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Who Pays When Oakland Is on Trial?

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Fixing 'everything going on in Oakland' will require more than being tough on crime, our columnist writes. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

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n the sixth floor of the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse, hard-bottom dress shoes and high heels echo down the hall. As I sit on a bench next to floor-to-ceiling windows, I can see downtown Oakland and the hills beyond. Dark clouds gather in the distance — another storm is rolling in.

A tall, slender man in a suit identifies himself as a public defender. While shaking my hand, he tells me that the young man I’m here to support is facing a second-degree robbery charge for two or three incidents where he’s alleged to have used a BB gun to hold up pizza stores in Oakland. Aside from shaken emotions and money taken, no one was injured, and the public defender says he’s going to ask that he be released on his own recognizance.

Inside the courtroom, the public defender lays out the argument just as he did to me in the hallway. But it doesn’t go as planned.

As the prosecutor from the district attorney’s office responds, the judge nods repeatedly. Though the young man has no prior record, and could clearly use more guidance and less penalizing, the prosecutor pointedly reminds the courtroom of “everything going on in Oakland.”

The judge continues to nod throughout the prosecutor’s statement, which ends with his recommendation to keep the young man in jail and leave his bail at an astronomical $400,000. If the young person and his family were in a financial bind before, getting him released by paying 10% of the bail — $40,000 — is far from feasible.

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They schedule a follow-up court date, and the meeting is adjourned. I walk out the courtroom and back into the hallway near the big windows, trying to make sense of it all. Did I just watch Oakland itself go on trial, with this young man taking the blame?

A person in red glasses sits at a table in an indoor setting.
Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price speaks at a public safety town hall at Genesis Worship Center in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

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he prosecution used “everything going on in Oakland” as a way to connect one individual to the larger issues this city faces, pointing to a prevalent mindset in the community: on edge and weary of crime.

The Town is in the midst of another perfect storm, where the decades-old image of Oakland as a violent city is augmented by an uptick in non-violent crime. When this problem becomes politicized, elected officials return to the old “tough on crime” ideology. Inevitably, this results in a flood of folks serving time in state prisons, breathing more life into the beast known as mass incarceration.

Making it worse is that the concern isn’t completely unfounded. We’re in the United States, where every major city, especially since the pandemic, has issues with crime.

In Oakland, motor vehicle theft has been on an increase since 2020, according to city records. Last year, robberies and burglaries, along with car theft, all reportedly increased by double-digit percentages from the year prior.

The numbers show that after a dip in homicides through the 2010s, the pandemic-plagued year of 2020 brought Oakland its first year with more than 100 homicides in nearly a decade. The homicide count has been over 100 every year since. Oakland’s overall crime index, a calculation used to assess the volume of violent crimes in a specific place, has increased in four of the past five years.

Beyond the numbers, viral videos of crimes in progress have fueled fear and panic. This fear seeps into our social interactions — at the bar, the barbershop or in neighborhood cafes, people all over are conversing about broken car windows and stolen catalytic converters, home break-ins and homicides.

To somebody with all this on their mind, having a BB gun pointed at them essentially constitutes an attempt on their life. That’s essentially what I heard the prosecutor saying. But when the prosecutor brings this into court, he’s leaving out the city, state and federal government’s complicity in creating this environment.

That young man on trial is another person trying to make ends meet in a region where the living wage is $10 more than the minimum wage. He’s one of the many people bouncing from couch to couch — functionally unhoused — in a state that’s host to half of this country’s unhoused population. Last year, his home county, Alameda County, declared a state of emergency due to the amount of people living without homes. And over the past five years, Oakland has seen an astronomical rise in homelessness, one that’s left a disproportionate amount of African American people, like him, without a home.

He isn’t to blame for the state of society — he’s a victim of it as well.

RVs in an encampment with signs that read "Where do we go?" and "Respect existence or expect resistance."
Signs cover two RVs at the Wood Street encampment in Oakland on Sept. 8, 2022, while CalTrans moved in to clear the area. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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hen the state of the Town is mentioned, there’s no discussion about a public school system that had a 72% graduation rate during the 2020-2021 school year, the year this young man was supposed to graduate. And while that rate is an improvement from past years, only 40% of those graduates have A-G requirements, which are needed to qualify for the UC and CSU systems. In short, you can graduate without qualifying for the state’s higher education system, which in turn means you’ve got a longshot at entering fields like nursing, tech or any other industry that pays enough to stay afloat in one of the most expensive regions in this country.

Nonprofits and social programs such as Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention and MACRO struggle for funding, while this city’s top investment — the Oakland Police Department — has been riddled with scandals and constant turnover in the position of chief. The organization has received billions of dollars while literally being under federal monitor since 2003, the same year that the young defendant in the courtroom was born.

According to a report from the the City of Oakland, just over 10% of people aged 16–24 qualify as “disconnected youth,” which means they’re neither working nor in school. For African Americans, that number is just shy of 15%. The 20-year-old African American man at the center of this trial is one of those disconnected youth.

A woman stands outside a building with her fist up. A sign next to her says "stop the war on public education."
A demonstrator protests Oakland school closures on May 26, 2022. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Given all these mitigating factors, is it still wrong to commit a crime? Yes. Should one individual have to pay not only for their alleged crime but for decades of civic neglect that have gotten us to this point? No.

After all, the narrative of “everything that’s going on in Oakland” works to fit any agenda you so wish.

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ou’ve seen the reports of chain restaurants like Denny’s and In-N-Out citing “everything that’s going on in Oakland” as the reason why they’re shuttering their storefronts. The media only adds to the fire by parroting business owners’ reasons for closing, whether or not it’s accurate. Supported by major outlets, news reporters tell story after story about crime without providing context or suggestions for change. Social media accounts upload video after video of negative depictions of the Town — again, without context.

When this media-backed narrative gets mixed in with politics and leaks into courtrooms, we end up right back in the early 1990s.

The notion of the “superpredator,” as defined by the person who coined the term, John DiIulio, is “a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless, that he can kill, rape, maim, without giving it a second thought.” The term was employed by media outlets across the nation, pinned on people fighting court cases and tossed around by elected officials.

Around this time, politicians on both sides of the aisle discussed how to be tougher on crime. It resulted in the passing of numerous local and state bills, as well as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a federal crime bill that at the time was touted as the largest crime bill in the nation’s history. Significant portions of the bill were written by the former Senate Judiciary chairman from Delaware — you know him as President Joe Biden.

Two politicians greet each other warmly.
U.S. President Joe Biden is greeted by California Governor Gavin Newsom upon arrival at Moffett Federal airfield in Mountain View, California, on June 19, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

This crime bill wasn’t about the prevalence of drugs, police brutality or the over-policing of addiction in working-class Black and Brown communities. Nor was it about the closure of numerous factories and the lack of job opportunities. Nope, it was just as simple as being “tough on crime.”

Unfortunately, the ’90s was far from the first time this narrative was used. In the late ’80s, an extremely wealthy real estate mogul by the name of Donald Trump spent $85,000 to take out a full page advertisement in four New York newspapers wishing death on the now-exonerated “Central Park 5.”

This country has a history of attributing the ills of society to Black and Brown working class individuals put in compromising positions due to lack of education and sufficient finances. Whether or not they’ve ever committed a crime, they’re often charged for the crimes plaguing the larger society.

It’s an election year, one that leaves us once again to choose between Biden and Trump for the highest office in the land. Two politicians who see no issue with further investment in the penal system.

And in Alameda county, where District Attorney Pamela Price faces a recall effort for being too soft on crime, the pendulum is already swinging back toward more investment in law enforcement. Last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the “Surge Operation,” which will deploy 120 CHP officers to Oakland and the surrounding area — “a nearly 900% increase in CHP personnel” to target different forms of theft and violent crime. That was followed by an announcement that the operation will be supported by attorneys from the California National Guard and Deputy attorneys general from the California Department of Justice. “An arrest isn’t enough,” said Governor Newsom. “Justice demands that suspects are appropriately prosecuted.”

More cops, tough on crime stances and the “everything going on in Oakland” narrative are a recipe for mass incarceration. Mind you, this state was sued by the federal government for its overcrowded prisons two decades ago, and it wasn’t until the pandemic that the prison population dipped down to non-overcrowded levels. As of last week, California’s prisons were at 117% capacity, and a continued increase is expected.

Protesters pose with Black Lives Matter signs on the Golden Gate Bridge during a demonstration against racism and police brutality in San Francisco, California, on June 6, 2020.
Protesters pose with Black Lives Matter signs on the Golden Gate Bridge during a demonstration against racism and police brutality in San Francisco, California, on June 6, 2020. (VIVIAN LIN/AFP via Getty Images)

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hat can be done? Crime is up. People are on edge. Neighbors are wary of delivery drivers and any other unidentified car on the street; the narrative of “everything that’s going on in Oakland” is on a lot of people’s minds.

But it’s exactly because of everything going on in Oakland that it’s a good time to be cautious. Decisions made today will dictate not only where individuals being sentenced will end up in 20 years, but what the state of the Town — and this country — will be in two decades and beyond. The “tough on crime” era resulted in a lot of lives wasted away in overcrowded prisons.

Leaving the courthouse, I walk through the hallway, sneaking one last look through the translucent wall of windows while I wait on the elevator. The wind is blowing. One of the people who walked past me earlier in hard bottom shoes is out on the street running toward their car. Looks like the storm is getting closer.

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