Violence in Oakland – Two Responses

The epidemic of violence that has plagued Oakland gained more attention when three-year-old Carlos Nava was shot and killed by a stray bullet in a mid-day drive-by shooting in East Oakland two weeks ago. That tragic event brought forward different responses from the community.

Most people responded with sadness and a sense of outrage that a young life would be destroyed by this senseless violence. The response of those who live in the community and family members was one of mutual support. A memorial alter was quickly set up at the site of the shooting on International Boulevard. People brought candles, stuffed toys and wrote their messages of grief and condolence on the pictures that hung on the walls.

A car wash was organized and members of the community, family and friends turned out the following weekend to wash cars and collect donations. Hundreds of people brought their cars, at times choking International Boulevard for blocks.

The politicians and police officials showed up the night following the killing and at the funeral to put their message out. A number of city council members and Oakland Police Chief Batts, used the occasion to promote increasing the police presence and imposing curfews and gang injunctions in the area. They claimed that the rise in violence was linked to fewer police on the streets.

Batts claimed that the reason there were no shootings for 24 hours after Carlos was killed and only one shooting during the next three days was because he had doubled the number of cops on the street following the shooting.

But the other view, and the more likely one, is it was the response of the community. People were shocked by the murder. An atmosphere of collective sorrow brought people together, if only for a brief moment, including those caught up in the violence.

Having more police or gang injunctions can be appealing to people who are afraid of being robbed or shot if they walk down the street. But what would this most likely mean? It would give the police even more power over the people living there. People would be subject to increasing police stops and harassment as they go about their daily business. Young people would be profiled as gang members because of the way they look – being black or brown. People would be ticketed for small infractions or hauled into jail for tickets they couldn’t afford to pay.

Those proposing these solutions are focused on the shootings, not the causes. After the murder of Carlitos Nava, Police Chief Batts, said, “If we had the right resources, this could be as safe as any city.” He is right, but the resources needed are not more cops, curfews and injunctions. What are needed are jobs, decent schools, transportation and other social services. City officials cannot provide what is needed. Their positions depend on them accepting the way things are today and the meager resources available to these communities. They will not solve the real problems rooted in this society.

The solution lies in the communities. We could see the possibilities by the response to the murder of Carlitos. People came together quickly and acted together to express their collective grief, to support the family, and to show how quickly and effectively the community could organize itself and act – with the memorial, the car wash, and the turn out at the funeral. This effort that can be taken further – by bringing the community together – not just to mourn, but to organize. To use people’s collective will and skills to do something to change the situation they find themselves in.

If people refuse to accept a situation where there aren’t decent paying jobs, where children’s talents aren’t developed, where their elders are not treated with care and dignity, solutions can be found. People can organize based on their common interests to fight for a better life for all. Otherwise people are forced instead to fight each other over the scraps tossed to them by this society. And this is what leads to gangs and crime and violence.

California is the eighth largest economy in the world. The wealth is there to provide a good life for all. Every struggle starts with small beginnings.