On November 6, 1973, Oakland School Superintendent Marcus Foster was shot and killed with cyanide-encrusted bullets by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) as he walked to his car after a school board meeting.  The SLA killed him because they (mistakenly) thought he supported a student ID program and the placement of police in schools. Dr. Foster, the first black superintendent of schools in Oakland, was a visionary who put his focus for reform not only on schools but on the social and economic forces that shaped them.    His death was a huge loss for the future of Oakland schools.

I remember the press coverage about the bomb toting SLA presence in Oakland and the murder of Dr. Foster vividly (I was 12).

But that was only the first (for me) in a series of headlines over the years documenting the (presented as) intractable problem of violent crime in Oakland.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. How Oakland is presented and perceived by people outside of (and even sometimes in) Oakland. The recent blog post (“A San Franciscan’s Guide to Living In Oakland”) that resulted in KQED having its ass handed to it by Oakland residents is just one example of a flurry of press coverage that says in essence “it’s fine here, seriously”  (the actual subtitle of the blog post).

As if it was uninhabitable before.  As if the new,  more affluent  residents invented this cool city.  Sorry, no.  So many of the portrayals of the “new” Oakland are tone deaf to Oakland’s rich history and culture (which is not all about hip-hop and sports, though that’s here too).

Here’s an excerpt from that blog post:

“The only rule to living here is to find where to go and not to go. The places I am going to take you on a tour through will label me as “bougie” by Oakland standards, but I don’t think there is anything elitist about coming home in one piece. So stay out of East Oakland and West Oakland. That doesn’t sound like it leaves much, but it does. Trust me, my friends have been violently mugged in East Oakland and had the same house robbed three times in West Oakland. But be my guest if you want to go to either for ‘cool points.”

By which the author reveals herself to be writing to a certain demographic; middle class white people who are afraid. It’s not entirely her fault. She is riffing on the subtext in so many stories about Oakland.  “Watch out, it’s dangerous here.”

This makes me sad. Not because focusing the conversation on Oakland crime utterly fails to take into account Oakland’s rich diversity of neighborhoods, its nature, its innovation, its creativity, its food and bar scene or its rich history of activism, but because the conversation seems to always miss  an opportunity in discussing even its own point.

Violent crime was up in 2012 in Oakland as it was in many other Bay Area cities.  Almost every story about crime in Oakland focused on the understaffed police force as a major contributor to the high crime rate.  An interesting position to take since no study has ever linked police staffing to a reduction in crime.

A look at the homicide victims in Oakland in 2012 confirms the biggest risk factor for being murdered in Oakland is being young and of color.  So yes, if you are a young black or brown man or woman, it is dangerous here.

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It seems a lot more likely that the rise in violent crime has to do with desperation and a lack of opportunity. Since the 40s Oakland has been losing manufacturing jobs that pay a living wage.  There is also the legacy of “urban renewal” programs that created the freeway culture, the projects and, eventually, a West Oakland that was a slum (KQED take note: it isn’t any more).  There is the war on drugs, overly punitive sentencing guidelines, and the creation of a prison/industrial complex that has a vested interest in recidivism.  There is the fact that ex-cons can’t get jobs (particularly in the age of quick Internet background checks). There is our continued inability to educate at risk kids well enough that they can participate in higher education (California should be ashamed of itself for voting against funding for public Pre-K education).   Oakland was once a predominantly black middle and working class city. Think of Oakland as the income inequality canary in the coal mine that is the entire American middle class.  No matter who you are, this should worry you.

Even more disturbing is my suspicion that it has always been the subtext of such stories that the amount of crime is proxy for the number of poor minorities…and that Oakland will only really be habitable to the larger world when those numbers come down.  But that overlooks the real culture of Oakland.  The art scene, community activism, the  diversity (which is not an archipelago of  homogeneous neighborhoods like SF) the innovation that drives change (small business funding and housing)… were forged in the crucible of being a predominantly minority city.   Oakland gets on with it and doesn’t apologize for  itself. It does its own thing without the need for the approval of the outside world because it has to.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could take a page from Marcus Foster’s book and recognize that the problem of crime is complicated and nuanced and that throwing more police at it will not be a solution.  And that there is so much else of note happening in our cool town that the rest of the world might benefit from knowing about.

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