Column: Undercurrents: Oakland Night Out Welcomes (Some) Citizens

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday August 04, 2006

Driving home on Tuesday evening, Aug. 1, I passed one of the officially sanctioned National Night Out Events, this one sponsored by the East Bay Dragons (African-American) Motorcycle Club, who had already begun to cordon off the block at 88th and International on the side of their clubhouse. National Night Out, from its website, is a campaign involving “citizens, law enforcement agencies, civic groups, businesses, neighborhood organizations and local officials… Along with the traditional display of outdoor lights and front porch vigils, cities, towns and neighborhoods ‘celebrate’ NNO with a variety of events and activities such as block parties, cookouts, [and] visits from local police and sheriff departments.” 

Ironic, isn’t it? 

Readers with good memories will recall the last time the Dragons held a block party and got a visit from the local police department. We wrote in this column in the fall of 2005: “And on the Sunday before Labor Day, Oakland police shut down the Dragons’ annual 88th Avenue block party at 5 p.m., and then conducted a sweep in which they ordered the crowds of people off of International Boulevard in the vicinity of the Dragons’ clubhouse. The Dragons do this every year on Labor Day weekend, blocking off 88th between International and A Street and playing music and selling sodas and barbecue. They have events for the kids as well as for teenagers, young adults, and the older crowd. It’s one of the yearly highlights of our neighborhood. The crowds are enormous, and club members handle both the security and the cleanup themselves.” 

I never got an explanation from police or city officials why the Dragons’ Labor Day event had to be shut down just prior to sundown. As is usually the case with the Dragons’ events, there didn’t appear to be any violence or other problems, even though 88th and International is in the heart of Oakland’s killing zone, and one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city. I only noted, then, that the closure happened a couple of weeks after some trouble at a night-time dance sponsored by a couple of black motorcycle clubs at the Kaiser Convention Center. The East Bay Dragons were not part of the Kaiser Convention Center events, but, you know, Oakland police and (some) Oakland city officials sometimes get their black guys confused… 

So what changed in the 11 months between Labor Day, 2005 and National Night Out, 2006? Politics, maybe. And a murderous, bloody year in Oakland that has left Oakland officials suddenly begging the same community to “get involved” that it was earlier ordering to “close down” and “get back.” 

In the midst of what is becoming an all-too-typically horrific period in which five were shot and three were slain over last weekend, Mayor Jerry Brown took time out from his attorney general campaign duties to tour the 12th and Peralta streets neighborhood where 57-year-old Clinnetta Simril had been shot in the head and placed on life support. Or maybe this was part of his attorney general campaign duties. In any event, following his West Oakland tour, Mr. Brown told Oakland Tribune reporters “I saw a number of kids hanging around, (up) to no good.” 

It would be interesting to learn from Mr. Brown what criteria he used to come to that particular conclusion. 

Mr. Brown, after all, has a history of making accusations against citizens (unnamed and therefore unable to defend themselves) so that the mayor can make a political point. 

In 2003, when he was trying to take over the Oakland-owned Malonga Casquelord Center (then called the Alice Arts Center) for his private, non-profit Oakland School For The Arts, Mr. Brown tried to justify the takeover by making accusations against some men who the mayor said were “hanging out” around the Arts Center. Both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Berkeley Daily Planet quoted Mr. Brown as saying at the time, “They’ve had people hanging out there. When you have young children taking dance classes, you have to be careful about the people you have running around there. You can make an argument they are not compatible with dance studios and kids.” 

Why were these people “hanging out” in front of the Arts School? Well, they were tenants living in SRO’s on the top floor of the Malonga Casquelord Center, many of whom were also artists who participated in dance companies located at the center. Many of these Alice Arts Center tenants spent their afternoons at the sidewalk café outside the center and the arts school, waiting for their rehearsals or dance classes to begin. Were these tenants a danger to the Arts School students? Mr. Brown seemed to be the only one who thought so, or, at least, pretended he thought so in order to make a case that the tenants should be moved and his Arts School students should stay. The African dance-based Malonga Casquelord folks, who were busy creating the downtown sidewalk cultural atmosphere the mayor kept saying he wanted, were apparently not exactly the type of culture he was talking about.  

But back to Mr. Brown’s West Oakland Tour. The Tribune reported that the mayor revealed he is working on the latest of his anti-crime strategies, this one to be called “Operation Ceasefire,” the Tribune noting that “the details of which [Mr. Brown] expects to release soon.” We’ll try to be patient. 

The Tribune went on to quote the mayor as saying, “There have been a number of young people involved (in these shootings), occasionally hitting innocent bystanders. ... There are a lot of kids that need a lot of upbringing and they aren’t getting it; it shows up as kids on street corners doing things they shouldn’t.” The newspaper reported that Mr. Brown was not blaming the police for the upsurge in Oakland’s violent crime, adding that the mayor noting that “It’s tough, they are working overtime, doing everything they can, and if anyone has a better idea, the chief would (welcome) it.” A police spokesperson noted that “the community has to roll up its sleeves and pitch in.” 

And do what, exactly? 

Several years ago, leaders of Oakland’s original, non-violent, parking lot sideshows went to Oakland city officials and asked them to help set up legalized, sanctioned, safe sideshow venues off the city streets. This was after Oakland police had driven the original non-violent sideshows out of the parking lots and into the streets, creating the sometimes-chaotic situation we have today. Oakland police officials were initially interested in the idea, traveling to San Diego to study a similar program in that city, and contacting a promoter who would help put the venues together. City Councilmember Desley Brooks held a couple of meetings with police officials, promoters, and sideshow participants to try to put the project together. But Mayor Brown and City Council Public Safety Chair Larry Reid talked against the proposal, and it was put on hold for several years. It was revived, again, by Councilmember Brooks during the summer of 2005 debate over Mr. Brown’s “arrest the sideshow spectators” ordinance, in which the Daily Planet reported that “some other councilmembers—Henry Chang and newcomer Pat Kernighan, for example—went on record saying that any discussion of stepping up penalties on sideshow participants should also include a discussion of legal alternatives.” 

A year has passed, and we’re still waiting. 

Would setting up a legalized, sanctioned, off-street sideshow venue have prevented the murderous events of Oakland, 2006? Probably not. But it would have opened an important dialogue and started a partnership between East Oakland street youth, the Oakland police, and city officials that could have been a valuable tool in the current attempts to abate Oakland’s violence, much of which is centered among our youngsters. And if the legalized sideshow idea was a bad and unworkable idea, rather than shooting it down entirely, the police department, the mayor’s office, and other city officials should have continued the meetings with the sideshow advocates, encouraging them, and working together to come up with a better plan acceptable to both sides. 

But a pattern emerges. Oakland citizens in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods—the East Bay Dragons with their 88th Avenue block parties or the original sideshow participants with their proposal for a sanctioned, legalized sideshow venue—come up with plans to address the problems in Oakland’s mean streets. The city shuts them down. And then, months later, city officials complain that they cannot get citizens to “roll up [their] sleeves and pitch in.” 

Perhaps we would, if the city would only stop taking our shirts.