June 1, day two of San Jose’s curfew, which the city imposed to crack down on the George Floyd protests, Frank and Grey Ponciano stopped by a Burger King for a bite to eat.
While the city’s cops were arresting and citing scores of people for the crime of being outside to protest systemic racism, the husband-and-wife duo encountered racism personified in the form of a tatted-up shirtless aggressor.
The couple had just parked when the man approached their driver-side window shouting about the protests. “My problem is you people f*ckin’ hate my people,” the man can be heard saying in a video Grey later posted online.
“Oh sh*t, that’s what this is about?” Frank asks, incredulously. “I don’t know what to tell you, bro. I don’t hate you.”
“You don’t hate me?”
“I don’t. I really don’t. I really don’t.”
“Hey, you know what’s f*cked up, bro? The fact that we f*ckin’ give you everything.”
“I would disagree with that, bro,” Frank calmly replies. “I would disagree with that.”
The guy then tries to goad Frank into a fight.
“Yeah?” the man asks. “Let’s go.”
The shirtless man then moves to the front of the car, arms outstretched, shouting the whole time: “F*ck white people? Right here, bro. Let’s go, N--- let’s go. … Go ahead, run me over, mother f*cker. Run me over.”
Shouting all the while, the man slams his hands on the car hood, trying to incite a confrontation. “You motherf*ckers think you can just treat us like shit? Because we f*ckin’, supposedly we f*ckin’ killed one of you? No, f*ck that, dude. F*ck that. Get out of the f*ckin’ car bro or I’ll f*ckin’ pull you out right now. You’ve got five seconds.”
As much as it pained them, Frank and Grey decided to call the cops. The same cops whose systemic racism they'd protested the prior weekend, and the same racism they still protest and experience to date. The same ones that Frank once taught about implicit biases—how to recognize, check and ultimately overcome them. “There wasn’t much we could do and that’s terrifying,” Grey says. “We were sitting ducks.”
But summoning the cops evoked its own terror. “While I was calling the cops I couldn’t keep recording,” Grey said. “And as a person of color, as a Black woman, all I wanted to do was have video evidence because I just didn’t trust the cops at that moment, and it’s terrifying to think of bringing them into that situation.”
— Grey Ponciano (@greyponciano) June 2, 2020
The responding officers went on to arrest the angry stranger, holding him personally accountable for his racist threats. What’s weighed on Frank far more than that lone encounter, however, is the persistent failure of training, reforms and even public outrage to hold law enforcement accountable for some of the same racial animus.
An animus expressed not only by individual officers but the system as a whole, through disparate enforcement and myriad more inequities.
Like several other volunteers who worked with PACT—People Acting in Community Together—by sharing personal accounts of racial profiling with San Jose police recruits, Frank, 26, says he’s all but given up hope in fixing local law enforcement.
On Twitter, Frank described the 15 implicit bias trainings he conducted for SJPD in 2017 a “colossal waste of my f*cking time.” One of the lessons he and his PACT cohorts would teach cadets was about the “Community Bank of Trust,” in which actions that support the public are deposits and any act of force is a withdrawal.
When Frank called the cops on June 1, it was only because of an immediate physical threat—and long after that community-trust account had been overdrawn.
Derrick Sanderlin, a 27-year-old fellow PACT trainer, echoed Frank’s dismay.
“Whenever you put on a uniform—a police uniform—you’re also putting on a historical and cultural context of an entire lifetime of policing across the world,” Sanderlin explained while discussing some of the lessons he tried to impart to SJPD. “So whenever someone has a positive or negative experience with another enforcement authority, they’re carrying those images with them in their interactions with you.”
While protesting police brutality outside City Hall just a few days before Frank’s encounter with that individual aggressor, Sanderlin says he became victim of the systemic bias he’d spent so long trying to dismantle. And it came in the form of a rubber bullet, which a cop shot at his groin, potentially sterilizing him for life.
News about the assault on Sanderlin exploded in national media. That marked another withdrawal from San Jose PD’s Community Bank of Trust, an account already depleted by hundreds of rubber bullet strikes, baton swings and shots fired.
“I think it’s hard to say if it was all for nothing,” Sanderlin reflects. “I question it. I do have to question, like, ‘Is this working? Is this enough?’ But, you know, the work that we’ve done over the last three years, you know, with civilian oversight and with procedural justice training ... it’s, like, tantamount to one person trying to move a mountain with a shovel. And it’s a long process. And some people sort of feel like we’ll get nowhere. I sort of see moments like this, the protests that we’ve seen across the globe, as just like more people coming with more shovels.”
With community trust so depleted, however, Sanderlin says he has doubts about whether there’s enough faith to fund that kind of a mountain-shoveling endeavor. And he sees very little effort to shore up those savings again.
“When you watch an old woman get shot at a close range with a rubber bullet,” he says, “you sort of feel like whoever is at the other end of that riot gun doesn’t really care about the Community Bank of Trust.”