Shortly after two Latino students were shot and wounded in a terrifying, daylight drive-by shooting at Oakland’s Castlemont High School, the Oakland Tribune interviewed Oakland City Councilmember Larry Reid, who had hurried to the scene.
“It’s just depressing,” Mr. Reid was quoted as saying. “I don’t know what we can do to get through to these kids. I’m tired of seeing African Americans and Latinos dying on the streets. They have no sense of value for human life. There’s too much violence and too many guns on the streets. I’m not sure what we can do about that. I don’t have an answer.”
Mr. Reid is the longtime City Councilmember from the 7th District, the most violent district in Oakland. He is also the chairperson of the Oakland City Council’s Public Safety Committee, the committee that is charged with overseeing the safety of Oakland citizens. He confesses that he does not have an answer to the most pressing public safety problem in the city.
Let us return to that thought, in a moment.
The lunchtime Castlemont shooting, in full view of many students, and leaving a bullet hole in one of the school’s office windows, suddenly puts the issue of violence in Oakland back in the public eye. And that is one of the problems.
Except for those people who live in the most violent neighborhoods, our perception of how dangerous things are in the city often has little to do with the actual facts. If you’ve witnessed some violent incident, or if some particularly disturbing incident hits the news (such as the Castlemont shootings), then the belief tends to be that violence is going up. Let a little while pass with no newspaper or television highlight of some particularly horrific event, and people tend to think about other things.
The only area where folks tend to pay attention to actual statistics is in homicides, but even here, we often look at it more like a sports event than something with devastating effects upon human beings. When homicides in Oakland rose above 100 in 2002, the public began to get seriously concerned. Throughout 2003, there was much talk in the city of whether the murder rate would once again top “triple digits,” and the news media noted each murder not only with its running total for the year, but also favoring us with a comparison to the statistics from that day of a year before. We are running slightly ahead of last year’s totals, we were told. Or slightly behind. “Last year, 114 people were homicide victims in Oakland, one more than in 2002 and the fourth consecutive year that saw an increase,” the Tribune informed us in a February, 2004 roundup. The paper added that 17 people had been killed in Oakland to that date. “If this year’s rate keeps pace,” the Tribune continued, as if it were describing Barry Bond’s home run rate, “it will be five straight years [of homicide increases].”
But the pace did not keep up. The rate of Oakland homicides began to slow in late February, so that by the end of May, “only” 14 more people had been killed. Fourteen homicides in three months in a single mid-sized city seems like a ghastly fact. In Oakland, it meant that murders would “probably” drop under triple-digits for the year. No one seems to know why this is happening, but the general feeling around some parts of town is that it’s nice that things seem to be getting “better.”
And looking at Oakland’s violent crime statistics posted by the police department on the city’s website, one might come to the same rosy conclusion. Taking the city’s five most violent council districts (districts 1, 3, 5, 6, and 7), and counting up the eight most violent crimes (assault with a non-firearm deadly weapon, assault with a firearm, shooting into an occupied home or car, battery with serious bodily injury, battery on a spouse, battery on a child, rape, and murder), then Oakland’s crime dropped approximately 10 percent between March-May 2003 and March-May 2004. Murders were down some 62 percent in that period. Serious beat-downs were down almost 50 percent. Shootings were down 25 percent. In fact, almost every violent crime statistic in Oakland was down from the spring of 2003 to the spring of 2004.
In the spring of 2003, in the five most violent districts in Oakland, there were 101 incidents of what is antiseptically called “inflict injury upon child” — child beatings so serious that the police had to be called in, and a criminal report written. In the spring of 2004, there were 101 child beatings in those five districts. Exactly the same.
The children of violence, we know, almost always turn to violence themselves.
When violent outbreaks disrupted the tail-end of last spring’s Carijama Festival at Mosswood Park in North-West Oakland, it was almost universally agreed by city officials and festival participants that the problems centered around young people who came late and were not part of the festival itself. “These are people who came looking for something to do, and they did not want to leave,” the San Francisco Chronicle quoted festival organizer Jackie Artman as saying. “The people who caused the trouble had almost nothing to do with Carijama.” It was the second year in a row that violence had come at the end of the otherwise peaceful festival.
In answering the complaint of many young Oaklanders that there is nothing for them to do in this city, Oakland Police Lt. Kozicki replied, “This is what they want to do. They want to raise hell and a lot of people want to watch them raise hell.” He added, “Until we figure out a way to keep troublemakers away, the scope of these venues needs to be severely restricted. “
This year, in its restricting mode, the Oakland Police Department forced Carijama to move its activities to the Frank Ogawa Plaza, on the theory that police could better control any problems in that controlled environment. Instead, violence broke out at the end of the 2004 festival almost identically to what happened in 2003. “We thought a change of venue would deter the rowdies,” Chief Richard Word said shortly afterwards, “but apparently, you can’t deter these people.”
Perhaps we should be figuring out a way to include, rather than deter.
“I don’t have an answer,” says Larry Reid, Oakland City Council’s public safety expert.
Maybe what is needed, then, in Oakland, is different people, asking different questions. And quickly, too, before our attention gets distracted by something else.