Column: Undercurrents: It’s Past Time for Oakland to Confront Violence J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday January 13, 2006

Oakland having been such a violent place for so long, the city ought to be one of the leading national experts on the causes of urban violence, and its possible cures. But if such expertise is present somewhere inside Oakland City Hall or at the Oakland Police Department headquarters further down Broadway, it’s not being shared with the rest of the citizens. 

At the very least we’re being kept in the dark. 

Somewhere around the beginning of last year, perhaps before, we began noticing a significant jump in what you might call “message tagging.” There are two distinct types of graffiti “tagging.” One of them we’ll call “arts tagging,” just for the sake of this discussion. It’s the kind of thing you commonly see on water towers and old freightcars and freeway overpasses—those enormous, multicolored letterings where the visual impact appears to be as important as the words themselves. 

“Message taggings” are the scrawled names and messages that you see showing up on any free spaces—particularly the sides of buildings—where individuals or groups appear to be marking their territory or putting out information to other groups. Most of these writings are incomprehensible to the average person walking by, but it doesn’t take much expertise to know that a scrawled signature put up one day—and then a line drawn through it a few days later—is an ominous sign. 

Whether there’s a cause and effect here I don’t know, but, right at the end of the year, following the rise of “message tagging,” we saw an explosion of violence in Oakland. 

Around the first of July we had our 39th homicide—a man found stabbed to death in an International Boulevard and 57th Avenue motel known for its nearby prostitute trade. That put the city on a pace for around 80 murders for the year. That pace continued through the end of September, when 15 year old Michael Cole, Jr. was shot to death in the 1200 block of 30th Street, the city’s 61st homicide. 

That number has some significance, since it surpassed the “goal” of 60 homicides set by newly-hired Police Chief Wayne Tucker back in late February. Hoping for a significant reduction in killings in the city from the 88 in 2004, Mr. Tucker told the Tribune last winter that “if we (hold) it to 60 that would be great. I think getting homicides reduced that much would be encouraging not only to the city, but to the men and women of the department. It would show what commitment and hard work can accomplish.”  

I’ll reserve comment about a police chief who thinks 60 people murdered in a city is “great.” 

In any event, between the end of September and the end of the year, there were 33 more murders in the city, a three-month pace that would have put us at 132 homicides, if it had continued through the entire year. 

But it’s not just the number of killings that took place near the end of the year that’s disturbing, it’s the manner in which they occurred. In mid-December, 39-year-old Jason Graham, 27-year-old “Bu” Dixon, and 23 year old Sean Scott were shot to death in a triple homicide in the 2600 block of 68th Avenue, not far from Eastmont Mall (where, coincidentally, the Oakland police have a substation).  

The next day, at 9 a.m., 32-year-old Darcel Lewis was shot and killed on International Boulevard not far from the East Oakland Youth Development Center on 83rd Avenue. A day or so later, if memory serves me, a gunman followed another man into a convenience store across the street from where Lewis was killed, also in broad daylight, shooting him several times in front of witnesses, but not killing him (I can’t find anything about this incident in my newspaper records, but I remember seeing it on the television news; unlike murders, Oakland shootings don’t usually make it into the Tribune). 

The proliferation of message tagging, the 68th Avenue triple homicide in mid-December, and the two daylight shootings near 83rd and International a couple of days later—one of them a homicide—suggest a turf war of some kind, possibly over drug territory. And, in fact, East Oakland residents have been complaining that during the summer of 2005, they began to see dealers set up crack-selling activities on neighborhood corners where they had never been seen before, many of these dealers identified as people who were not from that community. 

Are we, then, in the midst of a drug war in Oakland? I don’t know, but it would be nice if city or police officials let us know—exactly—what they think is going on. 

One of the problems in getting accurate information on the exact nature of Oakland’s violence, as always, is politics. Mayor Jerry Brown is running for California Attorney General in the June Democratic primary, and so every bit of official information coming out of the city administration these days must be sifted through the sieve of whether or not it will help—or hurt—his chances against Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. Problems must be minimized, accomplishments puffed up, and blame shifted in order to buck up Mr. Brown’s law-and-order credentials. 

And so we have Oakland Tribune columnist Peggy Stinnett writing this week that Mr. Brown “admits much still needs to be done in the area of public safety, and progress is slow because of the requirements of the ‘Riders’ agreement that arose from that police scandal in West Oakland.” (Blame) 

Or the San Diego Union-Tribune noting last March that Oakland, under Mr. Brown, is, among other things, “concentrating more police in problem neighborhoods. … Brown said Oakland's get-tough policies are paying off. Robbery dropped 12 percent last year compared with the previous year. Murder was down 23 percent…” 

“Look, I have a record of reducing crime,” the Union-Tribune quoted Mr. Brown as saying back in March. “Not only that, I live in a high-crime area, where I walk the streets. I deal with it. I get people arrested.” 

Really? That may sell in San Diego and Sacramento, where they don’t have access to the facts. But tell that to the Oakland citizens who live along the high-crime, high-violence corridor of International Boulevard southeast of the Fruitvale, or deep in those patches of Dogtown and Ghost Town in West Oakland where the drug dealing proliferates, and the mothers mourn for their dead sons. Something is stirring there, ominous and troubling, and all the sunny boasting and blame-shifting coming out of the mayor’s office won’t cover that up. 

Oakland needs some straight talk and some serious, adult conversation on this recent explosion of violence in our city, where it’s coming from, and where it may be leading. And we need it soon. Our lives depend upon it.