Under Currents: Trying to Get a Handle on Violence in Oakland

Friday April 21, 2006

They adopted an unusual questioning format at this week’s mayoral debate at Skyline High School, which solicited an all-too-usual reply from one of the candidates. But at least it advanced a necessary dialogue. 

The debate organizers, the Skyline PTSA, di d away with the usual moderator, and had questions coming directly from the audience. Two of them—a Castlemont student and a teacher—chose to focus on the proliferation of guns on Oakland’s streets, with the student saying that half of the middle school s tudents she had surveyed told her that they could get a gun within 24 hours, if they needed to. It was a chilling commentary. 

In response, mayoral candidate Ron Oznowicz, a former Oakland police officer and now ombudsman for the OPD, said he believed tha t people carry guns because “it’s powerful” to do so. “It’s status.” He added that “very few people carry guns in Oakland for defensive purposes. They’re for offensive purposes.” 

My guess is, this is the prevailing opinion in high places in Oakland, at least in police circles, and in the circles where many of the powerful people gather to make the decisions that run this city. 

The extension of that point of view is that Oakland is being overrun by thugs, violent young predators who are roaming the dark streets, glock in pocket, looking for their next victims. Getting rid of those people so-labeled as predators—with a combination of various forms of police crackdowns and a drying up and squeezing out of the neighborhoods where this violence springs from, thus forcing the targeted people to leave the city—has been the prevailing policy in Oakland in recent years, certainly during the administration of the current mayor, Jerry Brown. It’s part of his resumé in his attorney general campaign. 

The problem wi th this type of tactic, of course, is that standing on the corner or walking down the street, those hard-core, violent predators look no different than the average sagging, throwback-jersey, hoodie-wearing young Latino or African-American adult who deserv es protection, rather than crack-down. Too many times over the years, Oakland police and Oakland public officials have confused looks with actions, a process commonly known as racial profiling. And so we have ended up with such things as the “sideshow zon es” in East Oakland, where police are authorized (by city ordinance and practice, but not by either the state or federal constitutions) to enforce laws differently than they do in other parts of the city.  

The reality that there are too many guns on Oakl and’s streets, and too easily obtained, has also fueled a drive among the city’s more progressive elements to go after the gun dealers themselves. In answer to the same set of questions at the Skyline High debate, mayoral candidate Ron Dellums suggested t hat the city “come down on the gun stores,” and said that he would support an “enforceable law that traces gun sales back to their source. We need gun control.” Candidate Nancy Nadel agreed, adding that the Oakland City Council—of which she is currently a member—has already taken such steps. “We have closed all the gun stores in Oakland,” she reported, and added that Traders, the notorious gun store that sits on East 14th Street just across the San Leandro border, is under investigation for gun sales violations. Some portion of the weapons used in recent Oakland violence has been traced back to legal sales at Traders. 

A year ago, rapper Chuck D told participants at the Malcolm X Consciousness Conference at Laney College in Oakland that the proliferation of guns has not only increased the level of violence in African-American communities in particular, it has also helped to obliterate the sort of “folk wisdom” levelheadedness that used to keep those communities on a positive path. 

“Twenty years ago, you had gang-bangers and athletes and college students hanging out together on the corners or in barber shops in the ‘hood,” he said, “and if somebody said something really ignorant—like ‘the sky is purple,’ or something like that—everybody would tell him to shut up. And if he got belligerent, he might even get an asswhipping. But nowadays, if someone says something ignorant on the corner, all the smart people shut up and don’t challenge him, because they’re afraid he might go to his car and come back with a 9-millimeter and wipe out the corner. So in the black neighborhoods, ignorance is allowed to go unchallenged, while intelligence has to keep quieter and quieter. That’s one of the reasons why you’re seeing so much ignorance coming out of our communities.” 

But if a proliferation of guns on the streets is one of Oakland’s major problems—which seems to be the consensus across political and social lines—how do we get rid of them? 

My guess is that trying to dry up the source—cracking down on the legal gun de alers—is one part of the answer, but not the answer. At the Skyline High mayoral debate, candidate Ignacio De La Fuente said that a large percentage of Oakland guns come from out-of-state dealers. Another major portion, he said, are stolen property themse lves. While he didn’t explicitly say it, his implication was that passing more stringent laws that allow law enforcement to trace guns back to their over-the-counter-sale origin might help in some instances, but in others it will only end in a theft repor t in a police department computer somewhere. Mr. De La Fuente is probably correct. 

Let’s return to Mr. Oznowicz’ assertion that “very few people carry guns in Oakland for defensive purposes. They’re for offensive purposes.” 

My guess is that it’s just th e opposite, and that most people who carry guns on Oakland streets do so out of fear. 

In my high school days, I used to play pickup basketball games in the gym at the Boys Club on 86th and East 14th (this was in the long-ago days before it became the Boy s and Girls Club, and East 14th became International). One summer evening during one of those games, a disagreement broke out between two of the players, and they went outside on 86th Avenue—the rest of us trailing behind—to settle it. The two young men s quared off while we surrounded them in a circle, there was a brief bit of swinging and grabbing, and then one of the men popped the other in the jaw with a single punch that sent him down on the sidewalk. He lay there for a second, rubbing the side of his face and thinking about it, and said, “Shit, man, I’m through.” And that ended it. We all went back into the gym and finished the game. 

In 1963 or ’64 when that fight took place, such an ending wasn’t all that remarkable. But it couldn’t happen that way in 2006. More often than not, someone getting into a street fight at a city gym today is going to have his boys at his back, and they’re going to join in with stomps and punches themselves if the other one falls. More often than not, someone losing a fig ht is going to head for his car and pop the trunk (and if you don’t know why people pop their trunks, you better ask somebody). More often than not, in 2006 such a fight would never take place, in fact, as people have decided it’s better to go for the wea pons in their trunks first, to keep from getting beat down or shot. 

Fear of getting hurt, then, is driving much of Oakland’s violence. 

That is why when you get to the outer limits of that violence—the world of open-air drug dealing—increasing the penalt ies for violent crime, including upping the certainty of the death penalty, have little effect. A young man, slinging crack on the corner, is going to arm himself against takeover attempts by other drug gangs. He’s far more worried about getting caught by other dealers without his weapon than being caught by police with it, and the certainty of death in a drive-by is far more real to him than the possibility of death by lethal injection in San Quentin. 

To what conclusions does all this lead us? 

That it’s good we are having a contested mayoral race in Oakland where a Castlemont student and a teacher can ask a question about guns. It’s good that the candidates have to answer, in public, and on the record. In such a way, a dialogue on violence in Oakland g oes forward. Out of that dialogue, if we are serious, and pay attention, will come the answers.