A Black business owner got into a heated argument with a California policeman after officers demanded he proved he had a right to be in his store after business hours.
The incident occurred around 1 a.m. on Friday at the Yema clothing store in the Northern California town of Tiburon, California, according to The Marin Independent Journal. Yema Khalif was going through inventory with his wife Hawi Awash and a friend when they noticed a Tiburon police cruiser drive by the store at least three times before it parked. After about 20 minutes, the officer approached Khalif, demanded identification and questioned why they were in the store.
Khalif spoke with the unidentified officer, whom Awash remembered as “a little bit aggressive and suspicious,” she told The Ark. The entrepreneur eventually asked to speak to the cop’s supervisor.
The officer told Khalif he already requested backup. A few minutes later, Sgt. Michael Blasi and another officer arrived. The couple’s friend began recording while Blasi and her husband were talking.
“What’s the problem? There are three Black people in the store — what’s the problem with that?” Khalif asked as Blasi walked up. Blasi brushed off the question and explained the officer approached them because they were there at an unusual time.
“This street closes at 9 o’clock at night and there’s never anybody in here,” Blasi said. “This isn’t regular business hours, there’s no customers in there. Is it your store that’s all we want to know? I want to know what you’re doing in the store at 1 o’clock in the morning.”
Blasi asked Khalif to prove he owned the store by using a key or providing identification. He refused and they kept arguing. At one point, the sergeant told Khalif he “should be grateful” the police are “diligent” about protecting the community.
“The next time I come here and there are three totally different people in here — I don’t care what color they are — three people in your store at 3 o’clock in the morning, do you want us to walk by and not do anything?” Blasi asked.
The argument continued until a neighbor yelled from his balcony that Khalif owned the store.
“Thank you very much, that’s all I need to know,” Blasi said before walking away. One of the other officers asked Khalif to put his key in the door and was rebuffed because the issue was settled.
The Ark identified the neighbor as Ken Johnson, a white man. Johnson was awakened by the commotion and decided to get involved because he feared it could take a turn for the worst.
“How they don’t know Yema is beyond me,” he said. “It looked like they were harassing him and I thought, ‘This has gone on for several minutes.’ It just felt like it was going to progress into something ugly.”
Blasi’s willingness to listen to Johnson was “the icing on the cake,” for Khalif.
“A Black man cannot be in this space in this particular hour and say, ‘I’m OK, no need to be talking to you, move along. A Black man cannot say that, but a white man can,” he said.
Police Chief Michael Cronin said the town plans to hire an independent attorney to investigate the incident. Blasi and the other officers will continue to work during the investigation.
Mayor Alice Fredericks apologized on Saturday in an email distributed to community members.
“Whatever the intention of the responding offices, the interchange inappropriately deteriorated from helpful to confrontational,” Fredericks wrote. “Tiburon police officers are trained and held to the highest standards of conduct. A key component of that training is the expectation that our officers will utilize de-escalation techniques in situations like there. It is clear that did not occur in this instance.”
The confrontation left the couple “traumatized.” Khalif is from Kenya and has been living in the town for nine years. He and Awash, who is from Ethiopia, opened their store in February.
“After it was over I was shaking,” Awash told The Marin Independent Journal. “My whole body was shaking and I could not make it stop. It was fear. It came from knowing that in one split second they could end someone’s life.”
“I could have been another statistic, I could have been another George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, but I did not take the bait,” Khalif told The Ark. “The next day when I woke up, I was like, ‘Holy s—t, what just happened?’”