Do I Look Suspicious to You? Livable Streets Starts with Equal Access to Streets

Mikey, Jonathan and George after being frisked on Ave. 50 and York Blvd. in Highland Park.

Mikey, Jonathan, and George were waiting for a friend just a few feet from the corner of Ave. 50 and York Blvd. in Highland Park when a police car pulled up. Two cops got out and told them to turn around, spread their legs, and put their hands behind their backs.

The police proceeded to give them a very thorough pat-down, including reaching their hands into the boys’ pants and turning their pockets inside out. They rifled through the boys’ wallets for ID and then ran their information. They poked around in the truck the boys had been standing next to, even though it wasn’t theirs.

The boys were clean — something the kids had told the police themselves, to no avail. Without an apology or even a “Have a nice day,” the police were gone. The whole incident had taken only a few minutes.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

The police had been looking for weapons, they said. It happens to them a lot. It happens to all their friends, too.

It was normal, they shrugged.

While it might be the “norm,” it shouldn’t be “normal” for minority and lower/lower-middle class youth to feel they could be treated to public TSA-style pat-downs any and every time they strike out into their neighborhood streets. Besides being unlawful, such incidents are demoralizing, dehumanizing, and disempowering. Because these incidents generally happen in view of everyone, they also have the unfortunate effect of communicating to the more recent arrivals that the minority youth are trouble, while effectively telling these youth that they are not welcome in the very neighborhoods they grew up in.

Jonathan, George and Mikey are searched by police while they wait for a friend.

Livable Streets Should Be Livable for All
Strikingly, the incident happened just across the street from the bike corral in front of Café de Leche. The corral — the first in the city — was a gesture meant to signify that the community welcomed cyclists and hoped they would ride up, lock up, and explore all that the community had to offer by foot. Similarly, the pedestrian crosswalk in the heart of the business district of York Blvd. was put in place to make the streets friendlier and more inviting to those hoofing it about.

Given what I witnessed and how frequently stops like that occur, the question is, “Are the streets equally welcoming to everyone?”

How can we reconcile an enhanced pedestrian experience for some with the fact that others might feel more under surveillance? Or greater access for bikes more generally, but no real improvement for minority youth on BMXs, who complain of being stopped because the police assume that they use the bikes to commit crimes?

Infrastructure designed to make communities more livable is a great first step, but it often isn’t enough to bridge some of these deeper socio-economic gaps. Is there some way in which we can use infrastructure as a platform from which to build better bridges between long-time residents and newer arrivals?

Questions about the value of and potential opportunities created by infrastructure are particularly salient in places such as South L.A., where the issue is not gentrification, but that streets can be quite hostile to the people, and especially the male youth, that live there.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been slowly exploring issues such as racial profiling, gang violence, prostitution, and displacement in South L.A. to try to pin down their impact on how people use their streets and the extent to which they feel connected to and invested in them. Although these issues are not always part of the livable streets conversation, the reality is that all the infrastructure in the world can only do so much if the people do not feel that they can take advantage of it, that it is relevant to their needs or aspirations, or even that the efforts to better the community represent a sincere investment.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting stories from the perspectives of residents to illustrate the links between these issues and the livability of streets. I’ll also be looking at some of the local organizations that have come up with innovative ways to address these issues in all their complexity as a way to gather a set of best practices. Up next week: the story of a young man who started running with crews in elementary school, first to protect himself from harassment and, later, to help protect his friends from violence. Being part of a crew made his world much smaller — there were suddenly even fewer places he could go safely. And it still affects his movement around the streets now, even though he left the crew behind over a year ago.

**While this piece highlights an incident of profiling, it must be noted that both the cops and kids in the story are Latino, and profiling is both complicated and not practiced only by whites. There was a very long back-and-forth exchange about this and about profiling in certain communities last night on my Facebook page. If you’re interested in more of that debate and the story about the kids please check that out here.

  • Geraldo’s Mustache

    Hoodies and baggie clothes.  They must be trouble. 

  •  Do they look suspicious to me?  Based on a single image, I’d say yes.  The kiddo on the far right more so than the other two. 

    Before your panties get all bunched up, you must understand human nature, some hard coded survival mechanisms, and statistics. 

    Right or wrong, my dad’s words ring in my ears, “want to be treated like a [insert any term here], act and dress like one”

  • Roger A

    Sahra, I’m really enjoying your thought-provoking articles here on Streetsblog – and the often lively exchanges they sometimes lead to in the “comments” sections!  With regard to this particular piece, I think you are basing your conclusion (“a clear incident of profiling”) on some pretty big assumptions about what you observed.  For one thing, we really don’t know why the police frisked them – Is it possible that these boys matched the description(s) of suspects for whom the police were actively searching?  Is it possible that someone in an adjoining house, who has recently been burglarized, called the police to report these boys loitering and asked the police to investigate?  Is it possible that there have been numerous bicycle thefts from the bike corral across the street, and the police were investigating to see whether these boys were perhaps “casing the joint” (and may perhaps have been packing some bolt-cutters, etc.)?  Do these possibilities sound farfetched?  It seems farfetched to me that the police would be so evil (“let’s hassle these punks just because we can”) or so stupid (“these kids are latin – they must have weapons, or drugs at least – an easy bust for us!”).   The point is that you don’t really know enough about what happened in this particular incident – even though you witnessed it from a distance – to really make the definitive claim that you’re making.  At the very least, you need some qualifying language (“appears to be” etc).  Along this same line…., it seems that after the police departed, you approached the young men to ask them about the incident, what they were up to, etc., and they told you, “We’re just waiting for a friend / doing nothing wrong…”  Just like you,  I too am inclined to believe them, but I’m not sure they would have said anything differently if they WERE up to something bad (like trying to snatch a poorly-secured bike from the bike corral).  And I’m wondering if you were actually close enough while the incident was occurring to hear for yourself what was being said by the police, or if that comes entirely from the kids’ recounting of the exchange? Is it possible the police did apologize or say ‘have a nice day’ and the kids characterized it differently when they recounted it to you, when they sensed you might be trying to elicit a narrative of victimization from them?  Is it really fair to draw such definitive conclusions about this incident based on your eyewitness observation from a distance, and then subsequent interviewing of one side only?  I’m just wondering, from the point of view of making an argumentative claim, how you can draw such a definitive conclusion based on the available evidence.

  • sahra

    Hi Roger,

    I did actually email the police first thing this morning and am waiting for an answer, so I’ll let people know as soon as I do. Thanks for your thoughtful questions. You’re not wrong to ask–and it is good to raise those questions. But I also think I get where your questions are coming from and I think it is the place of having a very hard time believing that people just get stopped for no reason on a regular basis. That sort of thing/profiling would never even occur to you, I know that, and it is hard to believe that it happens and that a) it happens without provocation and b) nobody says or does anything about it. Making people understand how common it is is part of what makes dialogue on race and class so hard… these kids don’t always tell their parents if it happens (they don’t want their parents to be upset or keep them indoors) and they obviously aren’t going to complain to the police, because the police have just shown them that the are not on their side. One of the African American students we had come through the Writing Center tried complaining when he was pulled over for no reason. The cop smashed out his taillight and told him he had a broken taillight and that that’s why he was stopped. Who is going to believe that? It seems impossible, but it happens.

    What these kids told me seemed to be very consistent with everything I saw and could hear (which was snippets, not the whole thing), including the waiting for friends thing, as the friends showed up soon after. The cops really didn’t engage them in conversation at any point–even at the outset of their encounter. The cops even hopped back in their car while the boys were still standing with their backs to the streets with legs spread, seemingly having no more interest in the boys. But these kids have had it happen so many times, they told me that, while it was frustrating and tiring, it was “normal.” And, unfortunately, that account it pretty consistent with everything that I’ve heard from the teens that I’ve been working with for years in a number of parts of the city…

    I think the important thing to think about here is that it is very likely that what the police did here was unlawful. If the police were to randomly stop white people in Silverlake, announce that they were looking for weapons, reach their hands inside people’s pants and yank their pockets inside-out… i can only imagine the lawsuits. If the cops even got that far–I’m guessing most folks would rightly demand that their rights be
    respected and that there be probable cause or a warrant before they submitted to a search. The problem is when it happens to kids starting this young, they don’t know enough to know they have rights. And then when they do, they just assume they don’t matter because their rights haven’t been respected in the past. And they know that if they complain,they won’t be believed…because they have a record of being stopped in the past, even if it was for nothing. It isn’t the police doing it because they are police and police are evil…They aren’t (My sister’s a cop–i have no interest in unnecessarily vilifying cops). It is because some of these things are institutionalized and part of the culture of how a community is dealt with. It can lead to abuses of power, like I saw yesterday. Which leads many youth to feel that no matter what they do, they will always be treated poorly, and so they begin to live up to the reputations they are thought to have. There’s almost a pervasive feeling of resignation in some communities that that’s just the way things are. That’s one of the many things that makes it hard to talk about and to deal with–how do you begin to unravel that and build trust between police and communities where there never was any to begin with? I think it is probably more important to talk about THAT than anything else…

  • NYPD has been doing this for years. Its disgusting that they havent been sued into bankruptcy. 

  • Jake Wegmann


    @ Sahra,

    I think that this series of pieces you’ve been writing is fantastic. Kudos to you, and kudos to Streetsblog LA for supporting them. We desperately need these kinds of perspectives in the livable streets movement. As you observe, a street is not very livable for a person who might be subject to a stop-and-frisk or worse solely based on his (it’s usually, though not always, a young man or teenager) appearance on any given day. Something that would be a searing experience for someone like me (who would never have something like this happen to me, because of my skin color) is just something to be expected for a young black or Latino man.

    Fellow Americans, we just have GOT to put a stop to this sort of thing. My fellow liberals need to realize that the prison-industrial complex (and the stop-and-search War on Drugs policing tactics that feed it) is arguably an even more urgent issue for communities of color than, say, affirmative action. Conservatives need to take their own rhetoric about tyrannical governmental authority seriously enough to apply it not just to aggrieved middle aged white males, but to the people in our society who feel it the most on a daily basis — the likes of these three young men described in this article.

    @ Roger A., your questions show that you are a thoughtful person and open to reason and discussion. I would strongly suggest that you read “The New Jim Crow” by Ohio State legal scholar Michelle Alexander. I just finished it and wow, did it ever open my eyes. As a white male (which I’m guessing you are too), even as one who considers myself very politically progressive, I just wasn’t fully open to that set of argumentation until the author spelled it out for me. There just is no way to refute her logic.


  • Roger A

    Hi Sahra,
    I’m glad you’re going to follow up with the police about this incident. (I’m wondering if the LAPD actually has resources to field third-party inquiries like this, investigate, respond…  How easy is it to get answers from the police? It will be interesting to see what kind of response you get.)  And thank you for your thoughtful reply to my earlier comment.  I still think you are making a big leap in reaching the conclusion that you witnessed a “clear incident of profiling.”  I’m willing to concede that it is a possibility that profiling occurred (because I don’t really know – and neither do you), but you make the leap from “possibility” to “likelihood” (as in “it is very likely that what the police did here was unlawful”) in a way that I don’t really think is supported by any direct evidence in this case, especially considering that you had/have no knowledge (yet) regarding the police’s motivation for their actions.  I know you don’t want to unnecessarily vilify police officers, but I think to some extent, that is what you’re doing – basing your interpretation of the event on a presumption of (the officers’) guilt of racial profiling.  Can you admit that it is possible that the police were entirely justified in their action here?  Is it possible that they had some legitimate motivation for momentarily detaining these boys and searching their pockets (and then immediately releasing them when they turned up clean)?  Is it possible that their actions were something other than “disgusting”?
    My point is that it is certainly not “clear” at this point that this was a case of racial profiling – it’s a possibility at best, and it doesn’t follow that everything that is possible is also probable or “likely.”  I guess I just don’t feel you are making an effort at objectivity in your interpretation of the incident and for me that undermines the strength of your claim in your essay.  Maybe I’m bringing some kind of expectation to the table about what these essays/entries/blogs are or what they should be (objective journalism, or opinion/editorial, or a call to action from a community activist… all of the above…)  I certainly am enjoying reading them and appreciate the opportunity to share my opinion about this particular incident, and your analysis of it, here in the comments section.
    Thanks, Sahra!
    Roger A

  • sahra

    Hi Roger,

    I actually changed the language at to reflect the question of how clear a case of profiling it was, so I thank you for that. That said, I do believe it was a case of profiling Latino youth, but as I noted, the officers were also Latino. It’s complex, and more about the relationship between the community and the police and the fact that that relationship is one of antagonism rather than mutual respect.

    I spent a long time on the phone with an officer in the NELA area this morning, talking about the incident and my concerns about it, namely that those kids consider this to be “normal.” He said it was impossible to say without speaking with the specific officers about that incident, but offered up possibilities “well, maybe they fit the description of kids involved in an incident.” or “Maybe they were known to the police.” and that “Police officers often check pockets for their own safety and usually ask if the person will allow them to do that.” The problems with all of these answers is, there are few Latino boys in the area that don’t fit the description of these kids… most wear grey, black and white, long tees and hoodies, and have dark hair. So, it is an easy way to justify looking at everyone as a potential suspect. And whether or not they were known to the police, that doesn’t mean that they can just be stopped at random. Moreover, sometimes these stops are ways that help the police make a community legible. Stopping kids and running their information means helps them figure out who is who in the neighborhood — regardless if the kids are causing trouble or not. Finally, if they were just checking the kids for the officers’ safety (which I actually think is a very valid concern, as a general rule), why make them hold that position the entire time? The kids were clean, something that became obvious right away. So, why not let them at least turn around and relax so that they didn’t look like such criminals to everyone else?

    The officer and I talked about the limited resources that they do have to police a community and so, to a degree, I can completely understand that they don’t have the time to just walk the beat and chat kids up and make nice with the community… They just don’t have the resources. Plus, they are called into the community when bad things have happened, so they are always seeing the worst side of humanity. And a side of humanity that is also not usually happy to see them and sometimes considers them the enemy. It is completely understandable that they might always see the negative — and that that shapes their approach to policing. But at the same time, the idea that some kids in a community should grow up thinking that it is “normal” to be stopped and that it is “normal” that they cannot assert their rights is something that is deeply troubling, and something I tried to communicate here and to the officer. That, for me, is the number one takeaway. That for some groups within the city, this is their normal. 

    These kids were 15. They said it would be “cool” if I wrote about it because it was something that happened so much and they thought people should know. When I asked if they knew other kids I could talk to that had been stopped, they looked at each other and laughed and said “too many” and “everybody.” When their group of friends came up and I made a joke about them having just been frisked, nobody batted an eye. Nobody looked surprised. Nobody even asked, “really, why?” or “what happened?” They just nodded. That blows me away… Look at the way people react going through the TSA at the airport –all the outrage and the claims of invasion of privacy and about being treated as criminals and about how humiliating it is… and here not one of these kids was fazed by this incident in the least. That told me an awful lot about just how regularly it occurs for them.

    thanks again!

  • Two things.

    First, every person in America should know their rights:

    Knowing your rights does not necessarily stop these things from happening, but doing the right thing during encounters means you have a better chance at redress later on if something improper does occur.


  • Shell

    wow…wow…what is this world coming 2???? we blame police officers for everything? they keep us safe

  • What’s funny is that the constitution gives you all the tools you need to escape conviction in many cases. Most of this revolves around the 5th amendment but also the 4th amendment. There are several key phrases one must have hardwired in their brains. “Am I being detained officer or I am free to go?” and “Officer, I do not consent to a search.” This may not keep you from being arrested or illegally searched or even prevent you from getting your head bashed in in some cases, but it will help you later in court.

    When arrested, people start blabbing as if it’s going out of style. Never, ever say anything after you’re arrested except to make requests for an attorney. You see these morons who could escape convictions if they just shut the fuck up. 

    The constitution is designed in such a way to try to prevent innocent people from being convicted that it allows for a lot of guilty people to get away, yet they don’t know their constitutional rights. If criminals knew the constitution by heart, we’d have a lot more crime, I think.

  • sahra

    I know someone who was first frisked for weapons in fourth grade. Another young man remembers students regularly being frisked when he was a kid at Berendo Middle School. I think very few people would want their child to be taught that that was acceptable or normal or want their child labelled as “suspicious” at such an early age (or any age)… I’m not “blaming police officers for everything” but asking questions about tactics used and whether they are more harmful than helpful, and what their implications are for people’s connection to their community

  • Geronimo

    This article looks like it was written in a vacuum.  How about asking the police to explain what it is they are doing?  Maybe that would give you some insight into the situation?

  • Shell

    i agree with you 110 percent Geronimo. I live in Highland park and I see the people that officers encounter, they deal with kids that have no respect for the law. This is article is not fair to the officers. I have dealt with northeast officers and they have been respectful at all times. like I metioned I live in highland park and its sad to say that I hear gun shots daily, so im glad to know the officers are checking for weapons.

  • sahra

    Hi @98c783bb020a97e70f366f35f43eafd2:disqus and @dc4028b23f864d57d0c042f507821630:disqus , I did spend quite a bit of time on the phone with officers about this incident, talking about this kind of thing in general and why it happens (that is explained below in a reply to Roger), and am still trying to get in touch with someone who knows more about what happened specifically that day. I have family who are law enforcement and do not have any interest in vilifying police, as I have mentioned in other comments below.

    I do not understand why it is that people are so willing to assume these kids are criminals. Just because you hear gunshots doesn’t mean that these kids were responsible and should have their rights violated so that you can feel better. I’ve worked with teens like these kids for several years and they don’t understand why people have a hard time believing that profiling happens. In response to this article, one said it was kind of an “every day thing” and that he’s been stopped regularly for weapons checks as well as “for being brown” (his words).  Another asked how others would feel if it was their innocent kids who were always being stopped and was angry that people just were so ready to assume that they were guilty of something.

    What I do think is interesting, though, is that your concerns prove the larger point, which is that these kinds of stops are highly effective in making people believe that kids like these are suspect–that they are capable of doing something and that they probably will do something bad if they haven’t already… making the divide deeper between the older and newer resident populations. Even I’ve been stopped in certain areas of town by police on several
    occasions, either to tell me I shouldn’t be there because it was a “bad”
    area or because they thought I didn’t look like I belonged there
    (insinuating that perhaps I was there to buy drugs or engage in some
    other unlawful activity). Well-intentioned efforts at keeping order often have the unfortunate effect of reinforcing divisions and stereotypes. Clearly, it worked in this case… people seem very reluctant to believe that these kids weren’t doing anything wrong. 


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