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Facebook Executive Draws Attention To Brother's Death After Police Encounter

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In recent years, the public has gotten more and more concerned about deaths of citizens, particularly unarmed citizens, during police encounters. In a few minutes, we're going to hear from a Texas lawmaker who's trying to address this by requiring that high school students take instruction on how to behave during a police traffic stop. But first, we want to tell you about another police encounter earlier this month that ended in tragedy. On October 3, according to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, Chinedu Okobi was observed walking in and out of traffic on a busy street in Millbrae, Calif., when police stopped him. According to the police account, he allegedly assaulted the deputy, and then he was tasered several times. Mr. Okobi later died at a hospital.

And it might have ended there without much public attention but for the fact that his sister, Ebele Okobi, is Facebook's public policy director for Africa, and she and her colleagues have been drawing attention to the story. And she's with us now from London. Ms. Okobi, thank you so much for joining us. And I'm very sorry for your loss.

EBELE OKOBI: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now, I have to ask, do you think that race was a part of this encounter, that this was - there's a racial aspect to this?

OKOBI: It absolutely was. I mean, even in the original descriptions of my brother is that he's 6'3", he's 330 pounds. It fits the general reporting on these kinds of things when you're talking about people of color, in particular black men. I think that it has been shown that police officers are able to arrest even armed white men, even white men who have killed. I mean, I think the classic example is Dylann Roof, who murdered - who went into a church and murdered people, and yet the officers managed to arrest him without harming him. It's pretty clear if you look at statistics of arrests for black men, in particular, versus arrests for white men that there's a clear racial disparity.

MARTIN: You noted, though, that he had been described as 6'3" and 300 pounds. Those are factual details, though, aren't they? I mean, if you were describing someone, wouldn't you describe those things?

OKOBI: You might not. So, for example, you know how tall Dylann Roof is? Do you know how much he weighs? That was never mentioned. Often, there are markers that designate black people as others, so as beastly, as savage, as intimidating, as particularly threatening.

MARTIN: It's been reported that your brother struggled with some mental health issues. Is that accurate?

OKOBI: Yes, that's absolutely accurate.

MARTIN: Do you think that that is a factor as well? I mean, it's been reported and that there is also data to support the fact that people who have mental health difficulties are often disproportionately harmed by police, or they are often disproportionately the target of police encounters, in part because police - people call the police to deal with them in ways that they are not willing to. Do you think that his mental health issues were a factor in this as well?

OKOBI: Absolutely. And I think here you see the impact of intersectionality. So he is at the intersection of being a person of color, a black man, and the intersection of having a mental health disability. And I think statistics - and I think I know statistics show that encounters between police and people with mental illness tend to go poorly regardless of race, but they are worse if the person is a black man. So I definitely think mental health has something to do with it. And I think there's a huge question about what policy should be when you're dealing with someone who's clearly in a mental health crisis. It's clear that they shouldn't be the same as when you're dealing with someone who has just committed a crime or someone who is clearly violent.

MARTIN: I noted that you work for Facebook as the public policy director for Africa. And I think one of the reasons that this has come to the fore is that Silicon Valley is often seen as sort of a bubble. And I wonder how the tech community has responded to this.

OKOBI: Whenever you have areas where privilege and power intersect in the United States, they do tend to be bubbles, and they do tend to be bubbles that aren't as connected to issues of poverty, that aren't as connected to issues of mental health and certainly aren't connected issues of race. In terms of how people reacted, I have been overwhelmed with support. Even the fact that I have the opportunity to talk about our story and tell our story is a direct result of colleagues at Facebook who thought this was an important story and who shouted above the rooftops this is a story that needed to be told.

MARTIN: That's Ebele Okobi. She's the sister of Chinedu Okobi, who died earlier this month after being tased by the San Mateo County sheriff's deputy. She's the public policy director of Africa at Facebook. And we reached her in London. Thank you so much for talking with us. And our sympathies to your family once again.

OKOBI: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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