Death and Police Opportunism at Occupy Oakland

A young man was shot dead outside Occupy Oakland in a dispute with a group of men Thursday afternoon.  At a vigil for the young man Thursday night, on the one month commemoration of the occupation, nerves are frayed both by the violence many witnessed earlier and the likely violence that could descend upon the camp in the next few days from police forces who have already been given a green light to destroy the camp for a second time. The now resounding cry from some sectors for a need for police in Oscar Grant Plaza should have to engage a practical debate around the effectiveness of the Oakland police as well as a debate about the obvious political opportunism in this moment on the side of the City – exploiting an isolated and likely unrelated act of violence as a pretense for their own.  Police occupations do not create justice.  A large number of people in Oakland support Occupy Oakland despite an unending smear-campaign coming from the media, Mayor, City Hall, and the Chamber of Commerce.

The State – the City of Oakland in this case – uses acts of violence as a means to increase its own power while rarely having any measurable effect on violent crime or accountability to the communities it controls.  People are not protected, violence increases, and services get cut to fund more police.  The police have the power to command resources, 2/3rds of Oakland’s budget, without any accountability for police profiling and violence, or even with respect to the basic effectiveness of their strategies for diminishing crime.  This is normalized in our culture without very many people asking why.

The questions we should be asking are: Where is the evidence that increased policing is the solution?  Why should Occupy Oakland get raided because of an act of violence that likely had nothing to do with the occupation?   With nothing left to cut in the budget, isn’t it time to start thinking about other strategies for dealing with violence – both in terms of root causes as well as practical community solutions?  If the only people given a voice in this discussion are the Oakland police it is safe to say what these answers will be.  With all of the radical energy that has been brought to the surface in the last month, are we willing to sit back while the City makes a tragic situation worse once again?

More police is not a solution 

This week a City Council subcommittee heard a report on Oakland’s gang injunction – with the statistics clearly indicating an increase in homicides and other violent crimes in North Oakland after the injunction was implemented.  The power the police have in this society creates a situation where if injunctions work – we get more injunctions; if they don’t work (and they have not) – we get more injunctions.  Homicide in Oakland is a very real problem.  The solution of hiring more police, consuming nearly $2 million in federal stimulus and grant money for policing, has however done nothing to decrease violent crime.  Community groups like Critical Resistance and the Stop the Injunctions Coalition have provided hard data on the effectiveness of social programs like educational programs, job training and placement (like Cypress Mandela in Oakland), healthcare, affordable housing, etc. – efforts that have been shown to reduce violent crime in cities throughout the country.  These types of programs have all been cut in recent years in Oakland, including a ballot measure to fund a Safe Communities program that never got off the ground.  Beyond these targeted interventions directed at “at risk youth” the broader issue of justice in Oakland is a debate that has been far too narrow.

“Street Justice,” “Police Justice,” or Democracy 

The last time the police were brazen enough to ask the people of East Oakland if they wanted more police they did not get the answer they were hoping for.  They found that the primary concern among poor, black people in Oakland was police harassment and profiling, not whether police solved crime.  In fact, respondents were 6 times more likely to have concerns about policing and police abuse than concerns about crime.  If radical democracy is the goal of Occupy Oakland the debate surrounding both Thursday’s killing and the occupation should be grounded in a real-world discussion of the police and alternatives to the police.  This discussion should be rooted in the will of the people of Oakland, not the wishes of the OPD or the people who carry their water.

The causes and effects of violent crime in Oakland are rarely discussed.  Despite the fact that statistical analyses reliably show a strong relationship between unemployment and violent crime, we rarely hear any mention, let alone discussion, of high unemployment rates across the city in the unending media “analysis” of homicide in Oakland.  Nor do we see any connection between library cuts or de-funded summer jobs programs and youth violence.

Steve Lorenz recently wrote an analysis of the meaning of justice in an unjust and undemocratic society in the aftermath of his home being invaded and his children having guns drawn on them.  The article addresses both the reflexive and short-sighted desire for revenge, and the frustration over a lack of just solutions to crime and violence.   In American cities, we are left to choose between two bad options – the justice of the street and the justice of the police, courts and prisons.   Both options are rooted in fear and insecurity and do more harm than good – neither does anything to keep us safer.  Occupy Oakland’s long-term goals are the radical transformation of Oakland – including dismantling the police.  This is only possible through addressing root causes of crime, but also having community control over their own security and well-being.  This is a broader discussion, and one that the communities most affected should frame and define.

During the confrontation that quickly led to the fatal shooting Thursday afternoon several members of Occupy Oakland tried to de-escalate and break up the fight.  After the young man was shot, Occupy Oakland medics provided immediate medical attention despite a professional news cameraman bumping into and hindering their efforts.  The cameraman was promptly removed.  This does not change the fact that another young, black man was shot dead in Oakland.  The first logical thoughts are not the ways in which this calls out Occupy Oakland, but the ways in which it calls out the Oakland Police Department who have shown no ability to control either street violence or their own.  If the police are going to have the power to insert themselves as the solution to every problem and then fail to provide anything resembling solutions – even on the very limited terms they set for themselves – we need to start having an objective conversation about the continued need for a militarized force that trumps the will of the people, and start mapping short- and long-term alternatives to a broken system of policing and a broken city.

Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and an East Bay activist.  He can be reached at mking(at)ucsc.edu.


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Mike King is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Bridgewater State University.  His work has recently been featured in Race & Class and the edited volume Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.  His book (tentatively titled) When Riot Cops are Not Enough: The Repression of Occupy Oakland will be published by Rutgers University Press in 2016.  He can be reached at mikeking0101 (at) gmail.com.

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