The Other Domain: Oakland’s Parallel Public/Private Worlds. Update

Posted on January 29, 2014



A “Skywatch” observation canopy that appeared suddenly on International Ave. in Fruitvale in early December, 2013. The cabin has tinted windows and is outfitted with sophisticated audio and video recorders and is over 15ft tall.

Halfway through the public comments on Tuesday’s Domain Awareness Center vote at the Public Safety Committee meeting, an older African American woman took the podium, the first and only Black person to speak on the issue that night. In her comments, she concretized the vague unease which many might have felt watching one after another white person take the stand to criticize the DAC plan, categorizing the DAC as a white person’s issue.

One would think that with the emphasis some proponents of the surveillance center have placed on its crime-fighting purposing–typified by the throat gargling of Noel Gallo–there would be a long line of people of color from the city’s poorer neighborhoods at the podium to protest. There are probably many reasons for this lack, but I suggest one possible explanation for the apparent disinterest here.

There are two public/private worlds in Oakland existing in parallel to one another. Mostly white, fairly affluent people live in one, where they are focused on issues of expression and personal privacy—especially in cyberspace. The privacy battlefield of this group is theoretical. While there is much generalized surveillance it is not yet directed at this demographic in any copious way, and much of the focus is preventative to avoid a reality suggested by everyone’s favorite rhetorical device, George Orwell’s 1984. Oakland’s other world is populated by mostly Black, Asian and Latino people in the city’s poor and of color neighborhoods. Privacy in that world has an entirely different set of parameters and connotations.

What is it like to have your every move in public surveilled? Many speakers on DAC, which appeared as the last item on the public safety agenda, mused on the idea with various projections. But the OPD report-back portion of the night’s meeting that filled up the first half of the night already gave some clue, though it passed almost without comment by city official or public citizen. Ceasefire was mentioned again and again by police captains reporting back on successes. Success in the case of Ceasefire is reached through questionable policing tactics meant to assure affluent voters that the police are taking their crime-fears seriously, while addressing the race-based economic inequalities that make liberals uncomfortable.

Ceasefire’s liberal beard comes in the familiar carrot and stick form preferred by get-tough on crime podium-pounders. In Oakland’s own literature, “Ceasefire [wants] to help you [the interpellated criminal] but we need the shootings and homicides to stop.” The help comes in the form of a “call-in” [also known as custom notification]–a dubious practice of extra-judicial and informal detention where police, lacking sufficient evidence for arrest, nevertheless vaguely threaten citizens with incarceration if they do not comply and reward them with already existing services for the destitute if they do. The stick is continued harassment, surveillance and possible incarceration; the carrot is managed poverty.

Whenever police talk about this program in public, they stress the community’s involvement in localizing and contacting supposed “at-risk” neighbors. This gives the impression that some friendly minister or outreach professional is having thoughtful interactions with citizens. But if that is happening, it’s not the only way profiles of Oaklanders in poor neighborhoods are compiled. The city’s own literature says that it uses “data analysis” to find it’s call-in targets. How Oakland police develop their profiles on targets, what the meeting consists of, how targets are then monitored after leaving it, whether these involve only those on conditional release or just anyone deemed dangerous, and how arrests are prioritized and justified is up for public speculation, . City council oversight is completely missing from the process as revealed in last night’s meeting, in which no questions were asked about Ceasefire practices whatsoever by public safety committee members.

Ceasefire’s potential for abuse of Oakland citizens was suggested by last summer’s joint OPD/City debacle. The city at that time admitted that 8 individuals it had recently arrested in a Ceasefire-based sweep and subsequently celebrated in a press conference as “violent” possible murderers, had all been picked up on suspicion of crimes like possession of marijuana. How long these individuals were in jail, what they were finally charged with and whether they were still being monitored or forced into “call-ins” remained unknown. What was made clear is that Ceasefire is based on faulty intelligence, relies on continuing surveillance and harassment of Oakland citizens, and mostly proceeds without oversight or critique.

Another extra-judicial program that police captains touted yesterday, especially in the San Antonio district was “Dear John”, a program in which the police hand out anonymous informant postcards to community liaisons in the district. With these “Dear John” postcards, residents can report license plates that they believe are used by johns soliciting prostitutes. The OPD then send letters to the name on the registration documents—which could be a spouse, family member or employer–stating that the car has been spotted in an area of high prostitution.

This may seem fine to anyone who does not actually live or spend time in these areas as a way of shaming Johns who are potentially involved in an abusive sex trade. The area is a hotspot for prostitution, and a lot of that prostitution is based on the tragic trafficking of young women in their teens. There is no doubt about that heart-breaking fact, especially for people who live and work in this area.

But what other things are found in this “high prostitution” area that would attract all kinds of vehicle traffic? The East Bay Arts Alliance, community service organization ACCE, the Youth Employment Partnership and the nonprofit bicycle repair and education organization, the Bikery. There are even more attractions in this neighborhood—things that humans in other neighborhoods want and like in their community. Like low cost furniture stores and auto mechanics and more than one famous eatery and food truck that attract diners from all over the East Bay, including a Vietnamese bakery and caterer.

Who lives and drives in the San Antonio district? Poor people, brown people, men and women raising families under arduous circumstances. Their homes, driveways, parking garages and curbs are right there in the midst of this prostitution, because it is impossible to separate prostitution from all the other things that go on in this place where real people live.

But it is not just this methodology that gives residents unregulated powers to finger others for various crimes that carry great social stigma—no doubt that is an insane practice that can only be seen as positive by people who view anyone who would live or visit a reputed “high prostitution” area as worthy of the potential abuse. Unsaid in the literature and advocacy for such methods, is the reality that OPD records those license plates and adds them to their databases in order to link them to other goings on in Oakland. It’s an analog data-mining operation, hunting for license plates in poor neighborhoods that have been identified as high-crime areas and storing them away for a rainy day.

Both Ceasefire and “Dear John” are extra-judicial programs concocted mostly to soothe disgruntled voters, not unlike DAC. They mirror a dizzying multitude of current and past programs targeted at the poor, including gang injunctions. They also include Panopticons like the “Skywatch” elevated platform, with its tinted windows, camera and acute audio recording capacities that suddenly appeared one night, towering 20 feet over the heart of Fruitvale. They include the already pervasive use by OPD of private cam footage in poor neighborhoods to monitor residents. And they include the constant surveillance of stop and frisk like tactics, targeting brown and black residents with a form of physical surveillance so intrusive that it would never be tolerated by more affluent communities.

Young black and brown men and women in these neighborhoods must be ready to tell an acceptable story of their intentions and origin to any police officer they encounter once they leave their homes. The outcome can include violence, incarceration, verbal humiliation and abuse and even death and serious injury, as exemplified most tragically by the murder of teen Alan Blueford at the hands of Miguel Masso. And none of this is even including those who have already been through the justice system and are on conditional release, who have de facto waived their right to have any kind of privacy at all, and are targeted, stopped and checked on a regular basis on the street simply for being outside. Nor does it include the built-in surveillance of the policing system that people of color must often endure, where an alert about a crime involving a Black person for example, puts all Black people in the vicinity under watch and subject to interrogation.

The biggest divide between the private/public world of the white and reasonably affluent and that of the poor and brown or black is that the former would never tolerate any of these brick-and-mortar surveillance practices in their communities. Given that the police work for the former and not the latter, it is no surprise that you do not see those practices in more economically fortunate communities. That divide creates a cognitive baseline for privacy activists–it takes the present, wildly racist and intolerable policing situations as the norm, and reacts with sensation and spectacle only to those new practices that threaten their own privacy and freedom.

DAC has rightly instilled some fear in this subset of Oaklanders. And the reality is that things will become inevitably worse in terms of surveillance for the poor in the communities I’m talking about, who will certainly be the primary target of DAC’s watchful eye. This effect will be compounded by the inevitable mission creep, as the city and police and the burgeoning bureaucracy created by DAC find new ways of justifying their center. The work that Oakland activists have done to fight off DAC has been important and effective. But it should be noted that with or without DAC, George Orwell’s frightening vision has been alive and well in Oakland’s poor neighborhoods for at least as long as his book has existed, if not longer.

Update: Asada Odibala, the speaker I referred to in the first paragraph, made a very good point about the city council regards it’s oversight of the police, which I thought was worth sharing here:

“…if you’re going to look at the cameras…why don’t you start with your police department…so if you want cameras to be utilized start with their cameras, that are not identifying the police abuse and misuse of force. And then when you get that straight, which has been going since 2003, they’ve been mandated to have these cameras and they haven’t been used functionally, then come to this building and talk about cameras on us as citizens. But your police department are not utilizing these cameras.  It wasn’t used with the BART police system. When the Highway Patrolman killed that man last week, the cameras weren’t on. And when that sixteen year old was shot, the cameras weren’t on. So let’s talk about some cameras with the police department. Monitor them, then come to us as citizens, to talk about having some cameras on us.”

Also, from the Oakland Privacy group comes this article about Camden, which is at the forefront of using DAC type centers specifically against crime, and which has instituted a “Dear John”-like regime but with a network of 81 video cameras:

“During the last four weeks, Big Brother in Camden has taken note of 624 vehicles whose occupants did something suspicious near one of the city’s busiest open-air drug markets, Sixth and York Streets.

The owners of these vehicles will receive letters next week warning them that their vehicles were seen – by the city’s Eye in the Sky surveillance network – in the high-crime and drug-trafficking area.

“Not only has your vehicle and tag number been recorded, appropriate criminal and/or traffic offenses may be charged if our investigation reveals your vehicle and occupants to be involved in illegal activity,” the letter reads.”

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