The ‘war on crime’ in Oakland

I In his Campaign literature, Jerry Brown states that his ‘guiding principle’ as mayor will be ‘zero tolerance for Mme.’ Against a backdrop of ten years of state and federal anti-crime hysteria, and coupled with the ‘Bay Area’s ascendant housing and population crunch, Oakland’s poor, working class, and nonwhite are about to be squeezed out of existence.

I Ifs already happening. People are moving to California and the Bay Area in record numbers. People with money, up and coming young professionals, etc. are arriving and immediately getting priority in a tight housing market. With Berkeley and especially San Francisco gentrifying at an alarming rate, Silicon Valley and the South Bay going manic with the computer explosion, one must ask what’s next, or rather, what’s left. The answer is Oakland.

Wewstward HO

Did California’s coast just fall into the ocean? In terms of the housing crunch, property values, and migration westward and into the Bay Area, Oakland is being pushed from all sides. A major factor driving up housing costs is the booming economy in Silicon Valley which has created a sizable new class of people competing for housing who can afford to pay any large sum of money, and are willing to live as far away as–in fact may prefer to live–in San Francisco. Middle and upper-class yuppies are coming in and buying up the quainter and hip-or parts of The City and Berkeley and long term residents–people of color, unemployed, the lower section of working class–of San Francisco and other places are being forced out.

A survey to San Francisco Tenants Union cases shows that of tenants who changed their address in the past year, nearly half left San Francisco entirely. And where are those people going For people who like living in the Bay Area you can be sure they are heading to I the East Bay. And they are probably not except for the ones who can afford it–moving to Berkeley which, as Shirley Dean’s recent handy victory at the polls demonstrates, is also quickly filling up with yuppies and other middle-class spillovers from elsewhere. So that leaves Oakland.

the poorest are being literally made homeless; they are finding themselves being priced out of existence. What are people who can’t make it supposed to do? Is it just a coincidence that California is building 20 new prisons to warehouse the poor? We are witnessing a market-driven mass relocation program for the inner-city and Oakland’s new mayor elect looks poised to just make things worse.

The Uhuru Movement, a socialist Black power group that operates in Oakland, published a paper this Fall attacking mayor elect Brown’s anti-crime rhetoric and his goal, as they see it, of malting ‘Oakland ‘safe’ and pleasant for white people and investors by intensifying the policy of police containment and impoverishment of the African, Mexican, and other oppressed communities.’ They document Brown’s history, lifted from his campaign literature, in which he boasts of creating the ‘Crime Resistance Task Force to promote neighborhood watch [read snitch] programs and signed legislation establishing the state’s first career criminal prosecution programs’, which Uhuru claims laid the basis for the Three Strikes You’re Out laws.

Oakland’s growing number of would-be residents is creating a high demand for limited housing and driving rents and home prices way up. This is causing poor long-term residents to be pushed to the economic brink and to be forced out of their homes. But even before this current crisis, throughout this century, Oakland’s private housing has not been able to supply enough housing for the non-affluent classes. Severe housing shortages have been, since before Reaganomics, a permanent feature of the city s economy.

And even of people who manage to keep a roof over their head, most low-income renters in Oakland pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing, according to Jeff Levine of the Oakland Community and Economic Development Agancy. We’ve got twenty or thirty thousand people with serious housing problems.

What do you do when you are no longer able or allowed to live in the place you once called home? Well, if you can t make it legitimately in the system, it only makes sense that you are going to try and make it illegitimately outside of the system, if you are to survive. Crime is a survival strategy for the disenfranchised.

Crime Pays

Theft and drug dealing are two alternative sources of income people may turn to when the legal economy just isn t providing. The police, in fact the entire criminal justice apparatus, exists to criminalize, capture, regulate, and warehouse this whole section of people who has fallen through the cracks, this reserve or unneeded or problematic army of the proletariat. To take them out of the picture, to remove them from the rest of the population, to strew and involve their entire lives with the criminal-industrial complex, is the punishment they get for being poor.

The use of the police, courts, and prisons as the street sweepers of larger market-driven gentrification movements for economic cleansing are nothing new. In fact, in a larger sense you could say that is what the police, prisons, etc. are for. They are the ruling classes army to break the back of the poor class, and to keep it broken. To prevent it, even, from seeking medical attention. We need harm-reduction.

An economic harm-reduction perspective would view crime (the vast majority of which being economic crimes–theft, drug dealing, etc.) as symptoms of larger social illness. Poverty, an inequitable social order, and institutions of hate, degradation, and fear–notably, the capiatalist economic structure and the state itself–are to blame.

The modern urban police system was created in reaction to the riots of the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. Oakland’s police forces have consistently been used to protect the power position of both the business community and the city government itself. One function of police has been to weaken or eliminate organized labor s power of strike, and in Oakland, police have followed this national pattern. Police hostility has met any group moving militantly towards increased power for the powerless. Oakland’s police have served constantly to protect the interests of local property owners and have acted to limit the power of black people and labor.

The Uhuru Movement, a socialist Black-power group that operates in Oakland, published a paper this Fall attacking mayor-elect Brown s anti-crime rhetoric and his goal, as they see it, of making Oakland safe and pleasant for white people and investors by intensifying the policy of police containment and impoverishment of the African, Mexican, and other oppressed communities. They document Brown s history lifted from his campaign literature in which he boasts of creating the Crime Resistance Task Force to promote neighborhood watch [read snitch] programs and signed legislation establishing the state s first career criminal prosecution programs, which Uhuru claims laid the basis for the Three Strikes You re Out laws.

The Home Front

We live in a class society. The working class is a class which must work for a wage in order to buy back survival. When, for whatever reason, the bottom line doesn’t work out–when the difficulties encountered in earning money exceed the prospects for survival–that individual faces limited options, the most palatable of which often involves joining the ranks of the criminal element. Poverty and unemployment are necessary parts of the capitalist economic system. By the very logic of that system, a certain segment of the working class is positioned to become a criminal class.

The war on crime and the war on drugs are therefore domestic government wars on a certain class, a subset of the working class. In terms of that major component of the war on crime, the war on drugs, relatively little has been done to deal with the social aspects of drug use and addiction which disproportionatley affects the lower classes seeking a chemical escape from their economic nightmare. It’s been nearly four years since the crack epidemic hit and there is still not a single drug treatment program in Oakland that is specifically funded or designed to deal with cocaine addiction.

In coming mayor Jerry Brown and anyone else who supports a military solution to a social problem, the social problem of economic inequality, are supporters and perpetuators of the corporate state’s created human misery that is the status quo. Crime fighters are not neutral. They provide no real solutions and are de facto defenders of the system that generates crime–capitalism.

As middle-class people move into Oakland, they establish new standards for what constitutes attractive’ and safe and, in order to feel comfortable in their new neighborhood, they expand the police’s presence to push people out and transform the streets. Jerry Brown’s zero tolerance for crime mentality unites yuppie psychology and war tactics. It is a program for upper class colonization of working class neighborhoods.

Clean streets and safe streets are slogans for movements ideologically centered around the bourgeois home. When yuppies and other higher-income residents move in , they are frightened and demand police protection. They want to feel safe when they leave their home and must remove from the streets people not socially wedded to the illusions of the dictatorship of exchange under which they were able to succeed.

To develop a view of crime that differs from what 10 years of government sponsored war on drugs and war on crime hysteria and propaganda has inculcated into the population is a necessary task if we are to wind our way out of the matrix of incarceration that has enveloped this society. To develop a view of crime that differs from what 10 years of government sponsored war on drugs and war on crime hysteria and propaganda has inculcated into the population is a necessary task if we are to wind our way out of the matrix of incarceration that has enveloped this society. An anthropological study of a north of downtown Oakland neighborhood conducted in 1973 helps point us in the fight direction by providing evidence that constructs a theory of crime as not only a potential means to survival, but as a form of resistance. The study by UC Berkeley student, Darren Corn, focuses on a local gang nexus called the OTC (Oaktown Crips) and its relationship to the neighborhood it inhabits.

OTC Territory

The study found that the gang of young Laotian males who hung out and had an almost permanent presence on one part of a street maintained a relatively peaceful coexistence with the other people of the neighborhood. The only major complaints le@ed by the local residents concerned noise from hanging out. This situation was rare and would result in gang members being asked to keep it down as often as the police bang called.

The gang hangs out on the street, the analysis has it because the street is a place were something might happen. It is somewhere gang members can identify with, and it is a place were they can exert their power. The author of the study observes that the street is a familiar setting to the gang, to the ‘extent #at it is even like a home.” Given what we’ve already said about housing being a scarce commodity and that people pushed out onto the street are people who don’t command a high wage or a high degree of power with the system, a desire to exert power and a place to call home on the street is a logical outcome. The street is the domain of the OTC, of the gang, but it is at the same time the domain of people who haven’t anywhere else to go.

The study observes: Located in a neighborhood where there is little ownership of property by the residents, this form of possession takes on significant meaning. The OTC’s use of the street has effectively challenged the convention of who owns property and how it’s acquired. They have established squatter’s rights to this street and have made it their own, which is something that the people who live here have not been able to do.

The study goes on detail how that particular neighborhood is the site of a frontline gentrification battle, or in this case a redevelopment battle, to extend the northern edge of the Central Business District (CBD). Local speculative landowners allow houses to decline while renting them out and then eventually destroy them and level the lot to be sold off to developers.

The presence of the OTC on the street is an impediment to this scheme and police are regularly called in at the behest of the areas biggest landowner to chase people away. Gang members graffiti the area with their tag, engage in selective vandalism, and scatter when the police come a lookin’ for them. The most common criminal activity in the area being car stereo burglaries. Uniformity of clothing the gang members wear and the tags they leave in the neighborhood can be seen, in context, as a form of resistance to efforts to transform the area, it represents a unity of the dispossessed by signifying group identity and cohesion– in this case in direct contrast to the possessed. A quick look at these people identify them as a gang, especially in contrast to the majority of the people in the downtown who wear business attire. This creates strength through soldarity and is intimidating to others. In the context of the other things the OTC members do in the neighborhood, their intimidation powers are heightened.

Furthermore, their vandalism can be seen as a direct form of rebellion and power. Tags reclaim the neighborhood from the businesses by hanging the name of the OTC right on the buildings themselves, thereby symbolizing their territorial right to the area. The combined images of rebellion on the part of the OTC, along with their tolerance within the surrounding community, in conclusion, seriously questions the common idea that a gang is inherently bad.

Aspects of their existence that outsiders may view as being negative, can be seen as being beneficial to local residents. The gang can even be described, to some extent, as being protectors of the community. Actions that local property owners take to discourage people hanging out and engaging in vandalism, actions such as fortifying houses and fencing lots that would conventionally be viewed as solutions to petty crimes, can from another perspective can be seen as part of the larger problem of CBD intrusion into the neighborhood. Residents don’t worry too much about the OTC. They worry more about the encroachment of the CBD and the emminent end of their neighborhood.

Neo-liberal Raiders

Apparently, the latest push to gentrify Oakland is not unique to this area. If s part of what a Rutgers University professor and gentrification expert, Neil Smith, is calling the ‘class remake of the central urban landscape.’ ‘Evicted from the public and private spaces of what is fast ,becoming a downtown bourgeois playground, minorities, the unemployment and the poorest of the working class are destined “for large-scale displacement’ Smith says in -his recent book The New Urban Frontier.

Brown’s victory follows a trend in predominantly African cities across the country in which white mayors are once again replacing the black elected officials of the past several years. In Oakland, and elsewhere, white flight is being reversed.

As mayor, Brown plans to “fill every vacancy’ on the Oakland police force, to get ‘every penny of state, federal and foundation anti-crime money available to Oakland to make Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils truly part of the fabric of each neighborhood.”

One of the first things he announced about his mayorship is that he plans to retain the current city manager, Robert Bobb. Bobb, who is known for his anti-homeless policies as city manager of Richmond, Virginia, came into Ns job in Oakland last November declaring that criminals had better get out of town, and was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as strolling into Oakland “like a new sheriff in town.”

Bobb wants to return to the days when police officers routinely stopped young people hanging out on street comers during school hours, and wants to prosecute parents of habitually truant students and merchants who allow young people to “loiter” around their stores when they are supposed to be in their shitty, oppressive schools.

Oakland is due to be transformed. Good, many may say. But the transformation will not be the one we need. More police to contain the social problems created by a social system that doesn’t have social progress as a goal does nothing to solve this society’s vast problems, it actually compounds those problems, and frustrates the generation of alternative solutions that could lift the populace out of this market matrix.

Exposing and rejecting the neo-liberal politics of Jerry Brown speaks to all the people of Oakland slated to be displaced by this new wave of gentrification, and as well to all people who struggle even on a good day against the state and capital from a position of weakness within the general economy. Justice was not made for all by the architects of this settler state and its descendent settler economic system.

Sadly, safe streets and gentrification are synonimous at this point and time in Oakland under the current market system. Crime and survival are likewise synonimous under the same system. Ideally, a radical political movement would spring to life to offer a third way out, but until then, anyone who believes in true social justice must choose the criminal over the yuppie and the criminal over the cop. Jerry Brown, Gray Davis, Dan Lungren, and the entire chorus of political establishmentarians who support the war on crime, the expansion of the state’s criminal prosecution apparatus, or any part of this empire’s prison-industrial complex, support the system in its entirety and must be held accountable for any of its injustices.

Social power to the criminals, the gangs, the prisoners–the bottom class.

1. San Francisco Bay Guardian, October 7, 1998. The Cleansing of San Francisco, p. 17
2. Hayes, Edward. Power Structure and Urban Policy: Who Rules in Oakland. McGraw Hill, 1972, p. 55
3. Guardian. The East Bay Effect, by A. Clay Thompson, p. 39
4. Hayes, p. 37,39
5. Freedom First! …Then Peace will Last, Vol. 1, No.1, Fall 1998. p. 1
6. East Bay Express, October 9, 1998. The Other Epidemic: Fatal Encounters with Crack, by Dashka Slater, p. 14
7. Mob Rule, #2, San Jose, CA. The Pigs and Downtown, p. 8
8. Mob Rule, p. 3,7,9
9. Living on the Edge: A Study of Conflicts and Resistance in an Oakland Neighborhood. Peace and Conflict Studies Department honor s theses
10. S.F. Chronicle, October 6, 1998. p. A17-18