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News + PoliticsMediaReparations task force member speaks out—about some very bad press coverage

Reparations task force member speaks out—about some very bad press coverage

Nikcole Cunningham describes how her comments were taken out of context to create a warped and dangerous media narrative.

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The San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee did exactly what it was asked to do: The task force presented a plan for addressing the historical record of slavery and racism in San Francisco and proposing was to right the wrongs.

It got an awful lot of bad press.

One of the people who came under media attack is member Nikcole Cunningham, who was the victim of what I can only call ambush journalism. A reporter from The Telegraph in the UK came to SF to talk to her, spent a day with her, and came up with this. Hot Off the Presses: San Francisco reparations advocate says white men are dangerous!

Image from video by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

Naturally, the line got picked up by other tabloids, including the New York Post, and Fox News.

It’s a case study not only in how the news gets mangled and people with good intentions get trapped by it, but also how this sort of “news” travels quicky and creates a faulty and yes, dangerous, narrative.

We caught up with Cunningham for a detailed interview, which follows:

48HILLS Nikcole Cunningham, thank you so much for talking to me. I really appreciate it. It’s good to see you again. So you went viral and not in a way that you intended.

You’re on the reparations task force. And I will just say I think the reparations task force did a really good job with a lot of really good suggestions, only one of which seems to have gotten a lot of press. So talk to me about the reporter from the London paper and how all of this started.

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM I received the email from the reparations committee, and it had some people who this gentleman wanted to meet with. And first I felt honored, like, oh, my gosh, this person want to interview me specifically because of my seat six as having a lawsuit against my employer for being discriminated against.

So I felt really honored. And we corresponded. And he wanted to see my lived experience. He wanted to come to a Juneteenth and just see how we all interact it and things like that. It was supposed to be for a documentary.

I was just really excited, like, oh, my gosh, you’re going to get to see me in my natural element with people that I love and I relate to. With a ton of people at the Juneteenth in Bayview. And so it was wonderful.

So that’s what I thought I was being interviewed for, to share the lived experience, to talk about reparations, to talk about how I’ve been discriminating the workplace, too.

48HILLS What are some of the things you talked about?

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM I talked about why I believe that there are still policies in San Francisco, in liberal old San Francisco, that are still harmful. The fact that I’m a disabled worker and I’ve had to use my own money to fight my employer for just accommodations and how white supremacy is in the DNA of this city as well as in this country.

Because anytime you have an employee who is exemplary, I have literally my evaluations are wonderful, but yet I’m dealing with a lot of issues at my place of work. I also talked about how it would be amazing to have these, as he put, straight white men, which was his introduction, in the Senate and the House, to actually co-sign reparations, and to say that this country has harmed Black people.

And what if they actually said, throughout the states, we’re going to make this right? What would that look like? I said, but they choose to not do that. They don’t even choose to have equal rights for even white women.

So what does that look like for Black people? So things like that.

48HILLS I mean, even the “liberal” governor of California has said, oh yeah, reparations, but we’re not giving anyone any money, right?

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM And that reason is, as I said to him, too, services are okay, but we’re not going to give you money because money equals wealth and power.

And so when Black people, for whatever reason, a lot of white people believe that Black people are so negative and so bad that if we give them some wealth, they’re going to take over, and they’re going to treat us just as bad as white people has treated us and our ancestors, which that’s not true if you have listened to Black people speak.

We’re never in the place of an eye for an eye. We’re inclusive. We want to bring you in. But you have a lot of white people. The minute a Black person walks into their neighborhood, you don’t belong here.

What are you doing here? You can’t fish while you’re Black in a good neighborhood. The police are called. And the sad piece is the police come out. The police come out to address this person, to ask them, who’s doing nothing other than walking while Black, jogging while Black, listening to music while Black, cooking while Black, and whatever it is they’re doing, selling lemonade while Black.

We don’t want you here. Why do so many white people not want Black people here?

48HILLS And then, of course, there’s the whole history of redevelopment, housing discrimination, mortgage discrimination. I tell my students that when Willie Mays moved out here with the Giants in 1959, I believe 1959, probably the most famous baseball player in the world at the time, probably the best person to ever play the game, he couldn’t buy a house in San Francisco because he was Black. And that was not really all that long ago. And that whole history of redevelopment, of Black displacement, of housing discrimination, we’re still dealing with that today, right?

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM Absolutely. And think about that. Who oppressed him? Was it Black people doing that to him? Or was that white people? We’re going to redline you and not allow you in this space. You don’t have the right to walk on these same streets.

These are our streets. Well, where did they get that mentality from? Their ancestors. So when I talked about the people in the Senate and the House, they’re the grandchildren or the great grandchildren of the ones who watched our ancestors hang and burn. Like, what did they teach them? That these Black people who are only here because they want to be they’re born Black, they didn’t choose to be Black, that they’re a bad, they’re negative, they’re this, they’re that, but we have to kill them.

That is inhumane. When I said they’re standing there in their Sunday best, that’s true. There are pictures of that. And you have little children watching Black people be burned and be hung. That is insane.

And then they talk about, we’re criminals, we’re bad, we’re doing this and doing that. When I talked about mass shootings, oh, my God. I told that man I would never want to be the mother of a child who literally took a gun that I gave him at 18 and killed his friends.

48HILLS And you mentioned in the interview that most of these serial killers are white guys. Yes, they are.

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM I watch these shows. I watch real documentaries, Dateline stuff that I can Google and read for myself.

So I didn’t make this up. I’m not watching, like, Law and Order and speaking about this. I’m watching real documentaries. To have Jeffrey Dahmer move into a Black neighborhood, which no one had a problem with, and then he decides he wants to kill Black men, rape and kill Black men and eat them, that is demonic.

48HILLS So all of these things that you’re saying are true. I don’t think any reasonable person would argue that racism and white supremacy is baked into the DNA of this country. I mean, Heather McGee, we talked about this, has written an entire book about this called The Sum of Us that really talks about the inherent white supremacy and racism baked into this country and how it has so deeply damaged everyone in this country.

You weren’t starting off talking about serial killers when you said, coincidentally, it happens to be true that most of the serial killers are white guys. So after you finished the interview, what were you thinking was going to happen?

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM I thought it was a successful interview. I thought everything was fine. I thought he had footage from people who I talked to who were talking about doulas and just the community.

I had no idea there was going to be an article that was going to be literally taking things completely out of context, not using several examples that I gave to him, which talked about why reparations is owed to Black people, the fact that I work for the City and County of San Francisco.

We have the lowest number of Black employees yet, the highest ones disciplined. I mean, literally, I have a lawsuit against them because of things that they have done to me.

It’s a supervisor, it’s their supervisors, it’s the EEO, it’s the DHR. I’m in the Civil Service Commission. So this is baked into the DNA of San Francisco. It’s insane.

48HILLS In fact, I just got on Friday data from the Police Commission that shows that the percentage of Black people who are stopped and arrested in San Francisco is about four times the rate of white people, and it’s also about five times the rate of their population in the city.

And that’s now—that’s 2022 data. So this is still very, very real for you today.

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM Absolutely. I used to have a car that had hot pink rims, and 90 percent of the time when police were behind me, they would slow down as I knew they were running my license plate.

How dare this Black woman have hot pink rims? She must be selling drugs. And after they pull up my record, they would always taper off. Never have I been stopped. But you’ve ran my license plate, and I’m sure if there’s a history of that, you will see just how many times you ran it when I didn’t even know.

But to say that you have police officers, Black, white, and everybody in between that has this blue cold. And throughout, it’s not like in a city, only San Francisco, only this place. You got to see the hostile, their hostile acts toward Black people.

How do you take a Black woman and slam her to the ground and say, oh, sorry, wrong house. And the fact that you can literally lie as a police officer on police reports, you can go to the court office and lie, and you can take someone’s life away for 18 and 25 years because they didn’t have the money to hire a good attorney.

And then the person sues, and they get some money. You just ripped away a person, Black, female or male, for many, many years because you are the authority figure. And so this type of hostile ability and response to Black people is always, we don’t want you here any way we can.

If we can kill you, we’re going to do that. If we can put you in jail, we’re going to do that. If we’re going to lie on you. And everyone believes the police. Like all these statistics, where can you literally text racial slurs and still keep your job?

48HILLS So again, all of these things that you’re saying are true, demonstrably true. And so the interview comes out in the Telegraph, and what does it say? What are they focusing on? Oh, God. That straight white men are serial killers. That white supremacy is in the DNA of this country.

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM He asked the question about straight white men because I was talking about Black men. So he decided to ask the question of, well, when I mentioned straight white men, what comes to mind?

So he had an agenda from when when he first came out here, when he emailed the reparations task force, he absolutely had an agenda. And I’m sure he probably read part of my case to see that. I’m going to be very direct.

I’m going to come with exactly how I feel. I’m not going to taper and say what’s politically correct. I’m going to say what’s true. These things are true here. Even in San Francisco, you can’t say it’s not, why are we the lowest numbers?

But we have the highest we’re pulled over. We have the highest rates of discipline. You have several lawsuits. Millions of dollars are being paid out to people for discrimination over years.

48HILLS And so the story comes out, and it’s not about the case for reparations. It’s not about any of the things that you talked about. It’s they just take one sentence out of context and say, reparations task force members says white men are serial killers and a menace to society. Right? So then that gets picked up by the New York Post, the Daily Mail, Fox News, Yahoo News. Suddenly this is all over. Nikcole Cunningham says white men are a menace to society. And that’s the entire story.

And the story doesn’t talk about all the things that you’ve talked about. Here’s the case for reparations.

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM And he asked me the question of do I feel that white people should be the one who pays for reparations?

And I said no, clearly. I literally said no. I don’t believe I should go over to white people and say you need to pay for reparations or a white family. What I said is, there are ways to get that money, like using, what is it, PG&E, the Internet, things like that.

I said that he heard that, but he decided, oh, let’s use this narrative from this Hoover Institute right before she says the vast majority is coming from PG&E and that white people need to pay for that.

I’ve never said that.

48HILLS In fact, we could cover reparations for every black person in the United States with just a modest tax on Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk. Come on now. Talk about three white men. Even a modest tax on great wealth would more than cover the cost of reparations. So this story comes out, and now all of a sudden you’re the target, and it’s all about, oh, this woman from the Reparations Task Force thinks that all white men are menace to society.  How does that make you feel? How does it feel to be the victim of what I call ambush journalism?

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM That’s a really good name one. I’m glad to be off social media. So I don’t know if this is. Like, all over the place, but to read the articles, I was really pissed off.

But I was actually really disappointed that the intention to come out here to talk about reparations was really malice and it was really to try to set his own agenda. It’s very hurtful because I’m a believer in telling the whole story.

So don’t just tell parts of the stories to get your agenda across. Tell the whole story, what I talked about, and any reasonable white person who believe in fairness, because most white people will never, ever decide to change if they could change roles with a Black person.

And the fact that you can say, I would never want to be BHlack means you understand that there is a huge difference that you don’t want to experience. And I talked about a woman who had a five-year-old child, and she says, I don’t really want my child learning as white woman

 about how bad Black people are treated. And that was her choice. As a Black mother, I don’t have that choice. To be able to share that.

I don’t want my children to know how dangerous it is just being Black, like just being Black in America, when I spoke out, which he did not use. The fact that white women can go anywhere in this country and feel protected and supported anywhere by anybody, when you see these Karens who are out of control and you have people talking to the other person about why you’re setting them off or.

They are supported. A Black woman as myself, I can’t do that. We are never hurt. Why are so many Black women dying at childbirth? Why? Because when we Black women exercise our rights for what it is that we want.

You have a medical field of people who don’t believe that you hurt. They don’t believe that you feel pain. They don’t believe in cleaning their hands. They don’t believe they don’t value you as a human being.

And so in this country, Black people are not valued as human beings. That three-fifths a person is really a mentality. And so maybe white people are not having these conversations with their kids, saying Black people are just three fifths a person, but everything that they’re teaching their child is showing that they’re not valued.

They’re nothing. They’re only here good enough to serve us.

48HILLS So the story comes out. All this is happening. It’s completely mangled. The Chronicle has not done anything about this, right. If you you’ve been in touch with The Chronicle, they haven’t done anything to correct this.

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM Correct.

48HILLS So the record is out there. Now, you Google Nicole Cunningham, and out comes all of these stories that make you look like somebody who’s a lunatic. But the point that you’re trying to make about reparations was lost in all of this. Talk about that for a minute. Just talk about how frustrating it is that you served on this task force.

You went to an awful lot of meetings. You spent a tremendous amount of time. You didn’t get paid a lot of money to do this. This was on your own time, and this was hundreds and hundreds of hours of work to produce this report.

Now, the aim of the task force was not to figure out how to pay for this.

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM Correct.

48HILLS The aim of the task force was to look at what would reparations look like.

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM Correct.

48HILLS And now it’s been thrown at you, like, how are we going to pay for all this? Well, that wasn’t your job in the first place.And you put all of this time and effort into it on your own for no money, doing this as a service to the city, and now this comes out. How does that make you feel?

NIKCOLE CUNNINGHAM Almost devastating. Because the fact that we did work hard, we’re still working hard. We’ve met with community to get their feedback, their input. We have adjusted some of the things that we were questioning or the information that we didn’t even know to ask for.

So to take all of this work that we, as a task force as well as the community, put together and just have it really he set it up to divide the country, to be honest with you, to say, these people are lunatics.

They should not do this, instead of looking at the proposals in its totality to say, wow, actually, what can I do with this article to get the word out about the injustices of Black people in this country and to not make it about the serial killers and all this stuff.

It’s really about being fair and just. And you have to be intentional to not be fair and just. A lot of Black people are not raised to go and do harm to people, whereas you have a lot of white people who you speak your opinion, we must kill her. We have to take her out. We have to eliminate her. We have to lie on him. We have to do all these things to eliminate you because you can spill over to a group of people who they think, we want to take over, we want to live in peace.

We want to have the things that we need. We don’t want to be scared to death to go to a hospital to have our child and know that out of all of these babies who are born, most of them who die or the mothers who die are Black women.

And then you people say, oh, we’re not racist. You are not listening to Black people. You’re not testing people when they’re asked to be tested. And it’s not about money. Do you know, I believe if you ask every single mother, Black mother and Black father, would they want their child here killed or died at childbirth over some money?

They want their child here. But the constant traumas, as I was talking about the mass shootings, the constant traumas that Black people deal with every day, the anxiety of having the police follow behind you.

What is it now? Right? So back to the mass shootings. Mass shootings today you have immediate mental health services at the school. Black people have been traumatized for centuries and continue to be traumatized.

So we deal with fears, anxieties, illnesses that we don’t even know has come from all the trauma that we endure directly and indirectly. And you may have a person who really feel, a white person who feels that they’re really trying to help you and they’re harming you with the type of white supremacy culture.

So if you’re not studying and this is what I really believe a lot of white people need to do is to study what this looks like and say, how do I get out of this? How do I use my privilege to get out of this situation?

I get attacked when I speak up. Why do I get attacked? Because I’m not doing the norm. The norm is for you to sit down, obey, and shut up. And I do the opposite. I say, well, where is that policy? Where is that written up?

Does that policy work for me, for everyone here? Or is it just me, right? Treated differently by people? You have to question that. I’m not part of the status quo. I’m like, Wait a minute. We all need to here’s an example.

When a new policy comes out at work and is directed towards you, but no one else gets it, right, that’s intentional, and the overtone is racism. Even though it may have been related to me and my disability.

48HILLS Well, Nikcole, thank you very much for telling this whole story to me. I think this has been very helpful, and I really appreciate it.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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