In Gentrified Oakland, Private Security Takes Hold

Some of Oakland's new residents are using crowdfunding campaigns to hire private security patrols--but not all neighbors support the move.

By Aura Bogado Nov 01, 2013

Dania Cabello was raised in Oakland, Calif.’s, Rockridge neighborhood by Chilean parents who set up small-but-thriving electronics repair and baby wares businesses on the College Avenue main drag. In the ’90s, the proximity to Silicon Valley brought in a new monied residents whom Cabello says were largely white. Rents went up, and Cabello says the resulting gentrification forced the family to shut down its two business. The electronics shop closed in 2005 because, aside from rising rents, new residents preferred to buy new goods rather than have them fixed. And as new Rockridge residents opted for Ikea furniture, the baby shop moved to nearby Temescal. But in the last few years, a new class of neighbors has been moving to Temescal, too. As a result, rents are once again going up, and longtime residents are being displaced. And now, new residents are organizing to bring in private security. Residents like Cabello are worried that that will mean increased racial profiling–and decreased community safety.

Temescal isn’t the only Oakland neighborhood where new residents are seeking to bring in private security. There are currently at least three crowd-funding efforts to hire private security in Rockridge. One in Lower Rockridge North/West just exceeded its $20,513 target by more than $400. Just across the freeway, the Lower Rockridge South/West effort raised more than $27,405–nearly $3,000 beyond its goal of $24,600. And Lower Rockridge-Miles-Claremont is in the midst of raising $20,500. The crowd funding is happening in a quickly changing city. In the last 10 years alone, Oakland has lost 25 percent of its black residents, according to census data. In 1980, black residents made up nearly 50 percent of the city’s residents. Today they comprise just 28 percent. 

The fear of crime some residents feel is understandable. Break-ins and muggings have become commonplace–so much so that Oakland maintains the highest robbery rate in the nation. Neighbors report feeling scared to walk to and from the local transit stop. A recent armed robbery involving so-called casual carpoolers who wait in certain areas until drivers pick them up for their commute has also made big local headlines. In this incident several casual commuters were held up at gunpoint and robbers took their wallets, phones and computers.

One victim spoke with KTVU Channel 2 News anonymously, in order to protect his identity. He described the assailants as "three young men with hoodies … it didn’t look like they were ready to get into someone’s car and go to work in the city." One of the Lower Rockridge crowdfunding efforts by four-year resident Steven Kirsh directly references the casual carpool incident. 

His campaign, which he started after seeing the success of the others, reads, "What occurred [recently] at the Casual Carpool has ignited our neighborhood to act," and suggests that "short police staffing" is making the area less safe. 

It’s true that there are fewer cops on the streets. The Oakland Police Department currently contracts 611 officers–that’s down from 836 five years ago. But not everyone agrees with Kirsh’s assessment that fewer officers equals more crime.

"Other cities that have had a decrease in cops have not had a resulting increase in crime," says Cabello, who now lives in nearby Temescal. But cities that have dealt with fewer police officers on the streets are not necessarily going through what Oakland is experiencing, where new residents are moving in, and longtime residents are being displaced. "We’re unique because of gentrification," she adds, "but we can change the narrative about gentrification and come up real solutions." 

When I first spoke with Cabello, an educator, about the private security patrols, she stressed that part of her life’s work is to be intentional about the ways that she helps build community. She’s already seen her childhood neighborhood gentrified, but instead of settling on anger she said she wanted to be part of a solution that engages neighbors who too often don’t know each other. She was preparing to attend a community discussion on the private security patrols to provide alternative ideas–but she also knew that this would mean discussing race.

But then Cabello talked about seeing a flyer featuring two stick images–one pointing a gun, and the other with its arms up. That imagery alone discouraged her. "This is about wealth, and access, and power–and about letting people know, ‘We’re different than you’," she said of the image. "What’s implicit but unsaid is that this is about keeping people of color from even accessing the neighborhood."

It’s impossible to tell what the flyer was intended to convey, or if its creator even thought about its potential racial implications. The person leading up the effort to attain private security in Temescal, Ellen Kim, declined a request for an interview. But in neighboring Rockridge, Steve Kirsh says he’s attentive to concerns like the ones posed by Cabello.

"I moved to Oakland for the racial diversity. My wife went to the Peace Corps," says Kirsh. "There are great schools here that are diverse, and our friends are diverse, and that’s a blessing." For those reasons, explains Kirsh, he went with a private security firm that is both Oakland-based and whose workers, he says, are largely Latino and African-American. In an effort to avoid "a repeat Trayvon Martin incident," Kirsh says he likes the idea of hiring professionals, who, at least for now, will remain unarmed.

Rockridge residents know that–at least to start–the private security patrols will be unarmed. Over in Temescal, residents still know very little. Cabello says that the meeting she was so eager to attend was less of a discussion and more of an announcement that private security was, indeed coming to the neighborhood. Organizers made clear that 50 people had already pledged to pay for the patrols and that they needed 50 more to be able to contract the work. It wasn’t a matter of whether security patrols would start but when. 

Longtime resident Cabello was disheartened by the meeting and she isn’t alone. Pascal Emmer, who moved to the region two and a half years ago, says he was also disappointed by the tenor. "I wanted to be part of a larger conversation about what safety means to people, and that shouldn’t necessarily mean militarizing neighborhoods, says the self-described "transient, white, queer person with educational class privilege." 

Yet what he found at the Temescal meeting was sometimes the opposite. An Oakland police officer, says Emmer, talked about how some displacement was necessary in order to secure the community–and that adding private security would bring an "added value" to Temescal. Emmer, along with Cabello and several others, however, are concerned about whose security is in question.

"Young people from West Oakland come in to Temescal to go to school," explains Emmer. "And we think they will be targeted by [private patrols]."  

Based on the outcome of the casual commuter case, it’s likely young people of color will be watched closely by private security contractors. As it turns out, authorities are alleging that the main perpetrator in the robbery was 17-year-old Dajon Ford, who is black. Ford, a rising athlete and captain of his high school football team, obtained a college scholarship in New Mexico but left the school abruptly in August. Ford attended McClymonds High School, where reports indicate that a budget crunch didn’t allow the school to employ a guidance counselor, an assistant principal, or a school secretary. 

Steve Kirsh, who’s raising $20,500 for a four-month private security patrol, does recognize some of the the broader issues a play. "There’s much larger systemic problems that we’re not able to solve in one fell swoop," he says. "But this is an effort of people who are afraid of having our iPhones and iPads ripped off."

Kirsh also says he’s spoken with officers about the issue. "We’ve heard from police that a lot of people who used to sell drugs on the street corner and now finding it easier to rob people," he says. The Oakland Police Department didn’t respond to several requests for comment.   

Zachary Norris, who heads Oakland’s Ella Baker Center, is concerned that private policing will rely on racial profiling. "We already have segregated schools," he explains. "Adding segregated security patrols isn’t a solution." Norris points out that Bay Area residents pushed for more police in the streets and for longer sentencing, starting in the 1970s–but that hasn’t translated into making for a safer community for those who are being displaced or for those who are moving in. 

By focusing on a tiny fraction of what some youth are doing, police and other authorities seem to be failing to address the underlying issues that are plaguing changing neighborhoods–where newer residents can pull together $70,000 for four months of private security patrols, but local schools might lack the resources needed to engage young people. And those aren’t the only closed opportunities. Brand new businesses line neighborhood streets, but longtime residents points out that they rarely hire Oakland natives to work at them.

Pascal Emmer, meanwhile, believes the patrols will only further alienate local youth. At the Temescal neighborhood meeting, Emmer says he wanted to challenge the idea that only white residents feel unsafe there. "For me, police brutality is a safety issue–one that’s also a crime, often perpetrated against young people and people of color," he says. Private security patrols, he adds, will only compound that feeling of insecurity for people who are just as much part of Temescal as those who are now raising money to have it patrolled.

For Dania Cabello, who’s lived a lifetime of gentrification in Oakland, the Temescal neighborhood meeting was a disappointment because its organizers had already decided to bring in private patrols without real community input. But while there, she had the opportunity to recognize just how many people are opposed to the patrols–and hopes to move forward on alternatives to increased policing, with input from both longtime and newer residents.