Undercurrents: Police Sweeps Give Impression of City Under Siege

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday September 04, 2008 - 09:29:00 AM

In some ways, East Oakland this weekend appeared to be a city under siege, and I am not talking about the continued rash of shootings, which is another issue altogether. I’m talking about one of the attempts by the Oakland Police Department to quell the violence. 

On Sunday, the East Bay Dragons (African-American) Motorcycle Club held its annual Labor Day Weekend block party in front of its 88th Avenue clubhouse. I’ve written about this before, following the club’s 2005 event. The Dragons typically section off a one-block stretch west of International and attract hundreds of local residents and members from other bike clubs for several hours of music, food, and entertainment. Much of the entertainment is geared toward the youth crowd, including allowing young people to take the stage in front of their parents and peers to show off their talents. Despite the fact that this event annually takes place in one of Oakland’s roughest sections—almost the epicenter of the city’s killing ground—I have not known of any problems at the events in the last two decades. And there were none on Sunday. 

But that wouldn’t have been your impression if you had come into the neighborhood at 6 p.m., just as the Dragon block party was breaking up. 

In one of the largest police presences I’ve seen in East Oakland since the Raider riots and the height of the sideshows, OPD officers cordoned off a seven-block stretch of International with police cars on both sides of the Dragon clubhouse, keeping any traffic from going through while the crowd dispersed. Noone was allowed to remain on International in the immediate vicinity of the clubhouse except club members. Instead, they were figuratively told “we don’t care if you go home … you just can’t stay here.” OPD Tactical Squad officers—the ones in boots and black jumpsuits—stationed themselves on foot on International, stopping people from walking toward the clubhouse, even those people who lived in the neighborhood and were trying to walk home, or go to one of the nearby grocery stores. With International shut down to cars, traffic had to be shunted off into normally quiet residential side streets, resulting in a sudden traffic jam interspersed with police cruisers that hurried back and forth, looking for trouble. A police helicopter circled low overhead, buzzing the scene.  

I wrote about an almost identical police sweep following the 2005 Dragon block party, though police at that time were far less polite. 

Taken from the police point of view, the operation was a complete success. There was no violence, and within an hour of the end of the block party, the police presence had dispersed. 

One can certainly sympathize with the police on this issue. With murders and shootings peppering the city—a number of them occurring in East Oakland neighborhoods adjacent to where the Dragons held their party—OPD desperately wanted to prevent violence in the large, compact, African-American crowd that the Dragons attracted. And to their credit—at least from what I was able to observe—police handled their duties at the Dragon closeout with patience and respect for members of the crowd and neighborhood residents. Clearly, someone at OPD has gotten the message, and at least in the instance of the Dragon block party, the word has been passed down that it’s the block party participants and the community whom the police are supposed to be protecting. That attitude is sometimes lacking in OPD action in African-American crowds in Oakland’s flatlands, something that has, in the past, helped contribute to some of the resultant crowd violence. We hope that this new development in police-community relations is a trend that continues. 

But police politeness—as welcome as it is in the East Oakland flats—does not cover up the larger city transgression that occurred surrounding the East Bay Dragon block party. 

The East Bay Dragons do not sponsor violent events, and the crowd they attracted on Sunday—as is the usual case—was not belligerent or acting in a dangerous way. There was no immediate or imminent danger to the participants leaving the event. Sunday was a warm night, and many of the participants may have wanted to stand around on International for a few moments after the block party broke up, talking with friends. OPD’s actions in clearing the streets forcibly prevented that.  

Could somebody—progressive, conservative, or Constitutional scholar—explain to me how this is not a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment clause prohibiting “the right of the people peaceably to assemble”? 

Can you imagine the outcry from the public, politicians, and the media if, say, OPD officers went up to tailgaters immediately following a Raiders game and told them they had to pack up their campers and leave the vicinity? Or cleared 14th Street following the Art & Soul Festival, stopping people from congregating in front of the shops and restaurants? Or did a police sweep of International in the Fruitvale following Dia de Los Muertos or Cinco de Mayo, or Chinatown following the annual street festival? 

But 88th and International is Deep East Oakland, our brand of apartheid, where different laws apply, and where the U.S. Constitution is not always honored by public officials. 

Will Oakland police or other city officials defend OPD’s Dragon block party actions by saying they were doing so only to protect the participants from harm? If so, they would be at odds with longstanding United States court precedent from the civil rights era, which held that cities could not ban civil rights gatherings on the basis of preventive action because some anti-civil-rights group had threatened to come in and commit violence on the demonstrations. In addition, OPD’s Dragon block party actions seem oddly at cross-purposes with official Oakland policy on citizens “taking back the streets” from violent criminals. Only a few weeks ago, the City of Oakland and its Police Department were actively encouraging peaceful Oakland residents to sponsor block parties during the National Night Out event, some of them ranging far later in the night than the Dragon block party, some of them in the same neighborhood where the Dragon block party took place. 

So why is it okay for residents of the Deep East Oakland flatlands to congregate late in the night to take back their neighborhoods on National Night Out, but not okay to do so on other nights? 

Meanwhile, what seems implicit in such actions as the police sweeps at the East Bay Dragon event closings—fear of a young Black gathering, to paraphrase the famous Public Enemy song—is inherent by omission in other city policies. 

This Labor Day weekend, while the East Bay Dragons were holding their East Oakland event, thousands of people jammed Oakland’s annual downtown street festival, Art & Soul. Advertisement for the event boasts more than 60 entertainment acts on seven stages, but a close inspection of those entertainers shows something significant that was missing. While hip hop currently drives American entertainment and advertising and has done so for years, the genre was conspicuous by its absence from the Art & Soul lineup. There were entertainment stages devoted separately to jazz, alternative, Latin, blues, alternative, culture jam (not sure what that is but they had it), world dance, and r&b. Hip hop was relegated to background music for dance performances by Carla Service’s Dance-a-Vision Entertainment.  

Why is this so? 

One possible—even probable—reason is that hip hop artists and rappers—whether they were national figures or local talents—would attract large crowds of African-American and Latino youth, and official Oakland is clearly deeply worried that crowds of such youth might also attract violence. Oakland’s Art & Soul Festival did not prevent African-American and Latino youth from attending. Event organizers simply gave them no special reason to. This is no aberration. Venues focusing on hip hop music are actively discouraged by the City of Oakland, and it is hard to imagine any official city entertainment event that includes hip hop or rapping in its lineup. We run to hip hop artists when we need them to reach African-American or Latino youth—such as inviting Oakland’s Too Short to participate in this year’s “Silence the Violence Event” at the Oakland Coliseum—but they are otherwise pointedly excluded from the city’s official family. 

While that may hold off violence in the short run, what are the long-term consequences of such an exclusionary policy? 

Most important, such a policy fails to recognize that African-American and Latino youth are the primary victims of Oakland’s violence, the ones most likely to get shot or stabbed. It fails to acknowledge that only a tiny, tiny percentage of those youth are actually perpetrating the violence. And so, rather than working to find solutions to violence at youth events, Oakland’s policy is simply to discourage youth events wherever possible, either actively or by failure to include them in our plans. In fact, it is a policy that tells these youth that we have no solution for the problem of violence against youth, and that our only answer is for them to either leave Oakland, or to grow old enough that they no longer become targets. Regardless of how many Kids First ballot measures we pass, my friends, that is a major portion of the Oakland reality for our youth. 

Suppressing hip hop or police sweeps of the streets following Deep East Oakland events may serve to keep the city’s violence statistics down, temporarily. But it punishes the major victims of that violence. And in the long term, it provides no solution at all.