UnderCurrents: Rethinking Assumptions About Oakland’s Violence

Friday May 14, 2004

For a city whose fate and future is so bound up in violence, Oakland is remarkably ignorant of the nature of that beast. Oh, the street people hanging out in the ‘80s and ‘90s along International pretty much know what to do when someone is stepping around the corner to pop their trunk, and scatter well ahead of time. That is why you rarely hear of street people getting hit by stray bullets. The young folks, too, tend to know in advance when things are about to turn ugly, and why. But Oakland—official, acknowledged Oakland, anyhow—does not pay much attention to the opinions of our young people. And as for the street people, well, we do not pay any attention to them, at all. 

And so, in the aftermath of the recent, narrow defeat of Measure R (Councilmember Nancy Nadel’s violence prevention initiative), Oakland—the Oakland that we pay attention to, that is—has renewed an intense debate over the cure of the disease (should we have 80 percent police and 20 percent social programs? how much of our police force should be “community” police?), as if the cause of it had already been settled. Meantime we move forward—without much thought—in the direction that helped bring about the current problems in the first place. 

We learn—first from a Tribune column written by Brenda Payton and then from the website at www.carnaval.com/carijama/—that for fear of violence, Oakland has moved the annual Carijama Festival to Frank Ogawa Plaza, an act of civic stupidity that deserves more attention than it has been given. Not Carijama. Moving it to Ogawa Plaza. 

Every Memorial Day for two decades, Carijama was put on by a private organization at Mosswood Park, on the cusp of North and West Oakland. The festival is a blend of Oakland’s Caribbean, African, and African-American cultures, a family affair where thousands of citizens come out to barbecue, lay on blankets on the grass, dance, watch the parades and colorful stage performances, or make their purchases among the various vendor booths. The festival itself always goes off without any trouble, and why should one expect any? 

For the past two years, however, problems have occurred in the early evening hours, just as the festival was breaking up. Everyone—Carijama organizers, police representatives, and festival participants—have agreed that the troubles have emanated from young people who did not attend the festival, but were drawn to the Mosswood Park area late in the day by the large crowds. Whatever the causes—and it is interesting that, as usual, Oakland seems to have had no official investigation into the causes—the last two years have seen incidents of violence which have had to be broken up by police intervention. What kind of violence remains vague. In 2002, a friend told me she believed that everything stemmed from a fight between a couple of girls, followed by a stampede by people who rushed over to observe, and finally a panicked scattering as police rolled in to break up the crowd. In 2003, it may be that having heard from the year before that “something happens” at the end of Carijama, some folks came out late to see that “something happening,” leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s not clear.  

In any event, like the man who declares his VCR broken because it won’t turn on, we have chunked Carijama out with the trash without first checking if, perhaps, the solution to the problem might be as easy as putting the plug back in the socket. 

For some time now, we have heard three distinct pronouncements from young adult black-and-brown Oaklanders (defined, for these purposes, as Latinos and African-Americans between 16 and 24): 1) that there is little in Oakland, presently, for them to do; 2) ; that most of their attempts to gather peacefully and socially are actively discouraged by official Oakland; and 3) that the vast majority amongst them (95 percent? 98 percent?) are far more opposed to violence than anybody else, since it is they who are most likely to be its victims. These attempts at communication have been generally ignored by Oaklanders in general as we go about deciding city policy, particularly in stemming Oakland’s violent tide. 

For a time, young black-and-brown Oaklanders attempted to organize their own gatherings in vacant parking lots—in the form of what is commonly called “sideshows”—but we broke those up, criminalizing them, driving them into the street, and then driving them out of town, before ever trying to figure out if there might be something useful, there. For the longest, the youngsters begged us to help them in setting up officially sanctioned, safe-and-legal sideshows where they might show off such car-maneuvering skills as sliding and doing donuts, all the time allowing the city to profit-financially-from the exercise. We flat out ignored them and, for the time, being, they seem to have stopped asking. 

Meanwhile, flipping channels, one pauses at the Discovery Channel to find that in locations far, far from Oakland, a group of our more fair-skinned friends (some with British accents) have set up an officially sanctioned, safe-and-legal circuit where—is anyone surprised?—they charge money for people to come in and see them show off such car-maneuvering skills as sliding (they call it drifting) and doing donuts. And so what Oakland creates and then discards, others cash in on. 

Oakland moves Carijama to the sterile Frank Ogawa Plaza, removed from the community where it was born, and one hopes that this will not be its death-knell, but one is not hopeful. Even the dullest amongst us can recognize the parallels to the late, lamented shining jewel that was the Festival at the Lake, which we assassinated under similar circumstances. In our zeal to keep the violence out, we have failed to consider that perhaps this, itself—this policy of deliberate exclusion of large segments of our community—is what allows such violence to simmer. To fester. To grow. 

A rethinking of our assumptions—and then our priorities—appears, once more, to be in order.›