In 2009, after not quite ten years of living in Oakland, my father calls me on the phone. “What’s the name of your neighborhood?” he asks without preamble.
“My neighborhood doesn’t really have a name,” I say, which is true. “Usually I tell people we live in the Grand Lake neighborhood.”
“Where’s that?” he asks. “How close are you to The Flats?”
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” I say. “It’s not just the hills and the flats, you know. Oakland is a big city.” My father, though, is from Chicago. To him, Oakland is a small town. A small, violent town.
He tells me that he’s just watched a documentary. Later, I look it up. My father has been watching Gang Wars: Oakland, a Discovery Channel special produced by a team out of New York. Reportedly pitched as a “real-life The Wire,” Oakland-style, it features a lot of grainy night footage from drive-alongs with the Oakland police gang unit, disbanded in 2009.
I don’t live in the flats. I don’t live in the hills. I don’t live in West Oakland. I don’t live in North Oakland. I don’t live in Fruitvale. I don’t live in Ghost Town and I don’t live in Dogtown. I don’t live in Uptown, China Hill, or Rockridge. I lived on the Gold Coast for two years, but despite its name, it’s not all that ritzy—and nobody really calls it that, anyway. They just call it Lakeside or “downtown.”
I moved to Oakland in 2002. I was on the run from a bad housing situation in San Francisco.
I had a tiny part time job and I was awaiting the equity payout from being bought out of a house in San Francisco I’d had a quarter-ownership stake in for two years. My boss wrote the deposit check for a two-bedroom apartment downtown, a corner unit in a building fronted with palm trees, just two blocks from Lake Merritt and three blocks from the 19th Street BART station.
I had occasionally crossed the bridge to visit friends or attend events in the East Bay, but I had no real sense of the geography of Oakland. Well, now I was learning it while living it.
I moved in next to a pot dealer.
These were the days before medical marijuana was authorized in California, before the neighborhood my building was located in earned its nickname “Oaksterdam” due to its concentration of dispensaries. The neighborhood eventually acquired its own cannabis educational organization, and later lost it in a federal raid. But all that happened after I moved out. This was still in the days when pot was entirely illegal and my neighbor had no pretentions about medicinal purpose. He was a party guy and his apartment was a party place. But he was a considerate neighbor. He never kept the party going too late or too loud. He smiled when we passed each other in the outdoor courtyard. He had a very nice cat and had cut a hole in the screen of his window so that she could pass in and out undisturbed.
The building manager let me know he knew and tacitly allowed it. In the same way, he overlooked the fact that I had three cats when my lease permitted only two. It reminded me a lot of the boarding house I lived in while I was in college, with an absentee landlord who refused to fix the roof but a building manager who made space for all sorts of tenants, oddballs and students and perpetual student oddballs.
I lived in that apartment building for two years. The neighborhood was deserted after sundown, with the sole exception of De Lauer’s Newsstand, open 24 hours a day. Chinatown had a handful of late-night restaurants, but further up Broadway was dark after dark. (These days the downtown has a vibrant nightlife, so much so that I am perpetually startled whenever I set foot there after sunset.) My neighbors and my lovers worried about me walking home from the BART stop after the sun set. I never did run into trouble.
Some things you need to know before we get much further into this: I am white. I am five foot nine. I am fat—if I were a man, you might call me “stocky,” but it’s OK if you just call it what it is. The point I am making is that whatever you call it, I look pretty sturdy. I’m a woman, but in the dark, wearing a hoodie, I easily pass for a man. Sometimes I pass for a man in broad daylight, too, especially from behind. I don’t know how to drive and I don’t ride a bike; I use public transit regularly to get where I need to go. I walk alone a lot, at all times of day and night, and I have done this my entire life. There is a photo of me, four years old, and my father waiting at the bus stop buried somewhere in the archives of my hometown paper.
You need to know this because what I have to tell you begins with criminals and ends with cops.
Oakland has a reputation for many things, depending on who you ask and how long they’ve been living in the Bay Area—if they’ve ever actually lived there at all. Non-Oaklanders and those old enough to remember the 80’s and 90’s think of rampant criminal activity of all sorts. Murder, muggings, break-ins and carjackings. Drug running. Drive-by shootings. General mayhem. This is the reputation Gang Wars: Oakland was trying to cash in on: Oakland is dangerous, Oakland is wild.
Some other people have been known to try and cash in on Oakland’s reputation as well, especially when talking to their friends from the other side of the bay, or from the suburbs. They like to pose as hard, hardened and urban. It’s Oakland living as gritty romance. The bluster makes it hard to tell what’s hype and what’s not.
A significant chunk of Oakland’s rep is a hangover from the days of the Black Panthers, whose headquarters were located in West Oakland, on a street that marked the property redline. At the time it was called Grove; now it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The building that housed the Panther HQ is now a bakery. It’s one of the few bakeries in the area that sells old-fashioned yellow cake with chocolate frosting, and as a result I’ve bought several birthday sheet cakes from there.
Thanks to the Black Panthers’ activities in the 60’s and 70’s, when they formed armed street patrols to “police the police,” California has some of the strongest gun control laws in the country.
Oakland doesn’t feature large organized gang networks like the Crips and the Bloods, the People and the Folk. Oakland’s gangs are primarily street crews, and they go to war over turf. These wars aren’t usually about business rivalry as much as they are about the more ephemeral issue of respect. Respect, and kin; in Oakland, gang membership runs in families. “Gang Wars: Oakland” proclaimed that the city harbored ten thousand gang members. In 2010 Oakland had a population of 390,865 according to the U.S. Census; that would have made approximately every 40th person in town a gang member;. Later the program revised the figure down to two thousand.
One short side note: notice the difference between the terms “gangster” versus “gang member,” “gang” versus “organized crime.”
In 2007, Chauncey Bailey was killed by a targeted assassination three blocks from my old apartment in downtown Oakland. He was a journalist working on a story about the shady finances of Your Black Muslim Bakery, a business that was also just a couple blocks from my old apartment. A handyman at the bakery was convicted for his murder, and he named the bakery’s owner and an associate as the instigators. In 2011 Yusuf Bey IV was convicted for Bailey’s murder. Bey’s list of prior crimes included forgery, grand theft, fraud, and assault with a deadly weapon. He was also suspected of at least one case of kidnapping as well as possibly having a hand in the assassination of his half-brother, the previous owner of Your Black Muslim Bakery.
My second apartment in Oakland, in which I have lived for ten years now, is on a block sandwiched between the highway and a major through street. My neighborhood is stocked with about a fifty-fifty mixture of apartment buildings and big old houses owned and occupied by aging hippies. Some, like mine, are rented out by aging hippies. A couple blocks down, some of the apartment buildings are really condos. I don’t know who lives there.
Two weeks before we move in, the apartment is broken into. An expensive camera is stolen. The landlord suspects it was someone who visited, purporting to be interested in renting the place. He thinks they were casing it instead. The thieves came in through the back door, breaking the glass to gain access. The landlord says he will put a double-bolt lock on the back and replace the glass with Lucite before we take occupancy. He does the first but never gets around to the second. The back panes remain simple glass.
The building hasn’t been broken into since.
I routinely leave my front door unlocked when I am home alone. Often I leave it open, with only the screen door between me and the rest of Oakland. Many people who do not live in Oakland are shocked when I say this. It’s true that I usually close it after dark. It’s true that I have had many interesting conversations through the screen of my outer door. But I’ve never felt unsafe. I’ve never gotten a weird vibe off of anyone who came to my door. I don’t think I’ve ever been cased.
I never leave my back door unlocked any more. More on this later.
One night in 2010 I was working late at my desk, in the converted dining room of my apartment. Behind my back were two large glass windows. I was on the side of the house closest to highway 580. Everyone else in the house was asleep in their beds.
Behind my back, I heard three pops. A pause. Then a handful more.
I left my desk. I headed into the bedroom and tried to wake my partner. “I think I just heard gunshots,” I said. He listened for a moment, eyes still closed. A few pops more. “They’re just fireworks, honey,” he said, rolling over.
I was not convinced. I did not return to my desk. I stayed awake, upright in the bedroom, listening to sirens.
In the morning, we discovered that the highway was closed. Byron Williams had been stopped by the California Highway Patrol just yards from our house. He survived the ensuing shootout and told the media he was intending to drive to San Francisco with a cache of weapons and a binder labeled “California.” His plan was to target employees of the Tides Foundation and the ACLU. He wanted to start a revolution.
The highway remained closed for the day. We watched from the overpass bridge while uniformed officers scoured the highway-side bushes for shell casings.
One weekend, a pair of sneakers suddenly appears on the telephone wires strung across the northeast corner of my block. Ten days later, they disappear.
One night at around the same time, a taxi is set on fire in front of the school next door to our house.
A few weeks later, I am taking a walk with my four-year-old children through our neighborhood. I take them down the hill, toward the lake. Along the way we pass a lot of broken auto glass on the sidewalk. I am glad none of us are wearing sandals.
Two blocks downhill, a woman is crouching next to her car. The side window is broken. “They got the whole block,” she says to me, no preamble. “Four or five cars in a row. Didn’t steal anything from mine, though.”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” I say.
“I kind of wish they had taken something, you know?” she replies. “At least then there’d be a reason. This, though. This is just…” she trails off with a shrug. “Enjoy your walk,” she says.
In 2012, my family is driving home from a late night out. We turn off the highway and head toward our house, only to pass the local halfway house, whose front sidewalk this night is festooned with police tape. A man who had been staying at the house had been shot in the back and killed. A former gang member from Richmond, he was most likely targeted by rivals.
Usually, though, the halfway house is quiet. They make good neighbors. The program is highly structured and the residents seem to stay out of trouble.
The murder was Oakland’s 105th for the year.
For all of its bad reputation and colorful history—not to mention its regional slang, with neighborhoods called “The Murder Dubs” and “The Killing Fields”—Oakland has a high but not astronomical rate of violent crime. According to YourNeighborhoodScout.com, it ranks 14th in murder rate per capita—nosing out Birmingham and Little Rock, left in the dust by Detroit and New Orleans. Oakland is certainly more crime-ridden by any measure than neighboring communities such as Berkeley, San Francisco, and even Richmond (although Berkeley has an unexpected, and under-discussed, high rate of nonviolent crime). But what Oakland definitely has is a serious problem with property crime.
Unlike murder, property crime is more likely to be committed by strangers to the victims. In Oakland as elsewhere, you’re most likely to be murdered by someone you know: a lover, a fellow gang member, a relative, a friend.
Of course, property crime can be violent too. I’m not using the rhetorical slippage that turns broken retail windows into violent destruction. Criminals use the threat of personal physical violence to extract valued property from their targets, and in FBI statistics, robberies are tallied as a subset of violent crime. In 2011, Oakland had the highest per-capita rate of robberies—muggings, carjackings, purse-snatchings and armed home invasions—of any major city in the nation.
A woman knocks on my apartment door one evening in 2013, well after the sun has set but before traffic dies down on our block. She is quite petite and fairly young, possibly a student. She is brown-skinned with straight black hair to her shoulders. She is wearing a short dress and low strappy heels.
She tells me she was mugged in front of her newly-renovated apartment building, two doors down, two nights before.
It was a Friday night, at midnight. “He just came up behind me and hit me in the head. Then he took my purse. He got my phone, he got my car keys. There was a getaway car waiting for him and he ran right in and got away. I called the police, but…” and she trails off. “I just thought you might like to know. I’m telling everyone on the block. Be careful, okay?” I thank her for the warning.
It’s not surprising that property crime and violent crime are often conflated, to be honest. So many of us are used to being treated as objects, as exchangeable cogs worth only our labor value, or visual objects worth only our ability to sexually excite someone, or as a data point in a large statistical array. Some of us come from people who were literally, legally, considered property less than 200 years ago. When we’re treated like objects most of the time, property crime begins to loom as a danger not just to our stuff, but to our selves.
Every month for about three years my children attended a free play date at a skate park in East Oakland, where they could ride their tricycles in a large open paved space along with other kids their age. The play dates took place on Saturday mornings and were over by lunchtime.
Once, and only once, the playground was shut down early because gunshots were heard a block or two away. I was in the bathroom with one of my daughters at the time and missed hearing the shots; I came out to discover my partner and my other daughter heading to the car. Nobody panicked, but everyone knew not to ignore trouble, either. We packed the tricycles into the trunk and drove home.
For a while, we have a situation—not a problem, not quite—with men hanging out at our end of the block after dark. As if they were waiting to catch a cab, or meet someone. They shy away from our headlights when we pull into the drive. They melt into the bushes when I walk by on foot. It’s clear they don’t want trouble and they don’t want to be seen.
They stand in stark contrast to what happens occasionally during the day. Across the street—directly across from where the men wait nervously in the shadows—a man is yelling at a woman. I can only hear his voice, but I know it’s a woman because half the words seem to be “bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch.” He is angry but I can’t tell why. Perhaps he is yelling into his phone, perhaps he is yelling through the locked gate at someone inside the apartment building or its garage. I never hear hitting, so I don’t call the police. I also don’t make any sign that I can hear what’s happening.
There’s a preschool next door to my home behind one of the hippie houses. One night in 2014, the school director stops me as I’m walking home from the bus.
She is a middle-aged white woman perhaps five to ten years older than me; a year or so ago she began to organize a block neighborhood watch group. I don’t know if it’s still active or not. We are friendly neighbors, if not close.
“I wanted to let you know about something that happened last week,” she says.
Apparently a group of teenagers have been hanging around the school. They smoke pot by the dumpsters at the end of our block and hang around the church parking lot that borders our back yard. She spoke to them, she says, asking them to move away from the school if they were going to smoke.
A few days later, someone broke into the school basement and stole a safe.
It had been recovered, intact, in West Oakland, yesterday.
“Your upstairs neighbors saw them, too,” she tells me. “They’ve spoken to them as well. So you should just be cautious.”
“One thing I’ve learned, this is a lawless town,” the middle-aged black woman on the bus says.
She is speaking with the man on the seat in front of me, a lean black man in braids and shades and a polyester suit. He is doing his homework, studying to be an HIV education counselor. He is an ex-addict clean for twelve years.
Another woman, sitting behind the first, is also speaking. She is studying to be a youth advocate in the criminal justice system. “I’ve been through it from the inside, you know? Now I’m learning about it from the outside,” she says.
The middle-aged woman has a large woven satchel on her lap. “You call the police, and they don’t show up. Or they show up hours later, after everything is over. And the people around you, they see that you called the police, and now they’re ready to pop you for stankin’. What are we supposed to do?”
The younger woman, the advocate-in-training, echoes her. “We go to school, we try to straighten out. We’re working on it. Are they working on it?”
The man in the suit and sunglasses tells a story of a man who was shot on the street in his neighborhood. A young woman with trauma nurse training tried to keep him alive until the ambulance came, but it was an hour before more help arrived, and the man who was shot bled to death. “There was only so much she could do,” he said. “And after the ambulance arrived and the paramedics saw that he had died, they just drove away. Didn’t say nothing. Just drove away.”
He puts the sunglasses on top of his head. His eyes are small and a little bit yellow. “What are we supposed to do?” he says.
“Fend,” I say, and the whole bus laughs.
“I was just going to say that,” he says, and gives me a high five. “Fend, and I’d like to add one more thing. Pray, because I am a Christian brother. We got to fend, and pray.”
The landlord has a burglar alarm set up for his flat on the second floor. He offered to let us buy into the contract as well, but we declined. We display the alarm company’s sticker in our window but that’s our only protection.
In 2009, the teenage daughter of my landlord’s wife moves into the illegal unit on the third floor of my building. She has a tendency to forget her keys. When she forgets her keys, she often ends up breaking into her own apartment. Sometimes she forgets to turn the alarm off after she gets inside.
The alarm company automatically dials the police when the alarm is tripped.
The Oakland police are notorious for their lackadaisical response times, violent and non-violent alike.
One night, four hours after the alarm is tripped upstairs, the Oakland police knock on my back door. Why they went to my back door rather than my front door, I don’t know. I am working at my desk. I am the only one awake. My two children, twins under a year old, are sleeping in their crib in the room next to the back porch.
The back door is unlocked; I planned to lock it when I went to bed. Because I am not expecting anyone to knock at my back door, and because the responding officers knock quietly, I’m not sure at first that I heard things right, and so I am late getting from my desk through the kitchen to the door.
At which point there are two Oakland police officers standing in my breakfast nook.
I can’t remember what I first said to them. Probably “Can I help you?” They explain why they are here, near midnight. They apologize for entering my house “but when nobody answered our knock…” I tell them, “This is not the right house.” I walk with them back to the porch and point out the staircase that they had to pass to each the staircase leading to my back door. They nod their heads and head in the right direction. They never explain why they didn’t knock on my front door instead and I am too shaken to ask.
A few months later this happens a second time—the teenaged daughter, the cops on my back porch. This time I get to the kitchen in time to answer the door before they try the lock. This time I know what to say. I explain that they have the wrong house and they need to go upstairs. They thank me and depart. I still don’t ask why or how they ended up at the rear of the house.
Ten years in Oakland and I’ve never been face-to-face with a person meaning to do me (or my property) criminal harm. Yet I’ve had the police on my back porch twice. Once they went so far as to walk uninvited into my kitchen.
I start locking my back door.