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

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Mosquito in Your Ear

Backwards graffiti, Oakland
Oakland's reputation isn't going to change if it has seven killings and a dozen shootings in one week, as it did in early July. A 15-year-old boy was killed. A 19-year-old woman found dead in a sleazy motel. An 84-year-old man found beaten to death in a car. An 18-year-old man killed, allegedly, by another 15-year-old boy. (No doubt the educators and intervention specialists at Youth Alive and the Khadafy Washington Project have their hands full these days.) It is all in the news if you wish to become aware of it. 

Reading about Oakland in old books and magazines, you begin to understand how old and deeply woven into its fabric is the city's other reputation, for hopeless poverty and political stagnation. Originally, much of it was described by outsiders of limited local experience. In one old piece, a long article from a 1966 issue of Ramparts (much thanks to the Project Oakland blog for making it available), the author describes downtown as a wasteland, with no place to eat lunch, unless you belonged to a gentleman's club. (That has changed dramatically. There's plenty of good eating downtown now, and even the outsider New York Times has proclaimed modern-day Oakland as a world-class culinary destination.)

But some of it came from Oaklanders themselves. In a book from 1968, a resident calls Oakland the "shitbox of the west." Apparently it was a common reference, as I have encountered it several times now, including in some of the historical background in Thomas Peele's fascinating book about the assassination of Chauncy Bailey, Killing the Messenger.

I'm reading things mostly from the Sixties and Seventies, written before the wound of the gun and cheap drugs had opened wide in East and West Oakland. In those days, critics saw the city not as violent, but as hemorrhaging figuratively, rapidly losing some apparent economic richness it had possessed, across races and neighborhoods, prior to WW II.

Not that people weren't worried about urban violence in the Sixties, about rioting in particular, as poor, minority neighborhoods in cities across the country burned. Oakland is poor, they said, it's unemployed, its minorities are powerless. Oakland will be next, they said. It wasn't. Oakland avoided riots, while producing instead the politically antagonistic Black Panthers and, later, the socially destructive Black Muslims. And, of course, finally, a propensity for killing, usually one person at a time.
Still, the views of some outsiders are slowly shifting. Sometimes you find that their perceptions depend on whether they have ever been to Oakland. That is, if you tell someone who has never been here that you are from Oakland, they seem a little shocked, or else indicate a concern for your safety. It's exasperating. On the other hand, if they have spent any time here lately, often they are impressed to learn you live here. They might even think to live in Oakland is cool. 

An Oakland council member from the hills told me she encountered this latter reaction recently in a conference call with officials of the city of Philadelphia, to whom Oakland was hip, the Brooklyn of the West, as people have been trying to call it for years now. Better than "shitbox," I guess. 

The council member tells me that crime is up a bit up there, but not as much as residents might think. She says that ready access to information these days makes things seem worse than they actually are. Still, she tells me, what crime there is has become more brazen: doors are kicked down, guns are pulled and sometimes fired. She does not begrudge her constituents their fears. She holds well-attended community meetings, where police officers give advice on how to discourage crime and salesmen of video surveillance systems make presentations. Old men email out to anyone who wants them notices of all crimes in the hills. But elsewhere might or might not exist.

Hills and wires, Oakland
Talking to residents of the hills today, you encounter sometimes a cynical acceptance, even an embrace, of the gritty reputation of the city, of that "Oakland" that began to be articulated in print in the Sixties. It's easier to accept when you view it from afar, from a place where you can imagine it however you want, instead of live in it against your will, where you can block it out or acknowledge it, depending on your mood. 
You can choose not to look. Shade the eyes of your children from the blood of the Deep. You can live a great life in Oakland and never encounter the violence. But what does that mean? Perhaps the only effect the violence has on you is that your house will sell for slightly less someday because it is in Oakland. Perhaps the only effect the violence will have on you is when the sound of another siren sails up from the flatlands, and you feel a momentary nagging, like a stubborn fly, or a mosquito in your ear as you are trying to fall asleep at night.

More on my reading upcoming, and more on my current interviews with politicians and hills residents.

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