EDITOR’S NOTE, SEPT. 2: After this story went to press on Tuesday, Sept. 1, Tiburon town manager Greg Chanis announced in a newsletter that Sergeant Michael Blasi had resigned from the Tiburon Police Department, effective Sept. 1. “[Sgt. Blasi] believes it would be difficult to continue being effective as a police officer in Tiburon. Based on this belief, Sgt. Blasi offered, and the town has accepted, his voluntary resignation,” Chanis wrote in the newsletter. The story below appears as it did in the Sept. 2 print issue.
The store owners noticed the Tiburon police cruiser slow down as it passed their brightly lit Main Street shop a few times at about 1am on Friday, Aug. 21. When the cop parked across the street and sat in his car eyeing the store, they saw that, too.
It wasn’t unusual for owners Yema Khalif and Hawi Awash to work late at night. On this particular evening, they brought a friend to help restock inventory at Yema, a downtown Tiburon retail shop carrying colorful clothing with bold prints.
Meanwhile, the police cruiser stayed parked within view for about 15 minutes. Khalif expected the officer would eventually come to the door, though he didn’t call the police, nor did a store alarm go off.
“We were minding our business,” Khalif said. “He was intimidating us. ‘Working while Black.’”
Khalif and his wife Awash are the only Black store owners in Tiburon and are among the few Black residents in the town. The friend who was with them that night is also Black. The wealthy enclave of Tiburon is 88 percent white.
Khalif opened the door to Tiburon officer Isaac Madfes, who started off friendly enough by saying he’d never seen them open that late.
“Just doing our thing,” Khalif replied.
The response didn’t satisfy Madfes. Khalif requested a supervisor and Madfes informed him he was already on the way. While they waited, Madfes questioned Khalif, even as the store owner maintained he didn’t need to provide his name, home address or an explanation of his presence in the store.
The situation escalated when Tiburon Sergeant Michael Blasi and an unidentified Belvedere police officer arrived. The Belvedere cop kept his hand on his gun and Blasi raised his voice for about five minutes.
“You came, three of you guys,” Khalif said. “There are three Black people in the store. What’s the problem?”
Blasi denied the disproportionate police presence was about race and continued grilling Khalif about whether he was the store owner.
Khalif relented and said he owned the store. Blasi then raised the stakes by asking him to identify himself and prove he was the owner.
After more back and forth, a voice is heard from across the street:
“That’s his store.”
“What’s that?” Blasi asks.
“That’s his store,” the voice repeated.
“That’s all I needed to know,” Blasi said. “Thank you. See ya.” He turned on his heels and left.
With that, the almost 11-minute combative interrogation concluded. Now, the important questions begin.
Why was Blasi satisfied only when a white neighbor vouched for the Black store owners? His earlier denial that the encounter had nothing to do with race rings hollow.
After watching both videos, you might wonder if these three cops are the least observant in the county. Khalif and Awash are wearing the distinctive clothing they sell in their store. The officers didn’t seem to see large posters of the couple modeling their clothes, though they are displayed prominently on the walls of the store and completely visible through the windows. They are even visible in the video.
Khalif claims the officers missed something else that night: white folks working at the restaurant across the street.
Blasi’s judgment has been questioned before. During his stint at the Marin County Sheriff’s Department, he was involved in a 2003 Novato incident during which a suspect, whose arms and legs were hog-tied by deputies, lost consciousness and died at the hospital two days later after being removed from life support, according to press reports from 2006. The suspect’s crime? Public intoxication. Although Blasi and other deputies were cleared of wrongdoing, the County paid a $1 million settlement to the suspect’s family.
During a Tiburon and Belvedere online town hall meeting on Thursday, Aug. 27, to address the incident, many attendees said they believed that Khalif and Awash had been racially profiled. Several dissented, arguing that Khalif should have provided proof of his identity.
Does the public viewpoint truly matter? Can the 88 percent understand what it feels like to be among the few Black people in Tiburon? Let’s examine the situation through Khalif’s eyes.
“The store was well-lit,” Khalif said. “Driving around four times is intimidation. Calling for back-up clearly shows there was racial profiling.”
Why didn’t Khalif answer the cops’ questions?
“I wasn’t happy with that line of questioning,” Khalif said. “I don’t have to explain anything. There is no crime going on.”
Then there are his past experiences, specifically with Tiburon and Belvedere police. The Belvedere officer involved in the incident had stopped him previously and seen his identification. In fact, Khalif and his wife had been stopped several times in Tiburon for no reason at all. How often does that happen to a law-abiding White person?
“They don’t have to give me that kind of heat. I was done,” he said.
Well, he’s not done quite yet, because the brouhaha continues. Tiburon Mayor Alice Fredericks issued an apology. The official word from the Tiburon police department is that an outside, independent attorney has been hired to investigate the incident and appropriate action will be taken based on the findings. The three cops will reportedly remain on duty until then.
A well-attended rally took place at the Tiburon Police Department on Saturday, Aug. 29. to condemn the actions of the police. People from around Marin participated.
“I’m here to battle racism, particularly in Tiburon,” said rally-goer Tenisha Tate-Austin. “I grew up in Marin City and I’m hesitant to come here. I’m afraid I won’t be treated fairly.”
Speaker Holli Thier, Tiburon vice mayor, admitted the town has a problem. “How can we change?” she asked.
San Rafael Black businessman Bishlam Bullock, another speaker, had the answer. “Policy changes in your police department,” he said. “This is your town. You are responsible for the policy changes so we can come to your town and be safe.”
Khalif and Awash told the crowd they feel traumatized by the incident. For Khalif, it conjures up thoughts of George Floyd and other Black men killed by police. Awash can’t forget the cop with his hand on his gun.
“I’m a Black man,” Khalif said. “I can’t change that. I’m proud to be a Black man. I don’t want my dignity and respect questioned every time I move around.”
We’ve watched this scenario play out to different degrees around the country, although we like to think that in affluent, well-educated Marin we’re enlightened. Clearly not. Not yet, anyway.
Still, Khalif and Awash remain hopeful for the future. Khalif asks people to stand up the next time they see someone in Tiburon being harassed. In the meantime, he wants to engage in constructive dialogue.
“We will make a difference in Tiburon,” says Awash. “The community has roared. Racism is a disease. What do we do when we have a disease? We find a cure.”