Let Me Tell You About Oakland

Oakland.  This is my city.  Really.  I own a home here.  I pay my property taxes here.  I have come to see the parts of my life spent in Tampa and South Florida as just “training wheels” for this city.  In a lot of ways, it’s where I’ve been practicing to live.  It is, culturally, my city.  There’s no doubt about it.  In the East Bay, people just do everything harder.  If Detroit and San Francisco had a lovechild, it’d come out like Oakland, and it’d be every bit the angry, ignored punk that Oakland is.

We have, of course, recently made news over our Occupy Oakland commune, which I have gladly supported for a mixture of reasons.  The latest headline is the shooting which happened near a BART station entrance just outside the camp.  The police investigation will, ultimately, get to the how and why of it, and hopefully it will yield a suspect.  I’m not interested in having the speculative back-and-forth about Occupy Oakland’s role in the shooting.  It wouldn’t surprise me if both the shooter and the victim had spent a few nights in the camp, though.  More on that in a second.

What I really want to impress, however, is how this is the sad normalcy for Oakland.  The shooting was homicide #101 for the year.  If you do the math, that’s nearly 10 homicides per month (we’ve fallen behind the average in November).  I had hoped to use a Crimespotting map to show you the year’s homicides, but it looks like their system has a hard time mapping a whole year.  Instead, I’d like to show you the map of homicides, aggravated assaults, and narcotics arrests for September 2011.  I added narcotics not because I have a moral objection to drugs but because, like it or not, the illicit drug trade does tend to provide a geographic anchor for other forms of crime, both as a function of the trade “defending its turf” and as a function of the desperation and out-of-control behavior that drug abuse and addiction bring with them.  Just for the heck of it, I cooked up this map for San Francisco for the same month.  Kindly note that I actually had to add violent robberies to the map just to put enough red dots on the map to show the geographic overlap easy.  The difference in violence between Oakland and San Francisco is enough that I added more crimes to San Francisco’s map just to help show the point.

You might also rightly note that violent crime in Oakland seems to not geographically cluster in Oakland like it does in San Francisco.  You’d be right.  Note that narcotics in Oakland don’t really geographically cluster, either.  Rather, drug crime and violent crime in Oakland are basically kept in check in the Temescal district, the Rockridge district and various affluent areas in the hills outlying.  The rest of Oakland, however, has been, essentially, ceded.  It’s a nice, even distribution of dope and violence, mostly in the slightly denser regions of the city.  East and West Oakland get it worst, but essentially, outside of Temescal, Rockridge and the hills, it’s everywhere.  This is very, very different from San Francisco, where there’s a hub of trouble…the typical “bad part of town.”

This underscores the experience of most Oaklanders I know.  For the record, I live in the San Pablo/Golden Gate district, not quite in “Oakland proper” but not quite in Rockridge or Temescal.  You might consider it a “frontier” zone into the more peaceful and affluent areas.  Since moving here in March, there have been three reported shootings in my immediate neighborhood, including one brutal homicide.  The neighborhood association email list is frequently used for discussion of local gunfire.  Every week, one of us directly sees a violent crime of some form.  Extended conversations have taken place regarding how to take action on our rash of burglary, which the Oakland Police Department are powerless to handle.  We all know which parts of which blocks are the rough ones, and 50 yards is often all that separates your peaceful home from a violent one.  We’ve even considered trying to pay for private security patrols.  There is a single emotional current that underscores the mix of paranoia and dejection I see in my neighbors — deep down, we all sincerely believe that nobody is capable of keeping our streets safe.

Keep in mind that I am describing the experiences of people living in a residential neighborhood in a relatively peaceful part of the city.  I’m not describing life in the more universally working class areas of West and East Oakland.  I’m also getting to enjoy this reportage from the vantage point of being pretty white and pretty privileged.  I recently heard, at a City Council meeting, that young African American men in Oakland have chance of meeting a violent death comparable to a US soldier on tour in Afghanistan.  Any conversation about race in Oakland can’t fit inside a blog post, but I still want to acknowledge the reality and drive home the point that I am, in fact, speaking from a much nicer position than a lot of people in Oakland.

This brings around my ultimate feelings about the recent shooting.  That someone was shot and killed in downtown draws no shock from me.  It’s tragic.  They’re all tragic.  There was a homicide in East Oakland that same week, and that was tragic, too.  The only thing that seems to make it feel noteworthy is that it didn’t happen a little closer to the 19th St BART station, because that’s a bit more of a hotspot for dealing and violence.  And, at that, only a bit.

If the victim and shooter were both found to have made use of the facilities at the Occupy Oakland camp, I also wouldn’t be surprised.  Why?  My experience, having visited the camp several times, is that a strong nucleus of the camp’s community is comprised of the city’s homeless.  Occupy Oakland is offering them something better than the lives they were living…there’s hot food, a bit of a home for yourself, and a chance to participate in a democracy.  So, they cling to it rather than to ongoing homelessness or the city’s taxed shelter system.  With the homeless come the social problems surrounding homelessness, and drug abuse and violence are definitely on that list.  The camp is a permeable community…people come and go from it all the time.  The question of violence among the city’s marginalized, particularly when there’s no strong geographic trends in our violent crime, was just one of time.

At best, you can call this a result of Occupy Oakland and not the fault of Occupy Oakland.  The fact is that this crime would have been considered second-rate news otherwise.  Like I said…few can name the other murder victim from that week.  How about the 100 who died already this year?  But, finally, the background noise of crime in Oakland is happening somewhere where we all have to talk about it.

This, ultimately, is why I continue my support for Occupy Oakland.  I have no illusions that the commune in downtown will somehow cause an important national revolution.  I am not even sure the Occupy movement is a vehicle for action, though it is certainly a vehicle for bringing light to grievances.  I don’t really even know that anything can be done at the city level to address the core complaints of the Occupy movement.  I’m no longer an earnest twenty-something, and I am not going to quickly buy big ideas about changing the world.

Occupy Oakland is doing something important in Oakland anyway.  It’s being a powerful irritant.  Oakland is a city with very long-lived and deep-seated social problems.  We have a city government with no good ideas about how to improve the city, so they instead turn to the old saw of courting industry to move in and “make jobs” (which hostages them to private interests).  We have a mayor who, like many mayors before, can’t pick a direction and take it.  Our redevelopment efforts drank the mid-2000s Kool-Aid and promptly died in the financial crash, making our downtown eerily empty and filled with a background static of crime and homelessness.  We have a police department who have so thoroughly alienated the public that they are seen a necessary evil…like a bully you bribe for protection.  Worst of all, though, is that Oakland carries with it a spirit of desperation…of wanting to hold on and hope…that creates a culture of deferring our real problems.  As long as the homelessness and crime stays scattered enough that it can be put out-of-mind for another day/week/year, then maybe, this time, business as usual will work.

This is where Occupy Oakland has created the biggest irritation.  They have, simply by existing, forced a public conversation about Oakland’s problems, including the institutional tendency to kick the can down the road.  Because of the homeless population in the camp, attempts at dispersing it, unless completely brutal, will only be a temporary measure that will, at best, move the camp to some nearby location.  Occupy Oakland has likewise demonstrated its ability to execute a significant public action if it wants to and thus shows the risks of angering the Oakland public.  This makes brutal police tactics a very costly thing, and I believe this makes the camp incredibly difficult to move.    Because the city chose to lead with a violent police action, Occupy Oakland no longer trusts the city (and why should they), making any potential negotiation nearly impossible.

This, ultimately, makes it difficult to just sweep everything on the rug and get back to business as usual.  I have no doubt that the camp is hurting the incomes of a number of businesses downtown, which is pushing them to demand the city council take action against the camp.  The city council has a genie that’s very difficult to put back in its bottle, and while this plays out, everyone in Oakland, from those who blame the camp to those who support the came, has something to complain about.  What they’re all complaining about is, essentially, the same thing– that our city is too weak to deal with the problems that make Occupy Oakland manifest in the first place, and nobody knows how to fix it.  As long as the camps exist, they require that we, as a city, address our real problems.

Ultimately, this is why I have supported Occupy Oakland, mostly through material donations and through volunteering a little bit of my time.  It’s not to advance broad economic justice (though that’s important to me).  It’s because I live in Oakland, I see the problems with Oakland, and I demand that they be considered as real problems and not just something to defer while the city council lures in some jobs with a tax break.  We can’t just consider our unemployment, homelessness, and crime to be things that are fixed by some gentrification downtown (even if this has been the pet project of multiple administrations).  Oakland has a 16% unemployment rate.  Bringing in some commercial real estate deals doesn’t fix that.  It also doesn’t fix the police’s estrangement from the community, the crime problem, or the racial animosities that simmer beneath the surface.

And, for the record, I don’t personally have amazing solutions to this problem.  I live in a representative democracy, where we hire people to solve the problems.  What I want is that my hired officials actually admit the real problem and lead the public process to addressing it.  Occupy Oakland’s existence keeps the chips on the table.  That’s why I want it there.

Police beatdown or peaceful community growth, nobody does it like the East Bay.  All in.