#Ferguson & Elsewhere, Commentary & Forums

Blue on black violence and original crime: a view from Oakland, California

Oakland protest against murder of Oscar Grant. Image courtesy of Voice of Detroit


The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome Brad Erickson with the latest entry in our developing Forum #Ferguson & Elsewhere

 The police killing of an unarmed, 18-year old African American, Michael Brown, and the hyper-militarized response to public protest in Ferguson, Missouri, has prompted wide-ranging national discourse following several threads. The first, exemplified by the #BlackTwitter phenomenon, emphasizes the pattern of extrajudicial killings of black people by police, security guards and self-appointed vigilantes as the continuing exercise of racial domination in the United States. The second is the attempt to cast Michael Brown and other black victims as threatening criminals in order to justify their killings and deny the salience of racism. A third major theme is the militarization of police, a growing trend since the introduction of SWAT teams in the 1970s, now pushed into high gear through the federal distribution of idle war materiel including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and machine guns. This militarization is often linked to a decline in civil liberties and violations of due process. Some commentators locate these trends in the contexts of the rise of a surveillance state, the crisis of inequality and the demise of democracy orchestrated by wealthy elites.

I would like to reflect on these trends via the perspectives of people deeply impacted by them. In 2013, I carried out an evaluation of Oakland’s community policing program, and also tracked the effectiveness of family support services in Oakland’s lowest performing middle schools. For the first project I interviewed Oakland police personnel including captains, sergeants, lieutenants, problem solving officers (PSOs—assigned to work with specific neighborhoods), and crime reduction team officers (CRTs—largely focused on gang activity). For the second project, I observed and interviewed parents and children, teachers, principals, school counselors, and a variety of school-based service providers including nurses, counselors, mental health professionals, legal advisors, food bank and community gardens personnel, and Teach for America volunteers.

At the start of this research, I attended a town hall meeting called by the Oakland Police Department. Presided over by then Police Chief Howard Jordan and Mayor Jean Quan, the city presented the state of policing in Oakland and the latest version of its perennial plan to transform the city with the help of consultant Robert Wasserman, introduced as “the godfather of policing.”

Wasserman summarized elements of The Oakland Challenge as: “complex, lack of confidence, intense dislike of police, police understaffed [lowest ratio of officers to incidents of violent crime in the US], widespread community fear of violence, [and] extreme 911 [call] overload that exceeds resources.” As positive assets, Wasserman identified Oakland’s “celebrated diversity, strong neighborhoods, many block watch and neighborhood organizations pressing for action, [and] many police [who] want community partnership.” He identified problem solving and community policing as the overarching big ideas to meet the challenge.

Some background is in order. In 2004, Oakland voters approved Measure Y to hire 63 new officers. Fifty-seven of them would be PSOs assigned to work with Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils (NCPCs), identifying priorities and working in partnership with community organizations and an array of city agencies to address persistent problems impacting quality of life. Hot button issues include gun violence, drug houses, prostitution, graffiti, trash dumping, and burglary (all but the last of these, which is citywide, tend to flourish in downwardly spiraling localities). The CRTs (the remaining 6 officers) carry out arrests and provide expert investigation and crime solving support.

This approach contrasts with the still dominant mode of policing in Oakland in which patrol officers (the majority of the force) respond to emergency calls, one after another, often arriving too late and lacking time to carry out follow up investigations or cultivate relationships with community members. This has led to Oakland having one of the highest rates of unsolved violent crime in the nation. The more experienced patrol officers were handpicked to serve as PSOs and CRTs and also receive the most training while the larger body of patrol officers is made up of newer, less experienced recruits and has been plagued by high turnover and high drop out rates in its training program.

With their formidable training and strategic focus on violent crime, the Measure Y-funded officers have increased the number of success stories…. But the problems tend to crop up elsewhere, derived from deeper issues.

With their formidable training and strategic focus on violent crime, the Measure Y-funded officers have increased the number of success stories by transforming trouble spots (often by razing drug houses to the ground) and increasing arrests through investigation. But the problems tend to crop up elsewhere, derived from deeper issues. As a number of police officers told me, “we can’t arrest our way out of our problems.”

Relating this to national trends, the OPD itself has not acquired any of the offensive military gear now appearing among other police forces but is pursuing federal support to develop the Domain Awareness Center, a planned surveillance hub that would integrate thousands of live feeds from cameras, gunshot detectors, license plate readers and possibly drones. City council members and citizens have butted heads citing the competing needs to protect privacy or reduce crime.

The aspirational approach to crime in Oakland focuses police efforts on the one-half-of-one-percent who commit 75% of the violent crime and engaging the community in collaboration. But heavy-handed force has been deployed to suppress protests related to the killing of a young, unarmed black man, Oscar Grant, by a public transport officer and to Occupy Oakland. Riot gear-clad police fired beanbags and flash-bang grenades point blank at nonviolent protestors during the eviction of the Occupy protestors. The city has agreed to pay millions of dollars to settle multiple claims (see Oscar Grant settlement, Scott Olsen settlement) made by protestors injured by police violence during these events.

To return to the town hall meeting, following the official presentations, attendees broke up into groups based on area of residence, then reconvened to present what they had identified as areas of concern. The following problems were cited: speeding, drugs, gangs, robberies, break-ins, rape, vandalism, sex offenders, home invasion, women’s safety during the Occupy protests, murder, dumping and graffiti.

“The crime nobody has talked about is the crime of omission,” she said.

The next person to stand up was a woman from predominantly black and impoverished West Oakland. “The crime nobody has talked about is the crime of omission,” she said. “The lack of healthy food, or when you can’t support your family with a job. My people feel that it’s by design we can’t get decent jobs (applause), if you can’t get food, shelter, and [are seen as] stereotypes.”

Another black woman interjected, “the original crime,” which elicited a collective murmur of amens and other verbal affirmations.

Other West Oakland residents spoke up about disrespect by police, saying that officers need “not just sensitivity but humility,” and that officers need to “address their own bias. I need to know this is consistently addressed and checked for individual officers.”

The West Oaklanders found encounters with police to be “frustrating,” “scary,” and “annoying,” and complained of disproportionate force. “Some of it is kids’ pranks,” said one.

“These are people,” said another. “If they’re on drugs, they need rehab. If they feel they don’t have a way to make a living—no legitimate way—instead of penalizing, they should try to reach the human aspect. We need a humanistic approach, not incarceration.”

Another person added, “no stop-and-frisk. It enrages people; the community distrusts police even more.”

“Don’t preach to us that we’re not doing enough [to hold other community members accountable,] said another.

What emerges from these comments and the conversations I had with residents of West Oakland and (predominantly Latino) East Oakland is a fundamental disconnect between problems and solutions.

What emerges from these comments and the conversations I had with residents of West Oakland and (predominantly Latino) East Oakland is a fundamental disconnect between problems and solutions. Community members identified the original crimes of the long continuing history of systematic racism, economic inequality, mass incarceration, and lack of resources and opportunity—crimes that no police force is equipped to address. To the extent that one of the main functions of the legal system is to maintain status quo property relations, law enforcement plays a critical role in protecting the interests of the haves from those of the have-nots. Individual officers may receive excellent training, be deeply committed to fairness and have the best intentions, and police departments can adopt best practices and hold their officers accountable to them. But structurally, the police cannot solve and often exacerbate these original crimes.

I ran into Oakland Mayor Jean Quan a few days later and asked her what she thought of the meeting. She said the themes that came up were consistent with other meetings: residents want more civility and respect from all officers, not just PSOs. She wrote off West Oakland residents claiming that they “hate the police no matter what” but that was not what I heard. West Oakland residents identified poverty, lack of housing, lack of healthy food, and racial stereotypes (exacerbated by stop-and-frisk) as crimes; crimes about which the Mayor and the police apparatus around her were silent. I suspect that this was not due to a simple failure to communicate or lack of empathy but rather to radically divergent life experiences and understandings. A fundamental disconnect is also evident in the national debate centered on Ferguson: some insisting on an end to the intolerable racism evident in the steady procession of extrajudicial killings and demonization of black people, and those who insist that racism does not exist or that ongoing protest is intolerable. But the debate in Oakland goes much deeper than this.

I learned more about the conditions facing Oakland’s struggling communities through the second evaluation project. A constellation of Oakland agencies carries out coordinated efforts to keep at-risk youth in school and “break the pipeline to prison.” I spoke to family members, educators and service providers in East Oakland and West Oakland associated with Elev8, a national initiative of Atlantic Philanthropies. Through these encounters, the chasm between middle class life experience and that of poor people of color emerged in detail as my interlocutors described the problems they faced and their strategies to overcome them. The term at-risk youth is widely known to refer to students statistically more likely to fail academically but the social realities shaping those statistical outcomes are less well understood.

All families are subject to crises—death, divorce, major illness, job loss, substance abuse, mental illness, etc.—but middle class families have greater access to resources to weather such storms with respect to money, connections and greater familiarity with the successful negotiation of the institutional worlds of banks, insurance companies and the legal system. Middle class children subject to such personal disruptions have a relatively better chance of staying successful in school.

Among poorer families, these crises had a tendency to snowball into catastrophes. Unlike middle class families, they were more likely to experience additional challenges: the deportation or incarceration of a parent, the death of a sibling due to gang violence, a lack of health insurance, a parent’s poor English proficiency, harassment based on race, or witnessing the failure of an older sibling to stay in school. Promising young students, often with supportive parents and teachers, are routinely derailed from successful school performance by multiple crises and, once off track, it is very difficult for them to recover their position.

According to my informants, interventions by Elev8 program partners helped their children to weather the storms of their precarious existence. “Elev8 is the father to children with no father,” said one mother. “They helped with our [immigration] papers so our family could stay together,” said another. From what I saw, these students do not suffer from a systemic “culture of poverty,” or lack of drive, or any of the moral failings routinely attributed to them. Their life chances are constrained by social conditions beyond their control including historic levels of inequality and systemic racial discrimination.

Confronting Oakland’s policing establishment, the women from West Oakland who used the phrases crime of omission and original crime, made powerful interventions against pathological characterizations of people of color by calling out the conditions of injustice that deny dignity and opportunity to members of their communities.

Programs that direct resources to stabilize vulnerable families can make a difference to at-risk youth. While the overall effectiveness of Measure Y is debatable, Oakland’s efforts to improve policing through community partnership are arguably preferable to the status quo. From the worlds of legislation and foundations, these reforms are probably seen as the best politically feasible options but it is also apparent that they are not avenues to structural change that would facilitate lasting conditions of security and wellbeing for embattled communities.

Confronting Oakland’s policing establishment, the women from West Oakland who used the phrases crime of omission and original crime, made powerful interventions against pathological characterizations of people of color by calling out the conditions of injustice that deny dignity and opportunity to members of their communities.

While in no way a united front, the fed-up people of West Oakland, the protesters against blue on black violence demanding justice, low wage workers campaigning for living wages, the Occupy movement’s demands to restructure financial systems, or the Princeton study declaring that the US is no longer a democracy but an oligarchy, seem to share an intolerance for the status quo and an unwillingness to accept the current rules of the game. The trends toward greater surveillance, police militarization, violence and impunity, and elite control of the political system can be seen as techniques or intensifications of the deeper social fact raised by Oakland’s have-nots, that persistent inequality is the root, the original crime.

Brad Erickson (PhD, University of California, Berkeley) has published research on pluralism in Europe and carried out applied ethnographic research in the areas of policing and low-income schools in Oakland, California.

6 thoughts on “Blue on black violence and original crime: a view from Oakland, California

  1. Thanks for this sensitive account, and the array of insightful connections you make in it.

    One thing I was struck by, in the section where you record the demands of West Oaklanders, was that (contrary to whatever Jean Qaun says) they seems to be DEMANDING police, not rejecting it whole-hat. But there is a radically divergent sense of what “police” means between these residents and the technocrats in Oakland government—the West Oaklanders’ being broad enough to incorporate economic and other structural inequalities.

    Now, as anyone who’s read Foucault (or Dubber or Valverde of Neocleous… or any number of historians) will tell you, the West Oaklanders’ demands/visions for police are not without historical precedent. The question becomes: how did these elements of “police” fall away? I think that’s a story that has been less well told. part of it has to do with the demands of liberal democracy itself, but I don’t think even that story is adequate to explain why we see the particular form of systematic deadly dis-care we see in Oakland.

    But it does lead me to resist something that one of the women said (which is also one of the moments that most grabs me from this piece) about “original crime”. If there is a pathology to this contemporary form of police, it is not “original” to it. I see reason to imagine (and empirical histories of policing support me) to see this form of inequality as endemic to policing…

    Now, some will disagree with me here (arguing, for example, that police is inherently about protecting property rights and therefore inseparable from capitalistic forms of exploitation). But, in contrast, I’d point to the later moment when (another?) woman points to the success of Elev8 by calling the organization “a father”. What is this but an example of successful police, understood in that broader sense?

    (I hate to be this guy, but) according to Foucault, ad-ministration, ministry, as the form of governance which emerges from the science of police, was from the beginning a legacy of the (Western?) need to (at least partially) conceive of politics in pastoral, that is Fathery, terms… “A king governs his territory, like a father governs his family, like a child learns to govern himself” etc. So, to me, this is still police


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  4. Brad Erickson says:

    The concept of “original crime” permits further exploration, particularly from the African American tradition of challenging what the white establishment recognizes or fails to recognize as crime. Legally, it is the first offense in a series of violations and, for African Americans, the original crime is the act of their enslavement, leading James Baldwin to reason (in The Fire Next Time) that given all the crimes committed against black people, he could see no moral reason not to consider crime as a survival strategy. The southern Black Codes cast a broad net to restrict the liberty of and incarcerate newly freed men as “vagrants,” returning them to unfree labor in chain gains or under discipline of the lash on former slave plantations under the convict lease system, an early form of punishment for profit. All of the more recent forms of discrimination one could catalog continue to be understood as offenses against the black community. These understandings of crime carried through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, challenging the white imagination of the inherent criminality of African Americans by turning the accusation around. When Stokely Carmichael was asked in Stockholm if he feared that his agitation would land him in jail, he responded “I was born in jail.”
    Regarding the broader conception of police/policing to include the “fathery” functions carried out by people who are not armed and do not wear blue uniforms, rather than broaden the categorical scope of policing, which, in besieged communities is inextricable from the criminal justice system, I would follow the lead of decarceration activists who point to the multiple strategies that decenter the role of police and the criminal justice system in addressing community problems. In addition to the catalog of needed state sponsored services and interventions, the critical role of autonomous, community controlled institutions and resources appears counter to even the broader conception of policing.


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