OAKLAND -- For the last 30 days or so I have had the privilege of living and working in East Oakland as part of a project called "Oakland Hot Spot." Our aim was to use this time to try to go a bit deeper into one part of the city -- to understand it from the perspective of the people who live and work there.
We also had the specific goal of shedding some light into the Operation Ceasefire program that aims to help reduce gun violence in Oakland. Overall, it was an intense and very rewarding experience, and I'm thankful to everyone who took the time to share their stories with me. Thirty days is, admittedly, a woefully short amount of time to try to understand anything, least of all an entire neighborhood, the people who live there and the dynamics that make it sing. I can't say that I revealed anything that the residents of East Oakland don't already know. What I can say, however, is that I learned a tremendous amount. If you've followed my blog posts at http://oaklandhotspot.tumblr.com, you'll have seen some of that. If you haven't had a chance to follow the project, I urge you to go back and see what I saw.
I'd like to share a few final thoughts.
One is that our surroundings are key to who we become. This is a truism, of course, but it bears repeating. I'll give one example. Within a reasonable walking distance of my house in East Oakland there was precisely one place to eat breakfast, a wonderful diner with excellent service that I wrote about. The food there is good, but it is still basic diner fare, and while I would probably happily eat there every day, my doctor might recommend otherwise. Conspicuously absent from the neighborhood were the kinds of food opportunities that residents of other parts of Oakland have at their ready disposal. I'm talking about markets with a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy eating options at a reasonable price.
During my stay there was a massive gunbattle half a block from my front door. A man died. The shooters sent upward of 30 bullets flying in all directions, hitting cars, sidewalks, a firehouse and down three different streets. The residents who poured out into the streets afterward were shocked and angry and on guard, as they had every right to be. Anyone who happened to be walking in a three-block radius of that intersection that evening (it was only about 9 p.m.) was in immediate danger of death or serious injury. This is a terrible reality that is very difficult to convey to people who don't live there, and it is in part of what accounts for some of the disconnect between the brave, hardworking people of East Oakland and city officials from whom they often feel alienated. The words "shots fired" or "gunfight" don't come anywhere near conveying the immediacy and the very real threat that random, stray bullets from somebody else's rage can throw an entire neighborhood off kilter. An important distinction needs to be made, however. The vast majority of the people who live around where this shooting occurred have nothing to do with violence at all. But for whatever reason, the people who do drive the violence have determined that East Oakland is a perfectly fine place to do it. That's what angers people most.
Which brings me to another thing I learned -- the media could do a better job of connecting to communities like the one in which I lived, and doing so could do a lot to build bridges that have been broken -- between City Hall and the people of Oakland, for instance. There is a dominant narrative about East Oakland that has been repeated so often, and so insistently, that in a way it has become a truth. It goes something like this: East Oakland is a wasteland of gangs, drug dealers and prostitutes where nothing good happens. It's not true. But there is so little media presence that the reality of these communities -- the commitment people feel, sometimes the fear, the coming together around dinner tables, the history and all the other organic ties that bind -- have been somehow forgotten. I discovered this the first day of my work, when I reported on a little mini-neighborhood that was once known as Antique Row. There was a time when it was a sort of jewel of Oakland. More interesting, however, is that the people who live there now are doing everything they can to return it to its former glory. That is a story that flies in the face of what most people think they know about East Oakland. Simply telling it empowers the people who live there, because in a very real way it connects them to the levers of power that could make those ambitions come true.
I saw a lot of police in East Oakland. I have to say: They seemed busy. I saw them at 2 and 3 in the morning and again at other times of the day. But apart from the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meetings where there was some real interaction with the people who showed up, I didn't get the sense that there was much connecting individual officers on these beats to everyone else in a consistent, steady way. There aren't enough police, for one. And as one officer told me, they can only really afford to go to those places that "generate the most calls." It seems to me that makes what you might call "preventive policing" rather difficult. There's just no time, no resources, no money. But that is what a place like East Oakland needs most. Why? Because everything else is in place, despite what you might think. There are hardworking people who want to have good neighborhoods; there are incredible houses and entire streets that are begging to be lived in; and there are committed people who have no plans to leave, and every intention to do their fare share to make their world a better place.
I had the great pleasure to get to know a lot of really quality people during this work. I'm thinking of Esmirna Sanchez, who runs the wonderful diner, Luis Family Shop, where I had many wonderful breakfasts; and Lloyd Freitas, the veterinarian who has treated animals in East Oakland for more than 50 years; of the many wonderful people who invited me into their homes, who shared meals with me and discussed their fears and dreams for the city. I'm thinking of the kids I met who are trying to navigate the hazards of rough street life, single parenting and gun violence. All of them helped me to understand this city. It's my sincere desire that those outside this neighborhood, and perhaps more important, people outside this city, see this community for all that it is and all it hopes to be.