Column: Undercurrents: Right to Assemble is in Jeopardy in Oakland J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday September 30, 2005

“Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble…” 

Recognize that? It’s drawn from the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, part of that body of 10 amendments that we refer to as the Bill of Rights. The various state legislatures would not have ratified the original Constitution without the addition of those amendments, and today we consider the rights spelled out in them to be what defines our status as American citizens. Freedom of assembly is right there at the top, one of the first rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. 

How difficult, then, do you think it would be to take that right away from American citizens with hardly anyone—public, politician, or press—uttering a word of protest? 

Not very difficult at all, my friends, depending upon the community, and the setup. And if you think I’m talking about our Arab-Muslim neighbors today, you’re mistaken. 

Two weeks ago, in this column, I described the following event that occurred recently on International Boulevard in Oakland between 87th and 88th avenues near the headquarters of the East Bay Dragons Motorcycle Club: “And on the Sunday before Labor Day, Oakland police shut down the Dragons’ annual 88th Avenue block party at 5 p.m., and then conducted a sweep in which they ordered the crowds of people off of International Boulevard in the vicinity of the Dragons’ clubhouse.” Later in the piece, I added that “Oakland police shut things down early, long before dark, while neighborhood people were still hanging out, enjoying themselves, with no signs of problem.” 

Reading those lines for the first time-or reading them for the first time now-what were your thoughts? 

Let me add some context, for those who are not familiar with the area of International Boulevard between 87th and 88th avenues, which sits at the extreme eastern flatlands edge of the city. This is a mixed working class African-American and Mexican-American neighborhood. The East Bay Dragons is a black motorcycle club, and the crowds in question on that Sunday were virtually all black. The area is sometimes described by police and the press as being one of the centers of sideshow activity in Oakland, although that’s not exactly true if you’re talking about International Boulevard. Relatively few sideshows ever took place on International—the epicenter was up on Bancroft Avenue or Foothill Boulevard, several blocks away. Still, because of the natural tendency to generalize about a community you’ve never visited, a “need to disperse the sideshows” is probably what goes through most people’s minds when they think of Oakland police disbursing crowds in this neighborhood. 

As a matter of fact, “preventing sideshows” has become the underlying excuse for a lot of questionable police activity in the far reaches of the East Oakland flatlands. 

In August 2001, at the height of the street sideshows, then-Oakland Police Information Officer George Philips gave a revealing statement to the Oakland Tribune on how police were breaking up the events. Oakland police “don’t give them the opportunity to do anything,” Mr. Philips said. “Anytime an officer sees a group starting to gather, he radios up, gives their location, and everybody responds to chase them away.” In response, in an “Oakland Unwrapped” column, the predecessor to “UnderCurrents,” I wrote: “What immediately jumps out is who is the ‘them’ Mr. Phillips is talking about, and what is exactly is it that the Oakland Police Department are not giving ‘them’ and opportunity to ‘do’?” 

In 2001, you may or may not remember, the Oakland police had no official definition of a “sideshow.” But even after that official definition surfaced this year, in Mayor Jerry Brown’s “arrest the sideshow spectators” law, the question is still relevant. 

How, after all, do Oakland police determine that a “gathering” is likely to end up in a “sideshow?” And how much of this so-called “sideshow crackdown” has any relation to sideshows at all, directly or indirectly? 

Last month, in an East Bay Express article entitled “Sideshows RIP?”, investigative reporter Robert Gammon detailed how Oakland police have been recently going after sideshows: “[I]n late April [of this year], the OPD boosted the patrol of East Oakland streets on Friday and Saturday nights by adding 22 more officers and three sergeants. … These 43 cops are also joined by sixteen California Highway Patrol officers, who cruise the major East Oakland thoroughfares on weekend nights. The anti-sideshow forces focus on traffic violations, reasoning that sideshows are far less likely to materialize if East Oakland motorists are constantly seeing cars being pulled over by police. According to Downing, the officers have issued five thousand traffic citations on weekend nights alone since January, resulting in seven hundred arrests. They’ve also towed 1,700 vehicles in that time.” 

Read that paragraph again, carefully, in case you missed the point. Unless Mr. Gammon got it wrong—and he has a reputation as an excellent reporter—he is saying that Oakland police are cracking down on sideshows by flooding the streets of East Oakland with OPD and Highway Patrol officers, giving out huge numbers of tickets and towing the cars of drivers who even the officers themselves do not claim have anything to do with the sideshows. 

If the Oakland police felt the need to establish a massive presence in East Oakland to deter sideshows, why didn’t they do something more useful, say, like targeting the longtime open-air drug dealing going on in many East Oakland communities? 

Instead, on weekend nights driving along International Boulevard from High Street to 105th, it is not unusual to see multiple police vehicle stops—as many as three in a twenty-block area—many times with tow trucks lined up to make the trip over to A&B’s nearby impound lot. If driving the streets of your neighborhood without massive police surveillance can be considered an American right, then that right doesn’t exist on weekend nights in the far end of East Oakland. 

How many of these 5,000 traffic citations and 1,700 vehicle tows and 700 arrests described by Mr. Gammon are justified? How serious were the offenses involved, even when any offenses actually occurred? I have no way of knowing, but that isn’t the point, is it? Massive numbers of tickets are not being given in East Oakland because there are more violations there than anyone else. Massive numbers of tickets are being given in East Oakland because police are applying a scrutiny there that no other Oakland community receives. That’s a textbook description of discrimination. 

It gets by in East Oakland because, after all, it’s East Oakland, and that is said with a wink and a nod, and everybody is supposed to understand. It’s East Oakland, after all, where the poor blacks and the poor Mexicans live, where the liquor stores are, where the drug dealing and the prostitutes and the shootings go on. Oh, yes, and the sideshows. 

How difficult is it to take away fundamental Constitutional rights of assembly or travel from American citizens with hardly anyone-public, politician, or press-uttering a peep of protest? 

Not very difficult at all, my friends. It’s already happening. Right in front of our eyes. Without anyone even bothering to try to cover it up. 

Something to think about, while we criticize how all of those poor black people in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward got treated so bad during Katrina.