Column: Undercurrents: Oakland Fails to Deal with Violence Problems

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday April 07, 2006

For our 150th UnderCurrents column, let’s return to an old subject: the failure of the city of Oakland to address the problem of violence in an adult manner (I originally wrote “inability” instead of “failure” but crossed that out; inability means you can’t do something, while failure means you could, but don’t, for whatever reason; I also put “city” with a lower case “c” in order to make the point that we’re not just talking about the people at Ogawa Plaza as a source of this failure—it’s a citywide problem, not a city government problem). 

Let’s start with a story from the east coast. Ten years ago, New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield set out to discover why Willie Bosket was so violent. Bosket, as a New York teenager, had committed crimes so horrendous and horrific—his last was the murder of two robbery victims on Manhattan subways—that it eventually led to a change in the nation’s juvenile crime laws, allowing underage defendants to be tried as adults. 

Butterfield traced Bosket’s family history back through a similarly-violent father and grandfather, a familiar story. The reporter also found that each era of family violence had its history in a previous generation. Bosket’s grandfather had fled from South Carolina during the era of anti-black lynchings that immediately preceded the civil rights times. Before that, Butterfield drew a direct link through Bosket’s family to the brutality of the Southern chain gangs, to the murders of black South Carolinians during the Black Codes era following the Civil War, back to the unspeakable brutality of slavery itself, then to the patriot-tory backcountry violence of the American Revolution (where lynchings became an American pastime), and then back across the Atlantic to the bloody British-Scots wars undertaken by the people who eventually settled in the American South. Butterfield’s book on the subject— All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence—is required reading for all who confess they can’t understand the impact of slavery and race in America and why things have turned so violent in this country. 

Butterfield’s study came to mind after I read recent newspaper accounts of our own East Bay brand of street violence. 

The first was the reports of the shooting death of Aderian “Dre” Gaines, the Berkeley father who was killed by a young man who Gaines had earlier removed from his daughter’s house party because the young man was acting belligerent and had a gun stuck in his belt. Reportedly, when Gaines’ wife hysterically confronted the shooter, he told her “shut up, bitch! I’ll smoke you, too.” According the Oakland Tribune report, witnesses then said the shooter and a friend “got into a car, cranked up the music and joyfully danced in their seats as they drove off.” 

Reports of the callousness surrounding the Gaines shooting, as much as it shocked local readers, was nothing compared to the accounts coming out of the trial of the first of the young men accused in the “Nut Case Gang” attacks. The “Nut Case Gang” was a group of young East Oaklanders who reportedly conducted a 10-week spree of violence at the end of 2002 (they are accused of five murders and 23 robberies during that period). According to a San Francisco Chronicle article at the time the men were arrested, “some of the Nut Cases bragged to investigators about driving up Oakland’s homicide rate and relishing the media coverage of their crimes.” The young men reportedly played the video game “Grand Theft Auto” by day and then roamed the city streets in a Buick at night, looking for random targets either to rob or to shoot. Oakland murders hit 113 in 2002, and local media coverage all that summer and fall stressed the rising murder rate, and the fact that Oakland murders could hit triple digits that year. 

Accused members of the “Nut Case Gang” were caught by Oakland police, one of them has been tried and convicted on four counts of murder, and others await trial. The accused murderer of the Berkeley father, West Oaklander Antonio Harris, has been caught and is in jail. The law enforcement portion of this story is either over, or running its course. 

But what role, if any, does that leave for the rest of us?  

No role at all, if we don’t want to have any. We can return to whatever we were doing when the news came on about the arrests or convictions, secure in the belief that the law is doing its job. 

But for those who are worried about escalating violence in our community, a deeper look is in order. 

We might start with last week’s Tribune article entitled “Cops: Party shooter leads a violent life” that begins with the sentence, “It was no surprise to Oakland police that Antonio Harris’ name quickly surfaced as a suspect in Saturday night’s shooting of a Berkeley man hosting a birthday party for teenagers at his home.” The article reports Oakland police describing the 18-year-old Harris as the member of a drug dealing gang centered around the Campbell Village Housing Project in West Oakland’s Lower Bottoms neighborhood. Harris’ group is suspected of being currently involved with a drug turf war with an Acorn Housing Project gang, and Oakland police suspect Harris himself of other murders. “Everybody I’ve interviewed, even in his gang, they’re all afraid of him because of his willingness to use violence,” the Tribune quotes an Oakland homicide sergeant. “Broad daylight, on video, it doesn’t matter. He’s a hard little dude.” 

What would lead a young man growing up in West Oakland to become such a “hard little dude?” 

Some clues, perhaps, come from across the city in East Oakland’s Brookfield Village, where the Nut Case gang was centered. 

This week, the Tribune reported on the penalty phase testimony of 21-year-old Demarcus Ralls, the young man convicted in the first of the Nut Case trials. “Ralls described a troubled, violent childhood spent moving from the homes of abusive family members to group homes,” the Tribune story said, adding that he had been born while his mother was in jail and then placed with his grandmother in Oakland, where he and two half-brothers were “whipped with brooms, pots, glasses ... anything [our grandmother] could get her hands on,” according to Ralls’ testimony. “His grandmother also disciplined him and his brothers by making them stand for hours on one leg with their hands in the air, never letting them go to the bathroom,” the Tribune went on to report Ralls as telling the court. “Often they would urinate on themselves, he added. When he was 5 years old, Ralls said, he and his 7-year-old half-brother got tired of being beaten, so they ran away. They went to a friend’s house and lived inside a car owned by his friend’s parents, stealing dried salami and chips from a local grocery store to survive.” 

If Mr. Ralls’ testimony is to be believed, he is not describing South Africa under apartheid, or the Gulag Archipelago of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, lower bottom London in the days of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, or conditions in the dungeons of Abu Grahib under either the regimes of Saddam Hussein or the American occupiers. This was a household in Oakland in the 1980s. 

Brookfield and Campbell villages are the forgotten part of Oakland, forgotten, at least, in the present grand plans for the future of this city, which presently center around the Forest City uptown project and the Oak To Ninth project, where much of the attention and the money is going in the last days of the administration of Mayor Jerry Brown. 

But the discussion of violence in Oakland and the East Bay must begin with a discussion of Brookfield and Campbell villages. These are the dark funnels through which the sewage of our social policies are being funneled. This is not where the violence was started. But to understand where it started, and how it can be stopped, Brookfield and Campbell villages are the places where our attention must now turn. There’s work to be done.