UnderCurrents: A Deja View of a Summer Beginning to Simmer

Friday June 04, 2004

2004 is nothing like 1966. 

In the summer of 1966, we gathered bottles in front of the storefronts near 82nd and East 14th and tossed them at the police cars when they rolled by. It was a year after the Watts riot, only a few months before the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the same summer as police shot demonstrators at the Bayview Community Center, and National Guard tanks rolled down the streets of San Francisco to quell the resulting disturbances. Malcolm X had been shot dead while giving a speech in a Harlem auditorium the year before, the same year civil rights demonstrators got their heads beat in trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. All through the fall of 1965 and into the winter and spring of 1966, Oakland’s black neighborhoods brooded in sullen silence, waiting to blow. The Oakland police knew it, and they dispersed any gathering of young African-Americans they came across. They padlocked the school playgrounds as if we were going to steal the rims off the backboards or the erase the basepath lines painted on the ground. They rousted us wherever they found us. We were young, and we were angry. No-one listened to us. No-one spoke up for us. And so, in the summer of 1966, we gathered bottles in front of the storefronts near 82nd and East 14th and tossed them at police cars when they rolled by. We roamed the neighborhood, looking for something to tear up. Someone tried to set fire to the paint factory two doors from our house. If it had caught, it would probably have taken five square blocks with it, including all of where Allen Temple now stands. It didn’t make any sense, but that wasn’t the point. Community anger doesn’t have a point. Pressure builds. Usually finds its release in music or parties or other diversions. Withers as it vents steam from hidden cracks. But sometimes, under certain circumstances, when the cracks have all been closed off and no other outlet can be found, community anger simply explodes. 

But 2004 is nothing like 1966. 

Over the fall and the winter of this past year, and into the early spring, police conducted what they called “Operation Impact” in Oakland, a project in which they flooded something they called “hot spots” with squads of outside officers—mostly California Highway Patrol officers—in what they said was an effort to clamp down on Oakland’s spiraling murder rate. “Hot spots” was a term that was never officially defined. In Oakland, it seemed to be one long stretch along International from High Street to 105th, including several neighborhoods to the east and west. The selected method of stopping Oakland’s murders was to simply pull over cars, in massive doses. Coming home late from work on nights the operation was in full swing, I once saw three cars pulled over by three separate Highway Patrol officers in a ten block stretch. Why all these cars were being pulled over, and what exactly this had to do with Oakland’s murders, we don’t exactly know. But the murder rate slowed and so, like the man in the ancient story who went outside before dawn one day and beat on a drum until the sun comes up—thereafter declaring himself to be the cause of it—Oakland deemed Operation Impact a success. 

What effect it had on all those non-murdering people who were ticketed in those sweeps, whose cars were towed, who had to stop traveling the streets for months at a time...well, we haven’t figured that one out yet, either. We haven’t even bothered to ask. 

In the spring, having tested the procedures in Oakland, the California Highway Patrol moved across the bay to take the program to the streets of San Francisco, which was having its own murderous outbreak. In early May, the Bay Guardian newspaper reported it as “an unprecedented joint San Francisco Police Department-California Highway Patrol crackdown...which would result in 857 traffic stops, 66 arrests, 520 citations, and 72 impounded vehicles. Police say no firearms were found, but three stolen vehicles were recovered. There were just six felony arrests, two for driving under the influence, and four for narcotics. The stated purpose of the operation, according to an SFPD press release put out on the first day, was ‘to control what are referred to as precursors to violent crime and gang-related activity, namely reckless driving, DUI, weapons possession, narcotics, vandalism, and loitering.’” 

“All [Operation Impact] was was ‘driving while black or brown,’” the Bay Guardian quoted a Bayview-Hunters Point leader as saying. “I think what you’ll see is a lot of people who had tickets or a broken taillight who couldn’t afford to pay them who got nailed by that—and is that really fighting crime?” 

Is it? Good question. But San Francisco, of course, is nothing like Oakland. Just like 2004 is nothing like 1966. 

Meanwhile, back in Oakland, the court-appointed police monitoring team set up in the wake of the settlement in the Delphine Allen v. City of Oakland police misconduct case (you remember that case, don’t you? it was part of the Riders scandal) released its third quarterly report on the conduct (or misconduct) of the Oakland Police Department. Under “areas of concern,” the team lists “street strip searches,” in which we learn some details as to how our police are cracking down on crime, in our name: 

“Recent citizens complaints filed with OPD and presented to the [Civilian Police Review Board] complain of searches that, if conducted as alleged, raise serious legal concerns,” the monitoring team reports. “Complaints describe searches on Oakland streets in which young men’s pants and underwear were pulled down, exposing their buttocks and genitalia to their friends, family and strangers on the street. In some instances, OPD officers donned latex gloves and performed invasive searches… In our professional experience,” the monitoring team goes on to say, “such [street strip] searches are unnecessarily humiliating and dehumanizing (sometimes intentionally) and can immediately alienate citizens and destroy community respect for its police department.” 

The “sometimes intentionally” comment concerning dehumanizing, by the way, was in the monitoring team’s report. 

One wonders how many of youngsters—cars impounded in one of the Operation Impact sweeps, humiliated on the streets by strip searches—showed up at Carijama on Monday evening, looking to get some revenge on the cops. This is not to say that the violence at this year’s festival was right, or the proper response. This is just a search for cause. And effect.  

Oakland simmers. Oakland broods. 

2004 is nothing like 1966. 

It may be worse.