Oakland Police Department: Above the Law?

Photograph Source: Office of Public Affairs – CC BY 2.0

When I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1978, I lived in East Oakland.  My friend and I shared a run down three-bedroom Victorian with a couple guys we met at a daily free meal in Berkeley.  Our house was a block away from Foothill Avenue on East 17th Street.  We were the only white-skinned folks for a couple blocks.  A dozen or so blocks to our east was a neighborhood where lots of Hells Angels lived.  Although the Oakland police were constantly stopping young Black people in the streets, emptying their pockets, rolling  up their sleeves and either arresting or punching them, I was only bothered once by those uniforms.  It was while I waited for the bus that would take me to Berkeley, where I hung out.  Fortunately, I had no marijuana or other illegal substances on me.  After the cops emptied my pockets, took my name and called it in to see if I had any warrants, they let me go and told me I was stupid for living around so many n**gers.  Both the cops were white.

Unfortunately, my interactions with the police in Berkeley were not as uneventful.  I was knocked around by them, harassed too many times to count, arrested on bullshit charges a half-dozen times, and even taken to the hills, threatened with a severe beating and then told to get out and walk back.  But, that’s another story.  The only real link to the subject of this piece–the Oakland Police Department–is that one of the cops who relished harassing me and many other people on the Berkeley streets had been fired for “accidentally” shooting a four-year old in an Oakland police raid of questionable legality.  That same cop broke the arm of a friend of mine when he challenged an arrest he was making.

Let’s go back to Oakland which, after all, sits just south of Berkeley and is delineated by an imaginary line only visible on maps.  When I lived there it was a much poorer city than Berkeley, with many of its residents living day to day, scrambling for work and hustling for cash. The cops were rightfully hated by many of the residents and, like any other occupation force, seemed to relish that hatred.  Indeed, it seemed to give some of them an extra reason to go to work brutalizing their fellow humans.  According to a new book by journalists Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham, that brutality continued long after my friend and I moved out of Oakland later in 1977.  In fact, it might be safe to state that it intensified and became even more institutionalized.  Part of this intensification can be linked to the greater proliferation of weapons among the general population and the introduction of crack cocaine onto the streets of Oakland–a phenomenon journalist Gary Webb linked directly to the illegal arms to the contras for cocaine network set up by US intelligence agencies.

The book is titled The Riders Come Out at Night:Brutality, Corruption and Cover-up in Oakland.  The Riders were a group of police officers who mostly worked the overnight shift in some of Oakland’s toughest neighborhoods.  They drove unmarked cars, wore civilian clothes, and were both feared and hated by the people who lived in the neighborhoods they controlled. In addition to their brutality, the Riders stole drugs from dealers and users, planted drugs on their victims, consistently and brazenly lied on their reports, and participated in a cover-up of their crimes that went to the very top of the department.  They did this for years and would probably have never been caught if it weren’t for a particularly brutal beating of a Black man and a rookie cop who couldn’t live with what he saw.

The cop’s name was Keith Batt and the victim of the beating was named Delphine Allen.  It was the fallout from this particular crime that set the Oakland Police Department (OPD) on a course that would ultimately result in the department being forced to accept federal judicial oversight.  Unfortunately for the residents of Oakland, that oversight would not end the endless abuses by the police.  As the authors describe it, the cowboy culture of the department meant that not even the
feds would be able to rein it in.  Like so many other police departments in the United States, the department’s culture was part of its inception and ongoing history.  Furthermore, it reflected the white supremacist foundations of US policing in general and the economic reality of US capitalism; a reality founded and maintained via racism and the abuse of immigrants and the poor.

The Black Panthers understood this all too well.  That is why their brief, but ground-changing existence is at the nucleus of this book.  From the Party’s beginnings at Merritt College to today, their perception of the OPD as a brutal and arrogant military force on the streets of Oakland has not changed in the opinion of many of its residents.  Although the department’s vicious approach to leftist and Black radicals has toned down from the days when police murdered Panthers or violently attacked protesters, those who live and organize in Oakland can tell plenty of stories regarding recent police misconduct.  As this book makes even clearer, the department’s approach has been supported by both liberal and right wing politicians.  It is true that some of its worst violations of human rights are no longer occurring, at least not on the scale as they were during the period focused on in the book.  However, their brutality against the unhoused and others still makes the news all too often.

Oakland is not the same city it was when I lived in the EastBay.  Yet, as the recent killing of activist and baker Jen Angel during a robbery makes clear, it is still a city with a serious economic divide.  That is a divide that provokes indiscriminate criminality by some residents and a brutal response by the police.  LIke many small towns and big cities throughout the United States, the police are often nothing more than another gang on the streets. As Winston and BondGraham skillfully narrate, trying to regulate the police under these circumstances is neither easy and not always successful.  When the powerful elites running the city oppose such regulation, it becomes even more difficult.

The Riders Come Out at Night is an incredible piece of journalism. The story in these pages is both captivatingly told and remarkably researched.  Although its focus is the police department in Oakland, CA., its significance is national.  This book should be required reading for every elected official and police chief in every city in the United States.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com