By Nikolas Zelinski
The social media website Nextdoor.com, designed to connect neighbors, is gradually making changes to its website in the wake of intense criticism for creating a cyber network that allows racial profiling to flourish.
The community controversy grew and reached the media after a number of complaints said that “crime and safety” posts on the platform provide a space for Oakland residents to amplify their racist fears that Black people are acting suspicious because they are simply walking down the street, entering an apartment building or sitting in a parked car.
Another issue for community members is that both the City of Oakland and the Oakland Police Department use the website to keep in contact with residents and hear their concerns.
In response, Oakland City Council members have been discussing whether the city should stop using the website as a public statement that it does not tolerate racial profiling.
Nextdoor representatives have been meeting for months with the city Life Enrichment Committee, 100 Black Men and a community group, Neighbors for Racial Justice (NRJ), to generate solutions.
Maryam Mohit, Nextdoor representative, told council members recently that the company has been working with “urgency” to solve the problem.
However, Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Anne Campbell Washington are unconvinced the issue has been handled in a timely manner. Brooks said she no longer uses the site because she sees the damage it is doing to the community.
Disagreeing with other council members, Abel J. Guillen said, “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” He said the platform is just another tool, and people should handle profiling by calling out racism when they see it.
“I’m not sure how to grapple with the idea of trying to legislate behavior, and I think that’s what we’re attempting to do here. I understand the intent, but I don’t think this legislative body can regulate that type of behavior,” Guillen said at the Jan. 26 Life Enrichment meeting.
According to Ravinder Singh, member of the Oakland Community Policing Advisory Board and Neighbors for Racial Justice, “Nextdoor is accurate in saying that they’ve been working with us for the last couple of months.”
“But to Councilmember Desley Brooks’ point, I think we’ve been wanting to see a lot more progress … The main thing that we want to see happen is that [someone] can’t issue a crime and safety alert with the only descriptor being race. If you want to add other descriptors alongside race, we are open to see how that goes.”
Singh encouraged the city council to gather data on crime and safety posts to corroborate whether or not posts lead to prosecutable criminal activity.
Karen Boyd, Oakland City Communications Director, said three departments in the city use Nextdoor.com: The Oakland Police Department, the City Administrators office and the Mayor’s office.
In a statement released in April 2014, Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent praised Nextdoor.com. “Utilizing this tool, we will have the ability to share crime trends and patterns, provide safety education, and encourage community partnerships,” he said.
The platform has 48,000 users across the city in 180 neighborhoods, with 20,000 posts per month, according to Boyd. There are more followers of city departments on Nextdoor.com than other websites such as Facebook and Twitter.
The site is a one-way informational tool, which means the city cannot see discussions between neighbors, said Boyd.
Maryam Mohit said, “21 percent of Oakland households use the site. Of those users, 23 percent are African American, 10 percent Hispanic, and 46 percent white.”
A blog post that explained changes made to the site has been posted. Updates to the “Neighborly Behavior” section of guidelines include an explicit ban on racial profiling and the ability to flag posts that violate the ban.
The issue will scheduled again for discussion at the Life Enrichment committee.