Scenes from the aftermath in Oakland:
stories of victims, survivors and healers.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Prologue to a Maze of Dreams

Caheri Gutierrez with a student in East Oakland
Thinking a lot about weaving the City of Oakland's rich life and current times into Caheri Gutierez' incredible story. Life in Oakland today, for many of the kids who come from where Caheri did, continues to be one very dark maze of dreams, dreams most of us could never begin to interpret because they are either too humble or too profane. More the former. Maybe their dream is simple peace.

Oakland is not Afghanistan, and so by peace we mean an absence of stress and a freedom from the fear of bloody interpersonal violence. Oakland isn’t Mexico, so the bodies don't pile up, so much as they are found scattered throughout mostly the eastern part of the city at a rate of two-plus per week.

The shootings are worse.
People don't hear about the shootings as much because, unless the victim is under 16 or white, things don't get reported as faithfully when the victim survives. It's interesting that many of today's shootings would be killings except that the trauma team at our county hospital (where Caheri spent a month after her face was shot through with a hollow-tip bullet) has gotten so good at their work. Even so, the homicide rate maintains its morbid buoyancy. As I write, the number of homicides for the year sits above that of last year by precisely the number of people killed in the Oikos massacre in March, about which I wrote this short piece for San Francisco Magazine.
Backwards graffiti at 16th Street Station
To address the violence.
Quicker than her predecessor, the somnambulist Mayor Dellums, or his predecessor, the careerist politician carpetbagger Jerry Brown, our current mayor, Jean Quan, almost a native, having arrived in our tiny but intense Chinatown as a child, came up with a newfangled public safety plan. She announced it in front of hundreds of semi-hostile Oaklanders at a public safety "summit" just days after the City's ill-planned, ill-timed and poorly-executed eviction of the Occupy protesters at City Hall last September. I was there, depressed, but not particularly hostile.

To explain it requires a bit of background: By and large, Oakland doesn't have a lot of big gangs like other cities with similar troubles. It has instead what are called turf groups, small, liquid, often essentially leaderless, always violent. To monitor all this, protests that pop up, and whatever other disruptions of the peace occur, Oakland has about 650 police officers, a woefully inadequate number.

The Oakland Police Department (OPD) has been able to identify with precision the city'scrime hotspots, and under Quan's plan would deploy the bulk of its small force at these intersections and in these neighborhoods. Quan called this her 100 Blocks strategy, explaining that most violent crime can be isolated to 100 blocks of the city, and arguing that that's where we need the force to be if we are to be safe.

Of course, if you avoid those parts of the city, you might already feel safe. If you avoid those parts of the city, they begin to feel less real, what violence takes place there affects you less, if at all, it affects you as a hit to your property value, perhaps, as the city's reputation for violence grows, even if your house is many miles away.

Oakland is hilly but not mountainous.
Oakland's highest height is only 1800 feet, but it reaches there breathless, leaving behind the lower hills, where I live, and the flats, which peter out at the big port, and on the estuary as it rolls between Oakland and Alameda, and by the bay, and where live the people of Oakland in genuine daily peril, people under the thumb of the gun, where CaheriGutierrez grew up, where she became who she was, first standing out as the seemingly rare good girl defying the odds with top grades and athletic stardom, then the weed-smoking, street-tough and aggressively hot teenage dropout and model, then the victim of shocking violence, and now where she works as a violence prevention educator and servant of the desperate city.
Gutierrez with violence prevention peer educators in Oakland
It all happens in the flats.
Also known as Deep East Oakland, and in a city of 400,000 or so souls (and slowly shrinking, by the way, mostly due to the emigration of frightened and fed up African Americans), and 15% unemployment, the flats are where most of the violence occurs, where victims are made, where most of the guns are, where Oakland's turf groups rule, where they vainly but violently protect, in a criminal perversion of that word, their little blocks.

We have arranged the city in a way that allows many of us to avoid those blocks, to drive quickly over them on freeways. We will be far along down Highway 880 to Berkeley when our exhaust fumes have permeated the air of the Acorn or Ghost Town. With the overpass system of highways, we no longer need to stop there even for gas or coffee or cigarettes. Even if we care that someone had been killed there, if we don't see it, don't know them, don't feel traumatized the next day as we emerge from our home, then we don't feel connected.

Quan pretty frankly admitted that the downside of her plan was that the gentle, genteel hills would be somewhat on their own in terms of police protection. We'll come if you call us, but otherwise, will have less of a presence than before.

The hills wouldn't suffer quietly.
The hills have needs, they have means. And, yes, they have things worth stealing. And it goes without saying that hills residents deserve to live in a safe and secure city. It's what their taxes are supposed to pay for. And objections have floated down on us from the hills. And the 100 Blocks plan is slowly crumbling, through genuine civic pressure and the genuine political weakness of an administration under the shadow of two admittedly weakening recall campaigns.

The 100 Blocks strategy hasn't appeared to work, anyway, as the city's homicide numbers climb, but it's really too soon to tell. But not too soon to abandon the program. That's what politicians do here. We might never know if it was destined for success. In the meantime, people die, lives get ruined, and the people trust the City and its police force ever less.

Caheri, this daughter of the city.
As I have written, there are places in Oakland where a scar speaks louder than a badge, louder than a pulpit, louder than a diploma ever could. Politicians flounder; their fears and their personal weaknesses are nearly as palpable as the fear of Oaklanders in the Deep, if infinitely less honorable.

The OPD, a hated enemy in Oakland since the days of the Panthers, the Black Muslims and the gang lord Felix Mitchell, become ever more the evil Other. I have seen neighborhoods under police siege and the looks on the faces of the people who lived there, the deep-seated resentment of the flack-jacketed blue line. I have watched at funerals of the killed as the young people tune out the old preachers and their plaintive nostalgia for some supposed time when men fought with fists instead of guns.

But I've also seen Caheri, her beautiful face and her wounded soul demand attention and respect in these same neighborhoods and among these very same young people. Caheri was recruited into her work because of her charisma , but also because of her tragedy, because of her peculiar but symbolic story. 

In the rudderless city.
In a wounded city without trust, no one in a uniform and no one with a formal title is going to begin the change that lasts for generations. They all have roles to play. We need more cops. We need good churches and good civic leadership. But if Oakland is ever to change its reputation for violence, which clings to it like mud to the soles of your shoes, it will be the wounded, stepping into the wound, who do it.

As I write more about Caheri and others like her, I won't fall into the trap of looking for heroes, but this is the story of one of those wounded who might make the city that created her, change itself, through its trauma, just the way she has changed.
Gutierrez teaching

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