The problem is not really with the police, it’s certain police officers — individuals,” he said. “I don’t want to group the police officers like it’s them versus us. No. There’s certain officers who actually support us, who come out and say hello and actually mediate a few things for us.”

Inside Dope Era.
Inside Dope Era. (Emma Silvers / KQED Arts)

Darion Berry, a Berkeley resident who grew up in Oakland on 42nd Street and knows Mistah F.A.B., said that police surveillance at the shop is symptomatic of a larger cultural clash between longtime North Oakland residents — many of whom are black, Latino, and Middle Eastern — and white newcomers who have been flocking to the area in recent years. He suspects that some of these new residents may be the ones calling the police.

“I know firsthand that it’s definitely the neighbors who aren’t familiar with our culture or our way of living,” said Berry, who is black. “This is a community where friends will come throughout the day and hang out and whatnot. It may look different or make some people uncomfortable, but instead of taking the route of calling the police, engage us and really access what people are doing.”

“They’re allowing their biased opinions to give false data to other members of the community,” said Mistah F.A.B., who has previously been outspoken in the wake of police shootings.

In an attempt to find neighbors who might have issued complaints about the store, this reporter posted about Mistah F.A.B.’s allegations of racial profiling on Nextdoor.com, a social network that connects neighbors. Will Chase, a white resident of 42nd Street, weighed in, cautioning that police presence is to be expected in areas with a history of crime.

“Racial profiling is a horrible practice,” he wrote. “That said, if there's a location with a history and pattern of regular violence, as this corner (not their specific store, as far as I know) has, it absolutely makes sense for there to be a police presence there to deter further violence. That's simply good neighborhood policing.”

For others, the allegations of racial profiling at the Dope Era store call to mind other recent incidents that have become emblematic of racism and gentrification in Oakland. For instance, in September 2015, a white resident called the police on a group of black and Latino drummers at Lake Merritt, resulting in what many described as an unnecessary clash between law enforcement and a group of people of color involved in a harmless activity. Similarly, black churches in West Oakland and a teenage drummer at the Lake Merritt farmers’ market have faced noise complaints that have resulted in altercations with neighbors and police.

As far as solutions go, Mistah F.A.B. calls for greater community engagement across racial lines. “Pull up in here. Come get a chance to socialize with us and meet with us,” he said. “But if you’re intimidated by us, you won’t be able to do that. If you’re afraid of young, black men standing outside, having a good time, laughing and joking, talking about the memories of yesterday and the hopes of tomorrow — if that intimidates you, this might not be the place for you.”

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