UnderCurrents: Trying to Make Sense of the MacArthur Shootings

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday March 25, 2009 - 06:16:00 PM

I am not one who believes in the phenomenon of “senseless” killings. All killings make “sense,” if, by that term, we are separating it from having “justification.” A killing makes “sense” when we understand the reasons for it, however rational or irrational those reasons might be. What we usually call “senseless” is merely something we do not have enough information about to make “sense” of. 

And that is what we are left with, in the aftermath of Saturday’s deadly shootings near 73rd and MacArthur in the shadow of Leona Heights in the foothills of Deep East Oakland—trying to make “sense” of something about which we have little or no direct information. 

We can all make guesses, but we will never know for certain what was going through Lovelle Mixon’s mind in the brief moments before he opened fire on the first two Oakland Police motorcycle officers—John Hege and Sergeant Mark Dunakin—following a traffic stop. And so Oakland remains more divided than it was four days ago over the issue of the police and the city’s street violence, with the bloody MacArthur shootings tending to justify conclusions we had already drawn. 

That means that there will probably be no lessons learned from the MacArthur shootings, and that, more than anything else, will make them “senseless.” 

But a neighbor gives it a try. 

We are sitting around on the porch, talking in the waning hours of the day, as older black men tend to do, and he said he thought it was a case of a young man not wanting to go back into the horrors of the state prison system. 

“I ain’t trying to excuse what he did,” my neighbor said. “But he told his family he wasn’t going back to prison. And anybody ain’t been to prison, they don’t got no idea what it’s like. There’s things go on there every day you can’t talk about, and there ain’t no place to run from it. Some of these youngsters probably feel it’s better to go out in 10 minutes out here on the streets than to go back into prison for 10 years, and you dying every day.” 

The contention that Mr. Mixon did not want to go back to prison—and that possibly being his motivation—came from a Monday San Francisco Chronicle article by Demian Bulwa (“Gunman Had Spent Years In and Out of Prison”) and a companion article by Bulwa and fellow Chronicle reporter Jaxon Van Derberken (“Family’s Account of Oakland Parolee Who Killed the Four Officers”) that attempted not to excuse but to explain the meaning behind the shootings. 

The articles noted that Mr. Mixon’s grandmother’s East Oakland home, where he stayed until recently, is in one of the city’s high-crime neighborhoods, and that “Mixon’s family has seen its share of tragedy. One of Mixon’s younger sisters, 24-year-old Enjoli Mixon, lost her right eye in a shooting in May 2002 that killed one of her friends. A cousin, 15-year-old Derrick Mixon, was shot and killed in Oakland in July 2008.” A ninth-grade dropout, Mr. Mixon spent seven years in custody, some of them in Corcoran State Prison, after pleading guilty to armed robbery, and was out on parole from that offense. Enjoli Mixon, the sister who lost her eye in another shooting, said in one of the articles, almost plaintively, that her brother was “not a monster. I don’t want people to think he’s a monster. He’s just not. He’s just not.” And the Chronicle quoted Mr. Mixon’s grandmother, reflecting the duality of the reaction to the killings that went across many Oakland neighborhoods, as saying that the family was “crushed that this happened. Our hearts and prayers go out to the officers’ families . . . This shouldn’t have happened.” 

Whatever one may think of Mr. Mixon himself, his family members certainly don’t sound like monsters but rather people caught in this web of tragedy. 

Although, as we said, we will never know for certain the exact steps that led to the MacArthur shootings, we can draw some speculations from the published accounts. 

We know that Mr. Mixon had broken parole, and there may have been a no-bail warrant for his arrest. In addition, on Tuesday, the Chronicle published a story in which they indicated that the day before the Saturday shootings, Oakland police had linked Mr. Mixon to a rape earlier this year. We also know that he had a handgun in his possession in the car that he was driving when he was stopped by Officer Dunakin. It would be safe to surmise—from the available information—that neither Officer Dunakin nor Officer Hege, who drove up sometime during the stop, knew any of these facts; they did not appear to have taken the type of offensive and defensive actions that police would normally adopt under such circumstances. 

More than once I have seen a single patrol officer in East Oakland make a traffic stop and then detain and handcuff a driver, all without backup. But more often, I’ve seen officers conduct a defensive-minded, two-officer vehicle stop, with one officer going to the driver’s side door to interact with the driver while the other stood somewhat to the right of the rear passenger door, so that the backup officer could both watch the interior of the vehicle from a different angle as well prevent the sort of quick double-shooting that Mr. Mixon affected on Saturday. 

Assuming that Officer Dunakin ran the car’s license plate through his computer before he pulled Mr. Mixon over, we can also assume that the officer detected nothing seriously amiss with the car itself. A Monday Oakland Tribune article said that the officer may have stopped Mr. Mixon only for an expired auto registration, and that “Mixon’s picture [may have been] on the [driver’s] license [he gave to the officer], but the number for the license belonged to another person.” 

The question is, if Mr. Mixon went to the length of altering a driver’s license to mask his identity while driving, why didn’t he play out the string of his deception on the hope that the officers would be fully deceived and let him go with a fix-it ticket? Why did he choose to open fire on the two officers? 

That is the answer, of course, that we will never know, as Mr. Mixon took it with him to his grave. 

But we can assume that Mr. Mixon was fully aware that in recent years, Oakland police officers rarely give simple fix-it tickets to 27-year-old African-American men driving in the depths of East Oakland. Instead, in this part of town at least, OPD is more likely to detain and do a thorough search of both the driver and the vehicle, even for what is characterized as a “routine traffic stop.” 

Many news accounts indicated that Saturday’s shootings occurred close to the Eastmont police substation. What they did not say was that the shootings happened within a handful of blocks of the Bancroft-side lower parking lot at Eastmont Mall, where 10 years ago, Oakland police broke up the off-street, late-night sideshows of young African-American drivers that had taken to congregating there. The sideshows then moved for a time over to the Pac ’N’ Save parking lot on Hegenberger Road, but police eventually broke those up as well, driving the sideshows into the streets and turning them into a roaring, rolling weekend phenomenon that at times threatened to overwhelm both the neighborhoods and the police department itself. 

Operation Impact—the practice of flooding certain Oakland streets with officers from various jurisdictions and doing massive law-enforcement-by-auto-stop—was first instituted in the early 2000s to attack one of the city’s wave of murders. But when the murder rate subsided, the operation was moved over to combat the sideshows. 

Eventually, Oakland officially designated broad sections of Deep East Oakland as something they called a “sideshow zone,” in which the practice of massive auto stops were periodically instituted, primarily by Oakland police officers only, but sometimes buttressed by the California Highway Patrol. In these operations, police target certain classes of vehicles to stop and check for violations. (Though the police have never given a detailed description of what types of vehicles get stopped in the operations, it only takes a few times driving up and down International Boulevard or Bancroft or Foothill or MacArthur to see that the targets are young African-Americans or Latinos.) A visual search of the interior of the car is done to look for possible illegalities in plain sight, while a license check is done on every occupant of the vehicle to look for outstanding warrants or evidence of someone on parole. The finding of any of these elements then triggers a handcuffed detention of the occupants and a full vehicle search. In the reports on the earlier Operation Impact sweeps, OPD officials boasted of the numbers of auto tows and traffic tickets that were given out during these activities, using the relatively few instances of confiscated drugs or illegal weapons to justify the entire activity. 

From the OPD or Highway Patrol sweeps, which still occur periodically in Deep East Oakland, the practice of law-enforcement-by-auto-stop has evolved in this area of the city into general practice. (While these stops have been confused with DUI checkpoints in the media they are distinct from that activity, targeting young drivers of color in general, rather than evidence of impairment due to drug use or alcohol consumption.) 

For several years, there have been complaints about the effect of these widespread, indiscriminant detentions and auto searches by OPD officers triggered simply by auto stops, the focus being on the effect on the young African-American and Latino drivers. 

And some observers—myself included—have concluded that in the growing tensions on Oakland’s streets and the presence of so many individuals riding around with things or conditions to hide, eventually this practice would lead to violent confrontations between police and the occupants of vehicles stopped for minor transgressions. It is possible that this may have been one contributing factor that led to Saturday’s shootings at 74th and MacArthur. 

Does this mean I am writing to “justify” the shootings of the first two officers, or that I am saying that those particular officers brought this on themselves? No, although I am sure that there are some in this community who will try to twist my words and meaning to try to make it appear so. I’ll take that risk. Because in hearing and reading—in the wake of Saturday’s tragedy—all of the talk of heightened crackdowns on Oakland’s many parolees simply because they share the condition of parolee with Lovelle Mixon, it is important—in fact, it is critical—to point out the possibility that it may have been Oakland’s past indiscriminant crackdowns that helped bring about this tragedy in the first place. 

But then, of course, we will probably never know.