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Family of unarmed Nigerian man killed by the police in US demands answers

SAN FRANCISCO – Two weeks ago, Chinedu Valentine Okobi, who had been darting in and out of traffic on a busy downtown street in Millbrae, California, went into cardiac arrest after being tackled by San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies and repeatedly tased.

The drama unfolding over the death in police custody of this 36-year-old father and Morehouse College graduate who may have been suffering a mental break is similar to other high-profile cases of unarmed black men that have gripped the nation in recent years.

Ebele Okobi, Chinedu’s sister, is demanding a probe into the police tactics used to subdue her brother in the fatal encounter. Were sheriff’s deputies trained in crisis intervention for people who are mentally ill? Why did the deputies keep zapping Okobi with Tasers rather than summoning medical help?

What’s different this time, Okobi is a prominent Facebook executive and her grief over her brother’s death is striking close to home for employees of the technology giant, where there’s been an outpouring of support from top executives including Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Okobi, 44, says she wants her younger brother’s death, which occurred just miles from her company’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, to reverberate in this place where privilege and race keep many people far removed from the everyday lives and experiences of black people.

“There’s a part of me that’s angry that this is the reality for everybody black I know and that people can live completely oblivious to that reality,” she told USA TODAY.

What happened to Okobi’s brother is still unclear. At least five deputies were involved. The sheriff’s department says when Chinedu Valentine Okobi was first approached, he “immediately assaulted” a deputy. At least two deputies fired their stun guns for a total of four discharges, according to San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, whose office is investigating Okobi’s death. The Okobi family’s attorney, John Burris, who represented the families of Mario Woods, Oscar Grant and Rodney King in civil lawsuits against police departments, says a passerby described seeing Okobi sitting on the ground, chin on his chest, appearing to be unconscious with foam around his mouth, while being propped up by the knee of one of the deputies.

Despite public scrutiny and nationwide protests over the deaths of unarmed black men in police custody, Ebele Okobi says she knows the statistics: very few officers are criminally charged and, even when a case is prosecuted, officers are rarely convicted. That has only made her more determined to bring attention to law enforcement practices, not just for her brother, but to keep this pain from being visited on other families, she says.

At the same time, she wants to raise awareness among people who’ve never had the police deaths of black people personally touch them, like many of her own colleagues at Facebook who, in the days since her brother’s death, have confided in Okobi: “I didn’t think this could happen to someone I know.”

Chinedu Okobi with his mother. Photograph: Courtesy Okobi family

“I think this has helped people who aren’t African American and who aren’t in the African American community recognize that this is something that every black person faces,” Okobi, Facebook’s director of public policy for Africa, told USA TODAY. “I definitely think within Facebook, for a lot of my friends and my colleagues, there has been this realization and this recognition that this is a significant national problem.”

In the city where Okobi’s brother was killed, less than one percent of the population is African-American. Four percent of employees are African American at Facebook which, like other big Silicon Valley tech companies, is mostly white and male and sensitivity to the Black Lives Matter movement has not always been evident. In 2016, Facebook employees crossed out “Black Lives Matter” and wrote “All Lives Matter” on the walls of the company’s Menlo Park, California, campus. Facebook investigated the racially charged incident and CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the defacing of the movement’s slogan “deeply hurtful.”

It was those kinds of racial attitudes in the U.S. that prompted Okobi to uproot her family and move to London four years ago after the birth of her son.

In the hospital, a nurse remarked: “Oh he’s got such big hands. He’s a big boy. He’s going to be a football player.”

“I remember in that moment thinking, first of all, he can’t be a pianist? He can’t play the violin? He can’t be a surgeon? It just felt like in that moment there was already a story being told about my son being big and intimidating and he was only six pounds nine ounces and he was only three days old.”

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