The death of unarmed black men at the hands of police is not an issue often broached in the epicenter of the technology industry.
But Ebele Okobi, Facebook’s public policy director for Africa, hopes the death of her 36-year-old brother, Chinedu, can begin to change attitudes in the clubby and largely white world of Silicon Valley.
The Morehouse College graduate died earlier this month after being tased during a confrontation with sheriff’s deputies near San Francisco.
“It doesn’t matter what school you went to,” said Ebele Okobi, 44. “You can go to Harvard. You can work in tech. Every black American will tell you they live in a state of constant anxiety. Every black man will tell you they can work at Google, they can be a senior person at Facebook or Apple but when you’re driving and you’re a black man, you recognize the danger that you’re in.”
The circumstances surrounding Okobi’s death on the afternoon of October 3 remain unclear.
The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office said deputies encountered Okobi “running in and out of traffic” on a street in Millbrae, a city about 30 miles northwest of Silicon Valley.
Okobi “immediately assaulted” a deputy who got out of his vehicle, the statement said. There was a struggle with other deputies who responded.
Okobi was taken into custody and transported to a hospital, where he died. A deputy was treated for injuries at a hospital, the sheriff’s office said.
Tasers were discharged at Okobi three to four times, according to San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaff.
One or more deputies fired Tasers. It’s unclear how many times Okobi was struck, he said.
An autopsy has been completed but investigators were awaiting toxicology reports, which could take four to six weeks, Wagstaff said.
The district attorney’s office, which investigates officer involved deaths, was still interviewing witnesses and combing through surveillance footage in the area, according to Wagstaff.
“We have hit a period of great concern regarding Tasers,” said Wagstaff, adding that Okobi’s death was the county’s third since December during law enforcement encounters that involved the high-voltage stun guns.
Wagstaff said it’s still unclear if the Taser contributed to Okobi’s death.
The district attorney said his office will release video of the incident by mid-December.
Ebele Okobi, whose family has retained an attorney, said prosecutors told her there was drone video of the encounter. She said the family’s first contact with authorities was Wednesday.
Prosecutors would not tell the family whether her brother can be seen assaulting a deputy in the video, she said.
The sheriff’s office said four deputies and a sergeant were involved in the incident. Deputies in “critical incidents where a death occurs are routinely placed on paid administrative leave, pending investigation,” the office said.
“When the district attorney’s office completes an investigation of sheriff’s office staff, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office will often conduct a separate administrative investigation in regards to compliance with our policies,” the statement said.
Chinedu Okobi graduated in 2003 with a degree in business administration from Morehouse College in Atlanta.
He grew up in the San Francisco area as the youngest son of a Nigerian-American family, Ebele Okobi said.
Chinedu Okobi, who has a 12-year-old daughter, spent the last decade struggling with mental health issues and may have stopped taking medications earlier this year, according to his sister.
“He was really gentle,” Ebele Okobi recalled. “He was someone people connected to all his life. He was a kind person. He loved poetry. He recorded poetry. He recorded rap. He was also very spiritual and deeply religious.”
She marveled at the support from executives and others at Facebook.
“There definitely something insular about tech and definitely something insular about Silicon Valley,” she said.
“But my colleagues at Facebook basically organized themselves and just kept telling the story and saying, this is important. Facebook’s mission and Facebook’s power to do good in the world – that’s the reason I work there. I’ve never seen this kind of solidarity and this kind of care.”
Ebele Okobi said that as a black woman she long feared losing a loved one in a violent police encounter.
In 2014, after the birth of her son, she moved her family to London.
“I think it takes a huge amount of emotional courage to raise black children here and I knew that I didn’t have it,” she said. “I don’t have the emotional fortitude to have a black husband and a black son in America. It’s not as if I could take everyone I love with me.”
She said she hopes her brother’s death resonates in Silicon Valley’s corridors of influence and privilege.
“People who never thought this could happen to anybody they know, now know that it can,” Ebele Okobi said.
“I hope this becomes a catalyst for more informed conversations” about police encounters with unarmed black men and the mentally ill as well as the use of Tasers on suspects. “My hope is that now that more people are proximate to these problems that they do something about them.”
A memorial fund to make donations to the Equal Justice Initiative was set up in Chinedu Okobi’s name.