Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

On the Zimmerman verdict and a personal encounter in Florida

By Gibor Basri

Some of you know me as a professor of astrophysics, and more of you know me as UC Berkeley's Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion. Since my photo goes with the blog, you also know that I'm older (over 60) with short grey hair, and black. I am motivated to share this story with you because of my strong reaction to the Trayvon Martin verdict. You will understand why if you read on.

I was invited this past February to deliver a public astronomy lecture at a university in Florida. The next morning was free, so I decided to go to Delray Beach. While driving my rental car along highway 1A, my wife called my cell phone. Being in no hurry, and given the busy beach traffic and many pedestrians, I elected to take the call while parked. I pulled one block off the highway into the adjoining neighborhood.

I’d been speaking for about 2 minutes when two men came out of the house I was parked in front of. They tapped on my window, and when I opened it they informed me that "This is our neighborhood." I remarked that was pretty obvious, but its relevance puzzled me (although I was pretty sure already what it was). They then asked me what I was doing there, and I explained my reason for parking to talk to my wife. They said I should move on. I noted that was my plan as soon as the call was finished. They went back into the house.

As I pulled from the curb about five minutes later, a police car appeared behind me and pulled me over. After the usual checks he let me go, saying that he was sorry for the inconvenience but there had been squatters in the neighborhood and someone called about me. I asked him if I looked like a squatter, and he admitted that was not the case.

This took place a few months after the Trayvon Martin killing. I can’t imagine an explanation for this incident other than extraordinarily simplistic racial profiling by the white "neighbors."

Now I'm supposed to swallow the proposition that if they had opened my car door in a threatening manner, and I knocked one of them to the pavement, that they should be free to shoot me dead without legal sanction. In retrospect the possibility of  conflict was real enough. Is this the society we (want to) live in? It wouldn’t make sense under any configuration of race, age, or gender - of the neighbors or me. But I would assert it is particularly corrosive given the history of treatment of black males in this country, and also much more likely to happen in the particular configuration I experienced.

I'm quite certain that many members of the campus community have experienced similar incidents or far worse (in many locales), and that wasn't remotely my first experience being profiled. I hope a way is still found to hold Zimmerman accountable, and more strongly, that our society will continue its path towards a more sensible world.