Faces of Berkeley: Professor Nikki Jones asks why ‘young people are still dying’ in Black neighborhoods

Sydney Chang/Staff

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Nikki Jones still remembers witnessing, as a teenager, her sister’s ex-boyfriend being arrested by the police — he was one of the guys selling nickel bags of weed on the corner.

And to this day, the image of him in the middle of the street, on his knees with his hands up and surrounded by cops, remains with her.

“I didn’t know what he had done or what happened, but I remember that as a shift in the way the police in this neighborhood had interacted with us previously,” Jones said. “And I just remember feeling like this is our friend and the ex-boyfriend of my older sister, and now he’s the target of the police.”

In recalling her childhood, Jones said she grew up on “that side of town,” an experience that politicized her around the treatment of Black communities by the police.

Now an associate professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley, Jones researches how race, gender and criminal justice shape the experiences of Black people in the United States, with a particular emphasis on the criminal justice system, policing and various forms of violence. She published one book, “Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner-City Violence,” in 2009. Recently, Jones wrapped up writing “The Chosen Ones,” an ethnographic account of how Black men with criminal histories change their lives, and their role in the neighborhood once they do. The book is slated to be published this June.

For this book, Jones conducted years of field research in the lower Fillmore neighborhood in San Francisco. She noticed the routine presence of law enforcement and how Black youth often interacted with them without social institutions as a buffer. She added that these Black youth then grew up to become targets of police surveillance, often with negative consequences.

“It struck me, the contradiction that the presence of police are called on to ensure public safety and persistent violence,” Jones said. “The police are there. They’re there all the time, but young people are still dying.”

In particular, Jones remembers one young man she writes about in the last chapter of her book, who was named on a gang injunction but ended up trying to turn his life around. He went through a period that Jones terms “half and half,” when he still sold drugs for money while attending community college to fulfill his dream of becoming a radiology technician.

One day, he returned to his former neighborhood to visit a cell phone store with a family member. While in the car, he was approached and shot in what police believe to be a homicide.

Jones was quiet for a while before she spoke.

“It was tragic when he was shot,” Jones said. “I felt that. I attended his funeral (and) spoke briefly, expressed my condolences to his family. But in some ways the book is an answer to the question, how can you have this whole apparatus that is designed to fight crime and get this young man killed? One way I work out my anger is answer how this could be.”

As a result of her research, Jones advocates for police practices used in the Richmond model, where young people are viewed not as criminals but as members of the community and treated with patience and compassion.

“What I think is at the root of it is the understanding that change takes time,” Jones said. “When you’re thinking about young people, it’s going to be marked by setbacks and successes. … If you’re punitive when they slip, you’re cutting off the opportunity to bounce back.”

As a professor at UC Berkeley today, Jones is a role model and mentor to her students. For her, the best part of teaching is helping her students process and understand their own lived experiences growing up in a Black neighborhood.

“Understanding that personal experience is a starting point for intellectual understanding, inquiry and analysis,” Jones said. “Helping students do that is really rewarding.”

Contact Katherine Yen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @k_yen14.