Column: Undercurrents: Solving Oakland’s Crime: Staying for the Whole Play

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday September 01, 2006

Some years ago, when I lived in South Carolina, two black men reportedly got into a fight on someone’s front porch over who had eaten the largest portion of a watermelon they were supposed to be sharing, the result being that one of the men went into the house and got his pistol and shot the other one to death. This being South Carolina, there were a lot of sniggering comments in some circles about “Well, you know, you can’t mess with a black man’s watermelon,” the incident passing on into story and legend as “the time the man got shot over a watermelon.” 

Of course, nobody actually gets shot over a watermelon. In a courtroom, that is what is called “proximate cause,” sometimes defined in tort law as “the primary or moving cause that produces the injury and without which the incident could not have happened.” The fight over the watermelon is what led directly to the shooting. But that is not what actually caused it. 

The late and astute chronicler of African-American life, August Wilson, once wrote a play—Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—in which one musician stabs another musician to death in the last scene. If you walked in on that last scene and missed the rest of the play, you might walk out believing that the stabbing took place because one musician stepped on the other musician’s shoes. If you came for the whole play, you would understand that the stabbing was the culmination of a long series of events, pressures building up in the stabber, almost none of which were caused by or even involved with the musician who ended up getting stabbed. 

Unfortunately, in Oakland, we have too many people who seem to have missed the play, and run in only for the last scene. Even more unfortunately, some of these folks are charged with coming up with solutions to Oakland’s most serious problems. 

This week, the 96th homicide of this murderous year in Oakland occurred when 52-year-old Wakeel Shakir was shot to death outside his 84th Avenue home in East Oakland, allegedly by 43-year-old Vernon Brown. The shooting, we learn from Oakland Police Sgt. Todd Crutchfield through the Tribune, supposedly rose out of a “conflict over $30 worth of cable work” which Mr. Brown was supposed to have done for Mr. Shakir, but which Mr. Shakir is supposed to have then failed to pay. The Tribune explained the murder in a headline entitled “Man Shot Dead Over $30 Bill, Police Say.” 

The day before Mr. Brown was shot dead on 84th Avenue, 24-year-old Nicole Tucker and 36-year-old Corey Keyes were both shot and killed by an unknown assailant near the corner of 78th Avenue and Rudsdale, only a few blocks away. Even though this is one of Oakland’s longtime, ongoing Oakland drug-dealing areas police, this time according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “believe both victims were targeted as a result of a love-triangle dispute.” They became Oakland’s 94th and 95th homicides of 2006, notable in local news accounts because, before August’s end, they pushed the total for this year’s deaths ahead of the total Oakland homicides for all of 2005. 

How are we responding? 

Normally, the police response to a murder would be to identify the suspected murderer, apprehend that person, and try to gather enough evidence to win a conviction in court. Serious attempts at looking at the root causes of the murders—not the proximate causes—are well beyond either the mandate or the ability of the local police. But these are extraordinary times, with homicides for the year nearing the magic number of 100, and Oakland’s top city official-Mayor Jerry Brown-running for the state’s top law enforcement job and being roundly criticized by his law-and-order opponent for not doing “something” about law-and-order in Oakland. Oakland police are, therefore, under considerable pressure from City Hall to “do something” about the murders, or, at least, make some appearance that they are “doing something” more than just walking behind the dead bodies to put down those ghastly yellow numbered cones to mark the bullet casings left in the street. 

And so, last week, we were told in the newspapers and on television news bulletins of the police sweep of Oakland’s open air drug markets, in which they arrested 30 people out of 65 they were seeking on felony arrest warrants for dealing in crack, ecstasy and marijuana. According to the Tribune, Oakland authorities involved in the crackdown said “the drug sweep will help make a dent in the city’s homicide rate since the majority of violent crime is linked in some way to the narcotics trade.” 

Last week’s 65 Felony Warrant Sweep should not be confused with the city’s “Operation Ceasfire” crackdown on what police and city officials call Oakland’s “top 100 offenders.” The Chronicle reported that last week’s 65 Sweep “was unrelated to [the ongoing top 100 offenders Operation Ceasfire] crackdown.” If so, one wonders why not. If Operation Ceasfire was designed to cut down on Oakland’s homicide rate, and if “the majority of violent crime [in Oakland] is linked in some way to the narcotics trade,” wouldn’t you think that at least some portion of the “top 100 offenders” on the city’s Operation Ceasfire list would have felony warrants for dealing in crack, ecstasy, and marijuana? If not, how did they qualify to get on the list of “top 100 offenders?” 

But perhaps that is asking for too much logic in a dog-and-pony show, in which we, the audience, after all, are merely expected to sit and applaud enthusiastically as the little cart goes around the rink. No questions, please. 

Meantime, the targets of last week’s crackdown—the open air drug markets—are an easy target, the reason being that the dealers involved stand out on the corner and sell drugs, sometimes in plain view. Some of the street corner drug dealing locations mentioned in the news accounts of last week’s police actions have been operating for decades, openly and brazenly. Sometimes it gets so brazen that some dealers carry little flashlights that they shine at cars going by so that you know where to stop if you’re looking. Even worse, once, a couple of years ago, I drove down one of these streets after hours and as I reached the corner, I noticed a car had taken off behind me and was honking his horn to get my attention. Since I’m not in the game and it’s not my habit to stop in the middle of strange East Oakland neighborhoods for people I don’t know, I kept on driving. The driver caught up to me after I stopped at a light on International Boulevard, pulled up beside me, rolled down his passenger side window, waving a miniature ziplock plastic baggie at me and giving a questioning look. (For those who don’t know, miniature baggies typically hold crack rocks.) Clearly, this was not a dealer especially in fear of apprehension by the police. 

Given this seeming inattention to covering their tracks by at least some of these dealers, the question is not why Oakland police chose to crack down on these operations last week, but, rather, why so many of operations have been going on in such a manner, at the same, identifiable locations, for so long. That is a subject for another column. Meanwhile, you are free to come up with your own conclusions. 

As for last week’s crackdown, the police—under pressure from Oakland’s top politician—have to crack down on somebody. Because rounding up all the jealous boyfriends and shade tree cable installers is not a feasible plan, the boyz on the corner get rousted. 

Will this new attention to the top 100 and the drug-dealing 65 stop Oakland’s murders, or even slow them down? 

To answer that question, we would have to understand why the murders are taking place. That means doing more than merely accepting the “proximate cause” theory that it was an argument over a watermelon that is causing the carnage, or an unpaid cable installation bill, or a love triangle, or even disputes over the drug trade. It means—first and foremost—a serious, sober, long-range study of the actual causes of Oakland’s violence. We have offered—and will continue to offer—a number of thoughts on the subject. But meanwhile, this is another of the many tasks left by the outgoing mayor for Oakland’s citizens and the incoming mayor to take on.