Biking home last night on Foothill Avenue, I happened upon Oakland’s 50th homicide. This isn’t the first time that I’ve biked past a murder scene in Oakland; for anyone who’s lived here long enough, its not as uncommon as one would hope. But the murder, and another in East Oakland the day before, intruded on a peculiar juxtaposition constructed by media, city and police over the past few weeks that bears examination.
Less than two weeks ago, local media outlets, announced–or it should be said, reprinted an OPD press release about–a joint “violent crime-crackdown” by the ATF and local police. Chief amongst those trumpeting the triumph of the federal-local partnership, which boasted that it had arrested sixty of the “worst criminals” in Oakland, was, not surprisingly, San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Chip Johnson. Johnson claimed that the arrests amounted to a “reverse-rapture” that had left Oakland’s streets free of the malevolent, and then made the absurd comparison of May to April crime stats to prove his point–despite the fact that there was an even steeper and sustained drop from December 2011 through January and February of 2012 with no additional effort or federal help from police whatsoever.
The illusion of results were enough for Johnson however; he gladly swallowed and distributed the notion that all of those arrested in the operation were guilty of the most nefarious crimes, trial or no. Like many of his ilk, despite having a thirst for police repression of communities in order to keep them safe, Johnson requires absolutely no real evidence of efficacy of such sweeps to feel happy about their outcome.
This kind of thinking may be exactly that which Quan has been counting on for her obligatory “tough on crime” platform–the elusive “100 blocks” program. Quan and OPD claim that “90% of murders” take place in just 100 blocks in East Oakland. Both the 100 blocks program, and the ATF/OPD raid are firmly rooted in the kind of fantastical logic about police repression which Johnson’s “reverse-rapture” comment quite inadvertently, but accurately, captures in spirit. Indeed, in an April article, Johnson put the two programs side by side as laudable efforts to reduce armed violence. In the meantime, Quan’s 100 East Oakland blocks in which 90% of the city’s murders take place, have, rapture-like, disappeared. The Urban Strategies Council, a local demographer and think tank, revealed today that their studies of both long-term and year-to-date crime statistics show no 100 block Oakland murder-capital. The top 100 block area for murders and shootings as defined by USC, accounts for only 18% of violent armed crime; murders and shootings are generally dispersed widely across various areas of the city. Unfortunately for Quan, there is no 100 block magical zone at which a finite police force can be directed to stop highly-focused gun-violence. The ‘100 blocks” in fact is what everyone suspected it was–a color-coded blob on an ill-drawn map, signifying nothing.
A couple of observations can be made from these two examples of city and police responses to violent crime. First, police and city programs to reduce violent crime are almost all built around an illusory model of violent crime activity, which views it as a temporary but localized phenomenon. Because such violent acts in this model are perceived as something that can be stopped completely, and because they are also envisioned as occurring within invisible walls and, as such, geographically static, solutions such as federal/municipal gun sweeps and gerrymandered maps that create fictional high crime enclaves would seem to be everyone’s politically perfect solution.
The reality as we have seen is somewhat different: a flurry of focused and expensive police activity in the ATF/OPD sweep, followed by two back to back murders and eight shootings in one weekend a week and a half after Johnson’s “reverse-rapture; and Quan’s only solution for reducing gun violence, based on a Borges-esque high crime zone that is only viewable when squinting at a distance.
Second, in terms of efficacy, there is almost no point in directing police at crime prevention. For reasons rooted very much in a physical world of human and spatial limits, police cannot prevent crimes, no matter how many media-friendly programs they cook up to create the illusion of the opposite, nor how many friendly media workers they find to massage their press releases about it.
This last point brings up a very pertinent question, then. Just what is it that the police are good at? Well, violent crime can move, and so can people and guns. But one thing that moves glacially, if at all, is private property and its contents. Police are now, as they always have been, uniquely designed to protect that. Property stays put, you can make a map about it that makes sense, and you can drive around it often in such a way that discourages all but the most serious interest. Not all property, of course. Because police still have the problem of being a finite resource, they have to prioritize that property defense in ways that most of us are familiar with and aren’t worth delving into too deeply here.
What else are they good at? Well, protest and people’s movements move somewhat faster than a house, but not by much. They tend to haunt the same spaces–downtowns, civic centers, primary city arteries and the consulates, corporate and government headquarters that tend to be found there. Protests do not spontaneously pop off at 82nd and International, for example. Organizers want to be visible, and the highest visibility is in the city’s centers. Because protesters are localized geographically, and are not trying to get away, they do, somewhat ironically, fall into the otherwise fantastical logic of “100 blocks” thinking. You can put an end to protests–at least temporarily–or slow them down with withering repression embodied by police violence, and supplemented by jury-rigged extra-judicial rulings, pre-crime ordinances and press spin. Inflated and absurd charges drain bail-funds, but are later dropped; the District Attorney’s extra-judicial stay away orders, follow, requiring no trial. And on, as members of Occupy Oakland have come to know all too well over the past 9 months.
Last night, I caught another glimpse of what police are not good at that many of us are lucky to be ignorant of, but for many communities characterizes an unfortunately common form of contact with the OPD. Police are unlikely, for example, to be any good at offering human compassion to those immediately affected by violence, despite the fact that they are the first responders to such scenes. A relative of the man, who was still lying on his back in the front yard of his house when I encountered the scene twenty minutes after he’d been shot, was understandably and horribly distraught. Though its even more difficult to believe now in hindsight, I witnessed two cops–who telegraphed their disdain for her suffering both verbally and physically–grab the woman by the arms, and slam her down on the ground, ass-first. They held onto her arms for several minutes, and one police officer even began to reach for his cuffs, before thinking better of it. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this kind of story. A co-worker of mine once told me about the shooting of her brother, where, similarly anguished, she was arrested by police, taken to jail, and released some hours later. They didn’t tell her that her brother had died in the hospital in the meantime.
They’re also not very good at gathering evidence to catch murderers like the one that killed this man on Foothill. Initially, police set up a yellow cordon line emanating from the gate at the house. I and several other onlookers, including a cameraman, were standing in a space that could obviously have held evidence, or even the weapon itself. But it was a good fifteen minutes later, after several bystanders had come and gone before that light bulb went off for police. Once they realized this, of course, it was time to aggressively and obnoxiously push back everyone, including grieving relatives and friends, while they re-positioned the cordon to the end of the block.
All of this may be worth thinking about when considering the city employees being given pink slips; the services, like libraries and health care and mental health care that are being slashed; and the neighborhood schools that are being shuttered this year–even while a police force that has the limited functions of protecting the wealthy and powerful and suppressing public dissent of bad governance continues to consume an enormous chunk of the city budget. These last things are, indeed, those social factors which make violent crime less likely–solid and accessible education, well-paying secure employment, and a mental health care system that is able to deal with the trauma caused by the overwhelming poverty and violence of some areas of our city. Unfortunately for us, they cannot be shown on a map, given flashy titles, nor can they be subdued by a limited military-like assault, making those needs all but invisible to this city government and its police force.