Column: Undercurrents: Injecting Violence Into the Oakland Mayoral Race J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday February 03, 2006

One of the widely-advertised benefits of a democracy is that it requires politicians and officeholders to periodically come before the public to explain themselves in events we call elections, a process which is supposed to allow citizens the opportunity to help set the future of our city, our state, or our nation. 

In reality, although the leaders of this country are busily bombing the shit out of various people around the world and using various other forms of coercion—military and economic—in an effort to drive them into the state of being that we call democracy, we, ourselves, seem strangely disinterested in taking advantage of the rights and powers that we have right here. 

Thus, politicians who publish position papers and go into great detail in speeches during the election season are systematically ignored for those efforts, while the public gravitates eagerly towards sex-and-corruption scandal and one-liners and other forms of entertainment. Think about it. How many times have you actually visited a candidates’ website and read in detail what they say they stand for? Too much trouble, one imagines. 

Meanwhile most of the media—trying to follow the public’s tastes, in this instance—scramble to find something interesting about democracy’s most sacred rite, often treating the elections as they would a football season, tallying wins, losses, and assorted injuries along the way. Not to single out the San Francisco Chronicle for this—most newspapers and media outlets are guilty of the practice, and our own Oakland Tribune followed dutifully on the day following—but this week we have our good friends across the bay publishing an article on fund-raising in the Oakland mayoral race in which the Chronicle reporter gives us a scorecard on who is ahead—and behind—in the donations race. The title, “Ex-Congressman [meaning Mr. Dellums] Gaining Ground On De La Fuente,” says it all. Before the election season is over, similar articles will be written in all of the area newspapers and announced in other media outlets on who is ahead or behind in the public opinion polls as well as the money race, almost as if we are being told that the San Diego Chargers, having lost two out of three of the first games of the season, have now won four in a row, and are only a game behind the Raiders in the standings. Sad, isn’t it? 

With three gifted, experienced, and thoughtful candidates in the Oakland mayoral race—Councilmember Nancy Nadel, Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, and former Congressmember Ron Dellums, all of whom have taken clear stands on controversial issues in the past—the Oakland public ought to demand more, both of the candidates, and of ourselves. We won’t get this chance again to set the direction of our city, not for a long time. 

So boring or not, back to a discussion of the issues. 

A couple of weeks ago in this column, I wrote that Oakland was being kept in the dark about the explosion of violence in our city that began towards the end of last year, and concluded that “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.” 

Since that time, we’ve had something of an explosion of newspaper coverage of Oakland’s violence. On Jan. 16 the Oakland Tribune reported the drive-by shooting death of a 15-year-old Berkeley youth near the corner of East 15th and 26th Avenue, and while stating that “police have not determined if the killing was gang related,” the article added that “the East Oakland neighborhood where he was shot is known for [Latino] gang activity.” The next day the Tribune reported a second drive-by shooting, this time of three men on Cooledge Avenue, noting that “Police said they believe the three were ‘mistaken for someone else,’ possibly members of a street gang.” The next day, the Tribune published a long article entitled “Gangs Tighten Grip In City; Police, Officials Acknowledge Violent Surge, Which Claims 2nd Victim Of 2006.” The Tribune article reported that “Police estimate several hundred Hispanic gang members occupy neighborhoods throughout Oakland, mostly in East Oakland from the Fruitvale district to Elmhurst, with International Boulevard the closest traffic artery. 

A week after the Tribune’s “Gangs Tighten Grip” article, the paper reported another shooting at a 37th and International gas station that, the paper said, “left a driver brain-dead, and wounded his two passengers and an innocent bystander.” Four days after that five people were shot—two of them fatally—near the Manzanita Recreation Center on 22nd Avenue. While the victims in the earlier slayings had Latino names, the victims in the Manzanita Rec shooting did not (this being Oakland, one speculates that they were African-American, just by the law of averages, but that’s just speculation). The Tribune reported that the Manzanita Rec shooting may have been “retaliation for another killing or narcotics.” 

And finally, on Feb. 2, the Tribune reported the shooting death of a 25-year-old San Leandro man outside a West Oakland grocery store in an African-American neighborhood (following the scorekeeping tradition, the newspaper informed us that “the killing was Oakland's ninth homicide of the year. Last year at this time there were three homicides” on the theory, I suppose, that we need to know that we are ahead or behind.) The article added that the Adeline Street area where the shooting death took place “is known for drug activity, and there have been several shootings between rival groups.” 

In my earlier column, I asked if Oakland was in the midst of a drug war, and, if so, what was being done about it at City Hall and the Police Administration headquarters? In light of the two weeks of shootings that followed, it’s clear that Oakland police and at least some of Oakland’s public officials believe that a Latino gang war is ongoing, with a possible African-American-based drug war as well. 

In its “Gangs Tighten Grip” story, the Tribune reported that in response to the rash of gang shootings, “Mayor Jerry Brown said [that] the police department was developing a plan to add officers to the gang unit and more quickly deploy them to hot spots identified by commanders.” That’s the type of sound-bite response you expect from someone who is running for California Attorney General in the June Democratic primary, and needs to be quoted as showing that he is being tough on crime in the city he’s supposed to be running. 

That may be good for Mr. Brown’s future political career, but that’s not what Oakland needs right now. 

If there is a Latino gang war—and an African-American-based drug war as well—going on in Oakland, the citizens of this city ought to be brought in on the discussion right now, before the direction of the city response is set. Actions often have unintended consequences, after all, even when those actions are done with the best of intentions. 

In their defense over charges that they illegally beat suspects and planted evidence, the members of the so-called Oakland Police “Riders” squad argued during their trials that they’d been given the “wink-and-nod” green-light for their operations by Mayor Brown and former Chief Richard Word, who, the “Riders” claimed, indicated that they wanted the city’s drug activities cleaned up at any price. The result was a major assault on the civil liberties of Oakland citizens, a stain on the city’s reputation and prestige, and a huge hit to our pocketbooks in the Allen v. Oakland consent decree settlement. 

Mr. Word has gone, but Mr. Brown remains, and so, too, is the danger of jumping too soon into solutions of serious problems without first determining the nature of those problems. 

What is causing the sudden explosion of violence in Oakland? It’s a subject that ought to be a serious topic of discussion in the Oakland mayoral race, as well as in classrooms and meeting rooms across the city. As I said in my previous column on the subject, our lives and our future depend upon it.