UnderCurrents: Oakland Seeks Crime Solution in a Bigger Hammer

Friday June 18, 2004

Two of the G Street regulars sat on their plastic milk crates on a summer afternoon, sipped from their cans of Budweiser, and watched an old Buick pass by. The engine sputtered, the car lurched, then died. The driver got out, one of those tiny ball-pene hammers clutched in one fist. He hiked the hood, peered into the engine well for a moment, and then—with a big overhand swing—gave the engine block a mighty lick with the hammer. The driver closed the hood, got back in the car, started the motor, and pulled off. He went about a half a block before the engine sputtered, the car lurched, and then died again. The driver got out, lifted the hood, and gave the engine block another whack with the hammer. As the driver was getting back in the car, one of the streetside observers took a sip of beer, sucked his teeth, and muttered, “Lookit that ass-backwards son-of a bitch. He’ll never get it fixed, that way.” 

“How you figure he should do it?” his friend asked. 

“Obvious,” the first man sniffed. “How’s he gonna work anything with that little ball-pene? He need him a bigger hammer.” 

Thus does Oakland—having so far failed to solve the problem of violence among its dark-skinned youth with its existing force of police—looks to effect the cure by hiring more cops. 

The mistake is that we have treated this as a law enforcement situation, whereas in most cases, we’re facing a social problem. And so we reach for the wrong tool, as if making a bigger mistake this time around will somehow alter the original outcome. 

Need examples? Let’s dredge up the usual ones. 

In the spring of 2003, violence broke out in the late afternoon and early evening among young African-American latecomers to the popular Carijama Festival at Mosswood Park in Northwest Oakland, just as it had at the festival the year before. Everyone—police, politicians, and festival organizers—agreed that the violence was centered around young people who did not participate in the main festival activities...in fact, who had not even been present most of the day. In fact, the festival itself has always been a lovely, lively family-friendly event. In response to the continuing problems, Oakland adopted a wall-city response. The police forced Carijama to be moved this year from its longtime Mosswood Park home and down to the Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall, where police said they could better provide security. More cops. More security. More violence. In fact, the 2004 Carijama troubles reportedly almost escalated into a mini-riot, with police lobbing tear-gas grenades into the crowds to break them up. 

So what is the result? Oakland police officials—with some support at City Hall—are now advocating that Carijama be shut down altogether, just as the popular Festival At The Lake was shut down under similar circumstances more than a decade ago. Many observers are merely putting their hands in the air and proclaiming, “What else can we do? We can’t stop the violence. We can’t stop these kids from acting up.” 

For starters, on the theory that it’s difficult to prevent something you don’t understand, Oakland needs to find out exactly how the Carijama violence happened during the last three years, and why. For a city so plagued by violence, and where violence is so often the subject of our public discourse, Oakland is remarkably uninterested in conducting investigations into its causes. And for the record, statements to the media by police officials—some of whom may be interested in justifying their own actions—do not constitute an investigation. A City Council public hearing into the causes of the Carijama violence—especially including testimony from citizens (both youth and adult) who observed the events—would seem to be in order. 

Meanwhile, just off the top of our heads, there are two suggestions the city might consider: 

• Take the young folks at their word that there is little for African-American and Latino youth to do in Oakland, and provide some alternatives. One idea would be to revive the long-dormant proposal for legalized sideshows in the city, to be held in sanctioned venues. For two years, now, the city has been sitting on proposals from licensed promoters to put together such events in Oakland. The promoters have indicated that they would be willing to put up the venues and negotiate the insurance for such legalized sideshows, while partnering with local organizers—the young folks who started the street sideshows. Such sanctioned, legalized sideshows would have a threefold purpose: They would provide recreation outlets for a good portion of the city’s youth population, they would help develop a new class of local youth entrepreneurs (of which Oakland is desperately in need), and they would be a source of new tax revenue for the cash-strapped city. 

While Oakland diddles around on the legalized sideshow issue, other communities are taking full advantage of a cultural event that was born and bred in this city. For an example of such enterprises, you can take a look at the website at www.drifting.com/index.php, where a motor sport called “drifting” has been discovered and adopted by communities far away from here, complete with videos, rules, a performance circuit, and prizes reaching up in the $10,000 level. If “drifting” seems reminiscent of the Oakland-based phenomena of “sliding” and “siding,” well, one wonders if that is a little bit more than coincidental. 

• Develop an African-American-based business district in the city of Oakland. Although this may seem like race-based economics to some, it is something which is of considerable interest to the city as a whole.  

For a number of years, violent actions among Latino youth plagued local Cinco de Mayo festivals in much the same way as violent actions among African-American youth has plagued the predominantly African-American Carijama. Unlike Carijama, the Cinco de Mayo celebration has remained in its Fruitvale home, has flourished, and the violence has subsided. This is primarily because the Latino-based Fruitvale-area businesses—which derive considerable benefit from both Cinco and Dia de Los Muertos—exerted their influence to both keep the festivals intact and in place and to find solutions to the violence. If Carijama had such a home in an African-American business district—perhaps somewhere along Market or San Pablo, or International or MacArthur Boulevard up past Castlemont—there might be similar results. And that would be a benefit to us all. 

That’s a lot to talk about. More on these thoughts, later.?