Monday, March 20, 2006

Crime Wave

My neighborhood is in the midst of a violent crime epidemic. One weekend recently, there were thirty attacks––thirty––within blocks of Troubletown headquarters, including one perpetrated upon my cheerfully inoffensive next door neighbor, who was beaten and left unconscious on the corner. The attackers' routine is to drive around in a car until they spot a victim, park, sneak up, pull a gun, rob them, smack them, then hop in the car and drive away. Our local beat cop, Debbie Mack, spotted a fit-the-description-vehicle one day, chased it down, and arrested three African-American men, um, boys, sixteen, sixteen, and fourteen years old. They admitted being responsible for the weekend rampage. I imagined the two sixteen-year-olds coaxing a reluctant fourteen-year-old into tagging along, against his mother's strict admonitions, but as it turned out the fourteen-year-old was the "heavy" and the "ringleader," according to the Oakland Tribune, and the two shivering-in-fear sixteen-year-olds went along just to avoid having their asses kicked.

See, that's an example of an assumption I invented out of thin air with my limited knowledge, and that's just the beginning, because crime, and the fear of it, is nothing but about conclusions and assumptions that have little to do with reality. The first is racial profiling, and no matter how PC you are, you are going to do it. Thirty armed robberies by a group described as "young black males," it's unlikely you will become nervous among Asian females, or churchgoing left-handed Hispanic paraplegics, no, you're going to be afraid of everyone young and black. Even though you don't want to and you know that the majority of the group are sweet kids who have nothing to do with violent thievery.

Now, whenever I see three black teens walking up the street together "in a gang" I get braced for the possibility that they're packing a gun and check them out for signs of criminal intent. Before, when I saw an adult black man approaching me I would first look for tell-tale signs of danger like smoke pouring out of his ears, before making a race-based fear determination. Upon identifying nail-spitting anger in the individual, I made the judgment that a scrawny white dude walking toward him wasn't going to brighten his mood any. I would cross the street.

Here's another illogical assumption: I used to have false security when I was walking with my 4-year-old child, thinking that maybe my attacker will also be a family man and will spare me because of that bond we share. The guy who got mugged pushing his baby in a stroller put an end to that thinking. Fourteen-year-olds with guns probably don't care too much whether you're pushing a baby or a granny. It sucks having to be wary of children; obviously most of them are sweet and hungry for love and attention. If you were to fight back, though it's not recommended, it would be child abuse anyway.

Residential Prey-filing
The police have a lot of statistics and act as though they have a deep understanding of crime, but they also trade in assumptions. Here's the explanation given by one officer on our neighborhood panic yahoo group.

"Since the crimes are being committed by kids, word must've gotten around that this area has easy prey," she said. "They're probably new gang recruits. Everybody knows that gangs require their new recruits to pass a test, a rite of passage thing, like rob somebody, or bump off a rival gang member."

Easy prey? Hmmm, sounds like cop bullshit to me.

Oakland city officials have been taking a lot of heat over the crime and lack of police on the street, and a complicated battle ensued between the city council and the police union over how to get more out there. Apparently new cops don't just come out of the faucet when you turn the tap, it takes time to cultivate them, and Oakland keeps less recruits in the pipeline than would be necessary just to keep up with the attrition rate of the cops who leave or are indicted for their own crimes. The city came close to declaring a state of emergency, which would've made us first city in America to do so because of crime and the lameness of our city government to have the cops they need. Whoopee! A perfectly Oakland-like distinction. We also had the most violent anti-war protest, when the police opened-fire on the protesters with wooden bullets and produced serious injuries and multi-million dollar settlements. And if you think back, Oakland was also the home of ebonics.

When we first moved here fifteen years ago, and a common sight would be police helicopters to flying overhead at night shining their spotlights down, I attended one of the neighborhood group meetings at the Baptist church down the street, and I swore I would never do it again. It just struck me as a club of not-in-my-backyard types taking stands against anything in the neighborhood that wasn't certified 100% upscale, yuppie-safe, alcohol-free, and organic. But this Saturday there was a crime prevention meeting and I felt I had to attend, along with everybody else in the neighborhood. Everybody was talking about the latest attack that had happened the night before on Cavour Street. A man was out on his porch at 3 am smoking a cigarette, three black males forced their way into the house, tied him and his partner up with electrical cords and ransacked the place.

The Chair of the Committee, or President, was used to having only three or four people in attendance so his meeting-running skills were put to a test with this large, unruly, fear-crazed mob. It was over an hour late getting started and then immediately devolved into turmoil over how the agenda would go, whether it should start with an overview to bring the ignorant up to speed, or whether we should just plow forward into break-out sessions to identify concerns block by block. The chair, a Walter Mitty character, was determined to stick to his agenda. Exasperated pleas were made, there were inappropriate outbursts. I don't mean to criticize, I just have a toxic reaction to meetings of well-meaning people now after six years of running meetings for the Graphic Artists Guild. The leader of the Crime Prevention Council had an agenda of closing the high school campus so the kids would no longer be free to roam, roust out the homeless from their encampments in local bushes, and getting everybody to blow whistles when they witness a person being beaten senseless outside of their homes. He lacked the presence to stand up to the crowd, and they stomped him just like a gang of black teen males would, taking over the meeting like it was a giant wallet.

Eventually relief came when city council member Jane Brunner took the stage and tag teamed with a well-spoken assistant police chief, loaded with street cred and gravitas, Lieutenant Meeks. Now it became pure political showmanship, promises were made, blame was assigned (to the past police chief and city manager who have both moved on), and accusations were deflected at least temporarily. I think we were all happy to have somebody on stage who could hypnotize a crowd. Then there was the classic exchange between pol and concerned citizen:

"If you have problems just call my office, my staff is terrific and very responsive."

"I called your staff and emailed you directly five times! There was no response!"

"Oh, that's very unusual, I'll double check that and get back to you."

They are the familiar bromides of anyone who's ever had to fend off those random unhelpful people who keep coming at you with needs, needs, needs, and demands you've heard a million times but are helpless to address except by feeding them back into the feeble bureaucracy or attempting to fix abstractly through the budget process.

Later that night on 37th street a gang of kids leaving a noisy party smashed the windows of every car on the block with crow bars, bats, and their athletic-footwear-adorned feet. Yikes, that's another black teen male rampage and fear grips the community. Once again, without any reason or insight other than the certain knowledge that our entire society is in a steep, irreparable decline.


Blogger michael said...

Oh, Lord.

I don't think things in my neck of the city are quite as bad as they are for you, but they're bad. We don't really leave the house much at night - if we do, we drive - and having a dog is a bit of help, but not much against someone with a gun. Last week, pretty close to us, two guys *stole* a pet dog from a young woman, and in the ensuing scuffle the dog died.

What the *funk*? I am not leaving olive alone in front of the post office anymore!

Bits of information I gleaned from the meeting I attended:

*walk around with a flashlight. this wouldn't be much good against a kid with a gun, but if you can see their faces, they're easy to identify.

*carry a whistle.

*get to know your neighbors, and look out for one another. it might be good to organize a block party so that everyone can get to know one another. the problem on my street is that people are mostly renters, and like to keep to themselves.

keep safe out there.


11:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprise Jane Brunner attended the meeting. She generally avoids public safety issues, and she dislikes the neighborhood NCPC meetings. My neighbors and I disagree with her complacent approach to crime, but she simply will not get her hands dirty and get involved. It's really a shame, since the citizens of Oakland have been let down by the failed policies of Oakland, so much so that in 2006 almost 150 people died.

9:40 PM  

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