A Neighborhood’s Conundrum

By Tammy Johnson Mar 16, 2007

I have to admit that I felt uneasy sitting there. Eight of my neighbors (all white) and I got together at an emergency block meeting to talk about what to do about Carl. Between his booming midnight mix-master sessions and his middle-of-the street shouting fest, we had all had enough. The conversation drifted to the drug dealing that goes on in front of his apartment and to suspicions that a local dealer had bought a couple of houses on the block just for those purposes. So what do you do when your 9-to-5 is all about fighting for racial justice and you are faced with living in a gentrified community that’s about to put yet another brother in jail? When I moved to the spot I call home in Oakland, in 2000, my neighborhood was featured on 60 Minutes as a prime example of the city’s social and economic demise. My Brewtown buddies in Milwaukee could barely believe that I was brave or foolish enough to move there. Fast forward seven years and a lot has changed. I see a growing number of white folk walking to BART (the local rail system) with Black and brown folk. I can’t afford to buy a house on my block now. And if something goes down the cops actually show up when you call them, unlike before. So there we were talking about Carl, who had moved in about two years ago. After a few sleepless nights, I have to admit that I was too through with his nonsense. Many of us have tried to reason with him, and there was general agreement that it wasn’t sheer meanness that fueled him, but alcoholism or a mental imbalance. One white woman mentioned that she personally felt that it was wrong to “play the citizen vigilante role and just call the cops on Carl.” I thought back to a talk Patricia Watkins of Target Area Development Corporation gave about drug dealing her Chicago community. Initially Target members thought that they could simply solve the problem through increased policing. Just arrest the drug dealers! Right? Wrong. She went on to illustrate how institutions created structural barriers to education, housing and employment that limited the options of Black men who where re-entering the community after a stint in prison. So back to drug dealing they went. And no one took responsibility for the fact that despite billions of dollars and decades of effort, all the so-called War on Drugs had done was to keep neighboring white communities safe and benefiting from the drug trade in Black communities. In Carl’s case I had to ask where are the drug-treatment services that folks in the neighboring affluent (read white) Rockridge could access? And I had to remind myself how California Governor Schwarzenegger just proposed cutting $55 million in state funding for adult mental health services. Meanwhile, major construction projects are about to take place in my neighborhood. Will family members who have to care for Carl have a shot securing jobs or any benefits from those projects? It’s doubtful. And as government continues to disinvest from the education, the employment and the health of whole communities of color, a sister like me has to sit in Jennifer’s living room and tacticfully and painfully figure out what to about Carl. *Patricia Watkins will tell her story at Facing Race, a national conference of the Applied Research Center, Friday, March 23. For more information visit www.arc.org