The neighborhood where I live in North Oakland is a slowly-gentrifying historically Black and working class enclave – a former home to the Black Panthers headquarters, and current home to a large, predominantly Black senior center. It also has the unfortunate distinction of presently being caught in the middle of an escalating turf war between gangs in Oakland and Berkeley. So a lot of violence has been moving through lately, culminating in a horrific traffic accident on my doorstep this past Saturday.
I came home Saturday evening not 20 minutes after everything went down to a neighborhood under siege. It was, as one of my neighbors was quoted in the paper saying, “a police state.” Dozens of police cars, easily a hundred officers, police dogs, helicopter, and closed streets. However, my concern in the moment slowly gave way to anger as I realized that no-one was being told what was going on, why they were being told to evacuate or stay in their homes, or what we should do. Essentially, just that there’s “a dangerous situation, and you need to do what you’re told.”
Perhaps foolishly, I confronted a Berkeley police officer who refused to let me back into my home on a “closed” block. He told me they were looking for fugitives with guns, but I observed that no-one had bothered to tell anyone at home on the block the same information. Instead, everyone who was outside was being rounded up off the street and told to leave, and everyone inside houses was being kept in the dark. I said, “So my partner could walk out into gunfire on our street because you haven’t told anyone inside a building not to come out or what is going on.” I turned heel on the police officer and started walking to my door. He shouted after me, “I’m not going to be responsible if you get shot!” To which I replied, “But you sure as hell will be if my partner does, because she doesn’t know what’s happening out here.” The majority of my neighbors were turned away from their homes with no further explanation and simply told to “get a hotel room.” This continued for almost 14 hours.
While later recounting the weekend’s events with my neighbors, I learned that many of us were kept in the dark, except for those of us who had actually witnessed the crime that took place. Talking about the police with my neighbors, all of us were hard pressed to name any police officer we saw regularly in the neighborhood, yet we could all easily recall the sight of police cars barreling down our residential streets “on patrol.” All of us were equal parts sad, angry, frustrated, and confused. We all understood that what happened was dangerous to residents and police officers alike, but why, when the chips were down, were we not given the very information that could help us make informed choices? Why were the police so quick to lock up the street and simply treat everyone on it as a criminal? Why, when residents pressed the police for information about what was going on around our homes were we simply told to obey without question?
Two weeks ago there was a gang-related killing in our neighborhood. The Oakland Police, while patrolling our neighborhood at great (and I believe, unsafe) speed in their cars over the past few weeks have become increasingly present, but have not reached out to the neighborhood at all to explain what and why they’re doing. No-one from Oakland or Berkeley Police has doorknocked in the intervening time to let us know who they are and what they’re doing, or even to check back with the neighborhood after the events of this past weekend.
Only two years ago, Gary King was shot in the back by police officers in our neighborhood – his story is featured in this ColorLines article. There are a lot of folks who haven’t forgotten Gary’s life and story. Part of me speculates that because of the past and recent history of our neighborhood, that the police response would have been quite different in the more gentrified areas of Oakland, like Rockridge and the Hills.
To “protect and serve” means to protect AND serve. And this is where I fault the assembled Oakland and Berkeley Police. I’m sure some neo-con is going to read this and cry, “Bleeding Heart.” But the truth is that since neither the Berkeley nor Oakland Police have strong ties to our community, their actions Saturday night actually raise tensions. What we see is a highly-militarized police force responding to a threat we know nothing about. And while we assume it’s for our protection, none of us actually feel protected by the massive display of armaments and force.
The irony in this case is that the fugitives being sought this past Saturday, at the time of posting this piece, remain at large. Had the police better ties to our community, we could have actually been able to assist them in their jobs. Who knows all of the empty houses, the local troublemakers, the backyards and byways better than the people living in the neighborhood? By building a better relationship with our community and knowing us, we’d also see something other than the Blue Wall acting more concerned about maintaining control and protocol in an emergency than hearing the concerns of residents.
So while my conclusion here is that everyone in the neighborhood needs to do a better job of informing ourselves of what’s going on – and indeed there were many phone numbers exchanged over the weekend with promises to keep in touch – my instincts say, “stay away from the police, because you never know when they’re going to sweep through here and lock everything up again.” And this is the part that makes me most sad – because I have a very minimal history with the police, I know that they’re supposed to act quickly and keep people safe, and I somewhat trust that they know what they’re doing.
But when I look across Oakland and see a police force blaming residents for not coming forward when crimes happen because of an “anti-snitch culture” I can’t help but wonder if OPD is aware of their own role in all of this? I think of the well-documented history of police abuse in Oakland and police vigilantes like the Rough Riders while reflecting on my own instincts after the events of this weekend in my neighborhood. And I realize that if I continue experiencing the police in the way that we all did over the weekend, I wouldn’t just be inclined to avoid them, I’d be downright afraid of them and the abject authority they control. And if I were victimized by the Riders, or lived in a neighborhood that was, I wouldn’t just be afraid, I’d be angry and feeling cornered by the police even if I hadn’t committed a single crime.