Toddler’s Murder Begs Hard Questions About Violence–and Policing

East Oakland has long been plagued by gun violence, and many in the community have demanded more cops. They've also demanded more respect and less violence from the police who protect them.

By Julianne Hing Aug 17, 2011

It was a protest, and it was a party. After 3-year-old Carlos Nava was killed in the crossfire of what police suspect was a gang-related shooting in East Oakland last Monday, family and friends, still reeling from their loss, hastily organized a fundraiser that took place on the same block Nava was shot.

Just a few days earlier, his family had gathered here for a candlelight vigil to mourn and remember the little boy they all called Carlitos. By the weekend, dozens of volunteers transformed the small parking lot of the corner store into an impromptu carwash. There was barbecue grilling in the shade on one end and tacos being sold on the other, and in between, a flurry of volunteers attacked cars with soap, towels and donation boxes. Drivers slowed to drop in cash, or pulled up for a car wash and some lunch. Save for the signs that urged cars to "honk to stop the violence," it was a celebration.

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Toddler’s Murder Begs Hard Questions About Violence–and Policing
East Oakland has demanded more cops. They’ve also demanded less violence from the police who protect them.

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Nava’s was the 67th homicide in Oakland this year, and the city’s second murder in the span of three days. Nava’s death raised again a fundamental tension that community advocates confront as they deal with an understaffed police department that’s struggling to implement a voter-approved community policing policy: communities both need and deeply distrust the police.

"I would like to see more police presence in the area we’re talking about, that is what the community wants," said Emma Paulino, an organizer with Oakland Community Organizations who works in the neighborhood on gun violence issues. "Even though they are not comfortable with the fact that they don’t have a good relationship with the police."

"People still believe that more police presence would make the neighborhood safer," Paulino adds.

Indeed, in the days since Nava’s shooting, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts ordered extra officers to patrol the Lockwood Gardens neighborhood where Nava was killed. Batts told The Bay Citizen that as a result of that extra staffing just one shooting was reported within 72 hours, in place of the usual three.

And yet, the police themselves have contributed to the levels of violence in Oakland. The community is seemingly always calling for an end to the endemic violence that plagues the city. "The police are out there telling people to stop the violence and often they’re also inflicting violence on people," said Nicole Lee, the executive director of Urban Peace Movement, an Oakland-based community group that works with young people to address violence in urban communities. "It’s not a credible message and it’s hard to take it seriously."

This June, after a rash of five shootings tore through East Oakland over the course of a single weekend, Paulino and other community advocates organized hundreds of neighborhood residents as they marched out of the gates of Greenleaf Elementary School, just around the corner from where Nava was killed, for a "peace walk." They snaked down the street, holding signs that read, "Alto a la violencia, Queremos paz," and "Love your community," demanding an end to the gun violence.

For Paulino, who organized the peace walk earlier this summer and works with families in the neighborhood, Nava’s death is an especially bitter tragedy.

"Shame on us, shame on us that we are here again, saying we want an end to the violence," she said. "What’s going to happen tomorrow? We’re going to go to another and another and another vigil? Do you know how many candles and lights and pictures are in the neighborhood?"

A shooting occurs every five days within half a mile of Greenleaf, The Bay Citizen‘s reported.

But just a week after the June march for peace, Oakland again gathered for a protest, this time to voice its outrage over the early release of Johannes Mehserle, the ex-transit police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant, a 23-year-old black man, while he lay face down on a train platform in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009. Hundreds gathered again, this time denouncing police brutality and the everyday harassment of communities of color. The crowd was thick with picket signs held aloft. Those read: "An injury to one is an injury to all," and "Stop police violence!"


Paulino said that efforts to build relationships with police were hampered by constant turnover and interdepartmental transfers and the depletion of the police force in recent years, on top of the basic reality that neighborhood residents fear harassment from the police. Lee, who said she’s worked with plenty of smart and compassionate law enforcement officers, recounted instances when community advocates and police would be at an anti-violence coalition meeting, and the next day she’d hear a report of an officer-involved shooting.

"Every time that happens it sets back our ability to build alliances with law enforcement because it exacerbates the experience that many people have with law enforcement," said Lee, "which has been one of disrespect and extreme suspicion and in many cases brutality."

Sill, it’s been a particularly bloody summer in Oakland, which complicates calls for police reform.

This week police arrested a second suspect in connection with last week’s shooting. Last week, police arrested and charged Lawrence Denard, a 26-year-old man and the suspected shooter. Jose Luis Nava, a San Leandro resident who organized the carwash for his slain cousin, said on Saturday that he was grateful for the quick police response he’d seen. Community advocates say the longterm picture, and the role of the police, is a complex thing.

"In a perfect world we wouldn’t want to rely on the police, and when you look at policing and violence, one of the challenges is that police are the primary gateway to the criminal justice system in this country," Lee said.

"One of the things that many people, including law enforcement here, agree with is that we create pipelines railroading young men into the criminal justice system, and cycle them back out in a revolving door that’s not solving any problems and really doing a disservice to these young people."

Lee said that’s why when it comes to dealing with deadly urban violence, she advocates for alternatives to the criminal justice system, or strategies like restorative justice that minimize the role of the police.

In the meantime, the vigils and the calls for peace will continue. The two-day car wash and barbecue fundraiser was, by all indications, a success. Nava said that the owner of All-Mart grocery, where Carlos Nava was with his mother when he was killed, donated many of the supplies for the fundraiser. In the Saturday afternoon sun the street corner was filled with families, and even a sense of hope.

"We want to help the family but at the same time we want to help the community because it did affect a lot of the community here," said Jose Luis Nava, Carlos’ cousin. "We wanted to bond everybody to come together to do something positive for once, to show people we’re tired of this violence."