Column: Undercurrents: Only Changing Oakland’s Priorities Will Lessen its Troubles

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday July 28, 2006

It was one of those obscure issues you run into in the back-end of the City Council agenda, when the chambers have all but cleared and the stray staff members are packing away their binders and papers and waiting patiently for the adjournment call, and the only ones who seem to be paying attention are the Sanjiv Handas of the world. 

And yet, if you want to understand how Oakland—with its great resources and pretenses of progressive politics—seems often more like a barrel rolling uncontrollably down a hill than an adult city systematically facing its most serious problems, then the recent debate over the proposed contract amendment with the Oakland Zoo is one you would have wanted to watch. Particularly in the midst of this bloody summer, when murders are fast approaching the 80 mark and though many want to get their share of television and print media time, no one seems to actually have the answer as to how to stop the carnage or even appreciably slow it down. 

Two years ago, the city and the East Bay Zoological Society reached an agreement over the operation of the city-owned Knowland Park and Zoo, for which the city supplies a considerable public subsidy. As part of the agreement, the Zoological Society said they would provide one free zoo admission day a month for Oakland residents, with the targeted population being the low-income Oakland young people whose families can’t normally afford the zoo’s admission price. 

Surprised that you live in Oakland and have never heard about the free zoo admission day? Don’t be. It has yet to be implemented. 

Earlier this month, more than a year after the zoo-city agreement was fully executed, the Zoological Society requested an amendment which would implement a different free admission program. In a letter to council requesting the amendment, City Administrator Deborah Edgerly wrote, “Society has not yet implemented the one-free day per month program. Rather, after evaluating the potential impact and logistics of the one free day, Society developed an alternative approach, which it believes could better meet Council’s desires to reach Oakland children and youth and families who might not otherwise have access to the Zoo.” Edgerly recommended Council adoption of the “alternative approach.” 

Council was not pleased. While they did not seem to think the new program was necessarily a bad idea, several members wondered why no implementation of the free day program had taken place in more than a year, with Councilmember Nancy Nadel asking why the normal contract compliance reviews by city staff had not caught the Zoological Society’s failure to provide the free day. 

Details of the zoo’s original, unimplemented proposal are not important to our discussion, or is the new proposal, or reasons why staff let this whole thing go for a year. Let us assume, for the sake of this discussion, that everybody—city staff, Zoological Society members, and city councilmembers—all want to implement some form of free-day-a-month entrance to the zoo that targets low-income Oakland young folks, but have just not yet worked out the proper way to make this work. 

It is not, after all, a city priority, and in the scheme of larger city concerns, it is a small thing indeed. No kid from the Fruitvale or Dogtown, after all, is going to pull a nine mil out of his drawer and walk out and spray bullets at someone on the corner because he can’t go up to the zoo to see the elephants and giraffes. 

The problem is that all of these small things add up, pebble upon pebble, each one with its own logic and its own excuse, until they eventually become an enormous mountain of delay and inaccessibility squatting down upon the flatlands of this city, and over which the young people of these communities find it increasingly harder to climb. And so the city closes down the wildly popular Festival at the Lake. Or announces that hip hop music will no longer be played for recreational skaters at the Oakland Ice Center on the theory that hip hop attracts young people who are prone to violence. In the midst of blistering heat waves the city cracks down on young people opening fire hydrants for relief. But meanwhile Oakland’s once-impressive citywide recreation program is in a shambles since the Harry Edwards days. What happens to these dreams so long deferred? Langston Hughes once wrote a chillingly perceptive poem about that, ending with the verb “explode.” 

My cousin, Betty Reid Soskin of Richmond, writes in her blog this week, “If we can agree that there is much profiling of youth of color in inner cities—largely from inequality rising from abject fear of not only the adult population but of the police as well—then we have a place to stand while we debate the issue.” 

“In a study done in Hennipin County, Wisconsin, a few years ago,” she continues, “it was discovered that the first encounter most young black and brown men had with the justice system was not for drug use and/or possession at all, but through traffic violations … Teens would earn (often legitimately) a speeding ticket or some other offense. They’d be without employment so had no way of paying the fines ... In a few months that fine would double—then triple—and eventually a warrant for their arrest would be issued. … Meanwhile, the seduction of getting a few rocks of cocaine to sell as a way of getting out from under their traffic problem jump-starts their street career. 

“Hennepin Country addressed the problem.” Soskin goes on, “by … [creating] a program of amnesty that would give young people a clean start, would expunge minor violations from their records, to see what might happen. The results were dramatic. Where they’d expected a few hundred to turn up, they were faced with thousands, and a breath of fresh air blew through the country as the percentage of people outside the law was suddenly decreased by a significant number.” 

Soskin concludes by saying such a program would be successful if implemented in Richmond, where murders are close to the half-hundred mark already this year. 

If you wonder why I am so skeptical of State Sen. Don Perata’s sudden Road-To-Damascus conversion to the area’s anti-violence crusader, this is one of the reasons. For several years, Mr. Perata and Mayor Jerry Brown have vied to be the area’s law-and-order leader, with the easy target being participants in the East Oakland sideshows. While the city blocked plans for sideshow alternatives (“It’s not the city’s job to provide recreation for these people,” Councilmember Larry Reid often said), we ended up with Mr. Perata’s U’Kendra Johnson Law, which allowed police to confiscate cars for thirty days solely on the word of the police officers that the driver was participating in a sideshow (this led, most famously, to police towing away the van of a basketball coach who they said was playing his music too loud while taking some his players home after a game to East Oakland, loud music being one of the police “evidences” that a sideshow is taking place). More ominously, the sanction and encouragement of public officials like Mr. Perata and Mr. Brown over the past five to six years has allowed the official and undisguised creation of what Oakland police call “sideshow zones,” areas of the East Oakland flatlands and lower hills where police are allowed and proud to enforce traffic laws more vigorously, and repressively, than is done in other areas of the city. Rather than reporting crimes solved, the police involved in these events post information of the hundreds of cars towed and tickets given out. 

“It was discovered that the first encounter most young black and brown men had with the justice system was … through traffic violations,” the Wisconsin study told us. “Eventually a warrant for their arrest would be issued [and] the seduction of getting a few rocks of cocaine to sell as a way of getting out from under their traffic problem jump- starts their street career.” Is that what is happening in Oakland now? 

I hope that Mr. Perata is successful in his newly-released, highly-publicized, nine-point program to “help combat recent homicides and street violence in Oakland and Richmond,” I truly do. But I think what is needed to accomplish that is more than the adoption of a few new and recycled programs, many of which have good intention, and have been successful in implementation in other areas. What is needed, in Oakland and in Richmond, is a change in our priorities, what we think is important, and what we pay attention to. 

“I’m hoping that we might soon stop looking at the problem,” my cousin concludes in her blog entry, “and start looking at the kids.” Right on, as they used to say, in another time and another context.