Oh No, Not Another Crime Wave!

Recently, the question of criminal violence in the streets has been raised (once again). Some people, and some police statements, have suggested that we are experiencing “another” crime wave. One might wonder what happened to the earlier one. Did someone just call it off? Or is the notion of a “crime wave” simply a media trick?

Toward the end of last summer, some neighborhood meetings were held, called by councilmembers from allegedly crime-targeted areas, to discuss what people were potentially facing – shootings, gang warfare, low-level theft, etc., were mentioned. It was fairly ordinary stuff for stressed and depressed low income areas. These meetings were also to discuss proposals for increased surveillance technology, as means of preventing crime. There was skepticism about that. Surveillance technology can aid in solving crimes, but only changes in social conditions will be preventative. And the problem with surveillance technology — license plate readers and lamppost cameras, for instance – is that they will be pointed at all of us, and thus serve to enhance police social control capacities. Lamppost cameras make our daily lives part of a database, recording who we hang out with in parks, when we play chess (if we do), or to whom we pass little pieces of paper. It gets recorded for future use, but by whom?

A usual response to surveillance goes: “I’m not doing anything wrong. I have nothing to fear from it.” But one is powerless over its future use. People have ended up in prison for having been on the wrong street corner at the wrong time, thereby becoming suspects without alibi with respect to a nearby criminal event. In many ways, surveillance pushes the Constitution aside (e.g. violation of privacy without warrants). For example, we know about programs like “Echelon,” which records and stores surveillance data collected globally. It reads all electronic communications, including cell phones, Wifi, email, internet pages and podcasts, etc., all without warrants. Electronic communications cross national boundaries (via satellites, etc.), which thus evade the limits of the juridical. In that contra-constitutional sense, the surveillance itself sounds like a “crime wave” all its own.

The Crime Wave of 2021

Let us look at the substance of the alleged crime wave of 2021. One list can be compiled from police reports sent to subscribing neighborhood associations. They send maybe 2 or 3 reports a week on their activities. Starting in August, 2021, the list included arresting a person with a BB gun in Berkeley High School; finding drugs and guns during a warrant arrest; arresting a robbery suspect after investigation; finding guns during a DUI arrest; arresting a man for “sexual battery;” arresting a man for inappropriate approaches to teenage girls; noting a number of gunfire incidents, one of which was simply shooting into the air; a shootout in West Berkeley; violence to a domestic partner; enforcement of oversized trucking limits in downtown streets; arresting someone for hacking into teenage girls’ computers; arresting two men for an attempted theft that failed; and a hate crime (use of derogatory terms). No drug houses were busted, and no gang war resulted from the shootout. The only real social threat was someone shooting a gun in the air in a market parking lot and the two cars at war with each other running down 10th St. The two car shootout led to two men being arrested, and some guns seized. That was the event that spurred council members to proclaim the “crime wave” and call neighborhood meetings.

What stands out is the variety of assaults on women. The police do not categorize assaults on women as “crime waves.” There are still hundreds of “rape kits” waiting to be processed from sexual assaults over the last couple of years. The only time the police pay attention to women is when they organize among themselves for self-defense against obsessive men.

Berkeleyside presents a different compilation of criminal activity. They map shootings that occur within Berkeley boundaries. For 2021, they report 52 shootings, up from 41 in 2020. Of these 52 shootings, 6 caused injury; no one was killed. It is possible to consider 52 shootings a crime wave, though most shots fired were at buildings (10) or empty parked cars (7) or just up in the air (10). If this were the “wild west,” the odds of stampeding some cattle would have been fairly high. In the “benign west” of bay area cities, blowing-off-steam like this actually presents a modicum of danger to humans from stray bullets – a malign conjunction of gun availability and stressed out people.

Among those shootings that resulted in injury (during our “crime wave”), there was a Samaritan who decided to intervene in a domestic dispute on the street. When one of the disputants turned to attack him with a hatchet, it was the Samaritan who did the shooting, injuring one of the people he was trying to assist. It reminds us of the many times the police end up killing a person who is threatening suicide, having been called to prevent him from doing so.
A man walking in Aquatic Park was attacked by a man with a gun, who shot him when he tried to run away (shooter later arrested). In September, a woman was shot in the arm after a dispute with her domestic partner; both were arrested. During that same week, a 16-year-old girl was shot in the leg on Channing St. (no suspects were found). In only one case was the shooting associated with a crime; some thieves fired a shot at a man chasing them.

In terms of a “wave” of injury events, most appear to have been from domestic disputes. The real crime seems to be allowing such disputes to be settled with guns.
One injury-shooting was by a cop. He shot a homeless person in January for allegedly stealing a sandwich from a Walgreens. This was the worst of all. The man was hit in the jaw, meaning the officer who fired the shot was aiming at his head, indicating a desire to kill. In none of the other injury shootings was such a desire in evidence.

Among the vandalistic shootings (at buildings and cars), one case involved three repetitions. A single house on Acton St. was attacked on 3 separate occasions in the middle of the night. A suspect, an Oakland woman with a very personal (and somewhat obsessive) grudge against the house’s resident, was eventually identified and charged with firearm violations and “stalking.”

Eight times, shell casings found on the street were listed as shootings. A patron fired a shot at a bar for ejecting him. A man stalking his (ex?) girlfriend fired a warning shot in her direction. Some shots were fired at the homeless encampment at Univ. Ave and Frontage Road in May. No cattle were stampeded. But clearly, emotional despair can claim a major place on our crime list. But that means we have a different kind of problem.

We also have a third kind of problem. It is a political one. When the police speak about a possible crime wave in terms of gang warfare, it is a scare tactic. Back in 2017, there was trouble between gangs, leading to some “wilding.” If it belongs to the past, to raise its specter in the present is bad faith. What has happened most recently has been the unification of many groups of young people — white, black, and brown — from different cities, all calling for the police to stop shooting black people, and to stop harassing black people with non-evidentiary (racially biased) traffic stops. Many demonstrations have called for different kinds of defunding of the police. One is that they be relieved of the necessity to respond to despondent people undergoing emotional crisis and trauma. Our 2021 “crime wave” is actually telling us that social stress is a primary aspect of our social scene. Yet the police continue doing profiled traffic stops, responding to emotional distress with guns drawn, and shooting at the hungry; we need alternatives – something unarmed and with a more humane approach.

On the police side, it would be logical for them to disseminate stories and data concerning crime waves. It would be a way of saying: “don’t defund us, you need us; there is a crime wave.”

Where is there a “real” crime wave

The US has the largest prison system in the world, in absolute numbers of prisoners, and “per capita.” Since the ratio of people of color in prison to whites is roughly 3 to 1 (75%), while the general population of black and brown people is roughly 25%, it means that people of color are locked up 9 times more often than white people. Given that the crime rates in both populations is about the same, this disparity in imprisonment represents a nationwide crime wave of a racialized (and racializing) character, carried out by the government and the police against the people.
A lot of people are thrown in prison on plea bargains. We do not know how many, since that fact does not appear on their records. But if I were to proclaim that every person in prison on a plea bargain was innocent, my statement could not be refuted (even though it may not be true). Why not? With a plea bargain, there is no trial, no evidence presented, no witnesses called, no record of judicial process. There is nothing but a signed confession. There would be no possibility of review of the case. Innocence is rendered irrelevant.

The other side of mass imprisonment is the recidivism rate. Prisoners are constantly being released (most often into probation), in some states by the thousands every month. And they are systematically denied the means of survival because they have criminal records. They are identified as ineligible for social security, for government services, for government housing, etc. Cast adrift with no lifeboat, the probability of a released person committing a crime in order to survive becomes quite high. When caught, they get sent back to prison, fulfilling the notion that many sentences are really life sentences.
There is a third side to this two-sided structure. And it is the side where people are being killed, not by guns but by negligence. There are homeless people dying on the streets every week. Three years ago, in Berkeley, the homeless population was estimated at around 800. The next year, it was up to 1000. And now, after two years of the pandemic, that number has doubled.

People die on the street from exposure, from ill health, from despair, from all kinds of self-medication and overdoses as they try to get through each day. They die. When the city provides shelter, it organizes it on the model of a prison, as a way of gaining social control over these people. So people stay away. Prison does not represent survival. Nowadays, the government can say that they died of Covid. But they were dying without Covid before Covid, so their continued deaths cannot be laid on this hapless virus.

The city has been crushing some of the encampments of the homeless. Homeless encampments are essential to the survival of homeless people. They provide care to its members and thus diminish the degree to which they die on the street. But it doesn’t eliminate it. Are their deaths to be considered crimes? Is homelessness itself a crime wave? Is city homeless policy really different from someone firing a gun at random in a city street?

Both crimes are arbitrary. Getting hit by a stray bullet is like catching a cold when one’s tent is flooded and torn by strong winds. When a person dies in those circumstances, the question is not, who killed them? The question is why the government refused to protect them from the environmental factors that did it? The city refuses to provide recognition comparable to what it provides its housed residents. That is gross negligence. It means the city is part of a “crime wave.”

There are hundreds of vacant apartments in Berkeley (as there are in every city) – owing to tax dodges and real estate corporations that gobble up houses merely as asset values. If the city seized those apartments, opened them for residence, and provided assistance in repairing what needed to be repaired, some of the homeless problem would be resolved. If all cities (or even a large number) got together and started opening those vacant apartment doors to homeless people, it would force certan changes in state law. But that won’t happen. If one city did it, no other city would join them. They would instead sit around waiting to see what would happen in the courts. A city’s refusal to violate property rights is a euphemism for “criminal negligence.”

To shoot at a domestic partner requires a certain amount of malice. Can one attribute malice to the city’s negligence? When the city eliminates encampments without providing housing (not just regimented shelter), that policy represents a certain kind of malice. The street death that results is worse than death from a stray bullet, which hits without malice. City negligence, as malicious, becomes evidence of a desire to destroy.

When the cop shot Vincent Bryant, the man suspected of stealing a sandwich, he was aiming for his head from about 40 feet away. That meant the cop was intending to destroy this man. That is malice aforethought.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.