A Careful Introduction

All over the world, people from Oakland meet and talk about gunshots. Stories of terror connect people, as stories of hurricanes link together islanders and tornadoes link Middle Americans. Yet while natural disasters allow us to shake our fists at fate, climate change or both, human violence reflects an equally mysterious wild nature that lives within and between us. Once upon a time, an elderly lady told me, East Oakland was 100 percent suburban, with a glossy, postwar, picket-fence façade. The façade has fallen, but perhaps the violence was there all along.

To look at shooting as a statistical question abstracts it from its complex social, political and spiritual roots. The phrase “don’t become a statistic,” which we hear over and over and over again, implies that if one is killed or otherwise undone by the streets, one will leave nothing but a number on a spreadsheet. Sadly, this phrase hides a much larger truth: the dead leave legacies of all kinds, and statistics always refer to an actual thing, without commenting on it. This cold lack of comment is difficult to stomach in our case, because we want to know that there are concrete solutions to crime in Oakland.

Likewise, you want from me just the facts: the numbers you can shoehorn into your conversation over local wildcrafted hors d’oeuvres or at the dog park to give people that little spinal espresso-jolt of fear, that recognition that you Know About Violence and perhaps they don’t.

In his groundbreaking text The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil compared “modern Man” to a racehorse, arguing that, like horses and athletes, increasingly, humans are valued by quantity, not quality. To many readers, it does not matter how artful, poetic, or righteous of a journalist I am, it’s how much I can push your buttons, how many shocking facts I can throw in your face.

But with an issue like this one, it’s simply not responsible to give you a bunch of free-floating numbers without a broader emotional picture. We are all statistics, and that does not make us dead. We have to recognize that statistics have a relationship to lived, breathed, emotional reality in order to derive any meaning from them.

And even using the word “solutions” misses the mark, belonging as it does to the faceless world of management consulting, in which any loss of life is easily reducible to a liability, at best, and a business opportunity, most of the time. There may not be any money to be made in the reduction of crime, but its increase is always profitable for some.

It’s not just criminals and funeral homes who make money from crime: Discovery Channel’s Rambo-esque “Gang Wars: Oakland” is not alone in its sensationalist grasp of the phenomenon. It is tricky, therefore, to write about crime at all without falling into the too-easy journalistic references that trigger emotions of fight and flight, exacerbating existing rivalries between haves and have-nots.

While it slides into the same digital sphere as other newsmedia, OaklandLocal is part of a unique and radical project: it has the potential to act as the propaganda against propaganda, the news media that exposes the truth without doing an injustice to it.

The Numbers

For abovementioned reasons of journalistic integrity, I am going to write this column differently from those published previously. I spent many hours lovingly researching “Restorative Justice by the Numbers,” in the hopes of creating a non-political statistical representation of a juridical solution that did not include incarceration. I have received positive feedback from the article, but perennial Oakland candidate Len Raphael, CPA and another commenter criticized the numbers, as though the idea behind them (rehabilitating rather than simply punishing people) were suspect. The studies are not new, but the idea is critical.

In order to circumvent such nitpicking in the future, I am including the numbers in a holistic way. If you want the numbers and stories of individual cases, there is a glut of data available through searching the internet. If you in any way disagree with my findings, please show contrary evidence, and I am pretty certain that you will not find any.

For the past two weeks I have been reading every statistical report on murder in Oakland, and I have found that the cases largely occur in a relatively small geographic area south of the lake, and they almost all occur on weekend nights between midnight and 4 a.m.

We conclude from the data that if you are the kind of person who reads blogs and news stories about murder, you are probably not out after midnight in Oakland too often. In that case you are almost 100 percent guaranteed not to come in contact with it. Perhaps this apparent physical safety drives your interest in the topic; perhaps there is a residual sense of guilt issuing from your ignorance. To that I say: do you really need to know more about actually-occurring crime, or could you scratch the same itch by watching The Wire, The Walking Dead or any other number of hyperreal depictions of ultraviolence? The simple fact gleaned from the numbers is that enjoyment as release, by entertainment and partying, coded in the working-class United States for the late hours on Fridays and Saturdays, quite often ends in explosive outbursts. In Anchorage and Missoula they may use knives, fists, and bottles, but Oakland begins and ends with the automobile and the firearm.

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Just look at the self-satisfied way Clint Eastwood squints at the man pleading for mercy, laying in a pool of blood, as he pumps the final injection into the body in the horrific Dirty Harry, and recall that he squinted in the same way as he drove down the hill from Piedmont to Oakland Tech on his motorcycle. We create our own society.

4 Responses

  1. Eva

    Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.

    It is not too hard to see that criminals will use guns regardless of what gun control laws are put into place, considering they are not known for following the law in the first place. Lets have a conversation about motivations found behind the trigger.

    Reply
  2. lumpkin

    This is an interesting premise but I feel like the article stopped short – am I missing something?
    I have been learning about Oakland over my 15 years here, and if there’s anything I’ve learned its that it is very hard to really categorize Oakland. It seems overly simplistic to state that guns and cars are the outlet for working class people here. The violence seems to be mostly a tiny minority of people, both local and from other nearby cities, possibly influenced by the cycle of poverty, that may be making these bad decisions. The makeup of Oakland is very diverse, and I know several people born and raised here that would never consider guns as a recreational release late at night. I see the biggest problem in Oakland is the lack of jobs and income for the city, thus causing desperate measures for some people with hard choices, as appears to be increasingly common across the country.
    Sorry I’m meandering now, just wanted to speak out against characterizing the whole 400,000 person city of roughly equal white, black, asian and latino people with what amounts to the same stereotype that people who don’t understand Oakland use.

    Reply
  3. Oakie

    You talkin to me, Shoshone? Nitpicking, huh?

    So, you want to talk about gun fire. You say you want to talk numbers. Here are some numbers:

    http://tmblr.co/ZxXtzn1JYlAzG

    Sorry, I’ve stopped updating my blog because I’m frankly too tired and fed up with the non-action and mis-action of the powers of Oakland and moved on to other interests because this city does not deserve help finding real solutions and needs to bake in its own stew of poor governance. So the data are only through May 2014. But I’m willing to bet it hasn’t changed a bit since then.

    We have on average 40 to 50 gun shots fired each day. I repeat: EACH DAY.

    If weekends are higher, so be it. I just looked at monthly stats and averaged it for the days in the month.

    What’s the difference between tracking gun shots and murders?

    Aim.

    So if we can be thankful that the murder rate went down in 2014 (as the pathetic Jean Quan took credit for), it’s all because the perpetrators were poorer shots during calendar 2014. Apparently they’ve been to the range lately, and the murder rate is back up in 2015. But pointedly, gun shots are about at the same level.

    You claim that almost all violent crime happens a few blocks south of Lake Merritt?

    I want some of what you’re smokin, man. Its got to be good stuff.

    A very high share of our gun shots AND murders are focused on East and West Oakland. It is true we can draw a circle around these two concentrations (not south of the Lake, more like centered at 98th and Bancroft for East Oakland) take up a relatively small geographic region. And it’s also true that most people try not to live or visit these areas, if they can afford to, so the population density is probably lower than other areas of Oakland. Some of us have a great amount of empathy for the non-criminal residents forced to live in these places because they can’t afford to live in nicer neighborhoods.

    But ask Oaklanders if they frequently hear gun shots fired. Ask them if their life is impacted by violence in our city. Your claims are 100% BS. We live in a war zone (our murder rate is TWICE the civilian death rate of Ukraine: a country in the midst of a very intense war). Most of us don’t see dead bodies like the people sadly living in those Kill Zones, but we are well aware of the violence going on daily in our city.

    This whole Restorative Justice thingy is just that: a thingy. Based on anecdotal evidence, skewed by those academics (UC Cal, I’m talkin to you!) who wish more than prove the veracity of the alleged methodology. It’s feel-good bullshit at its best: “…as though the idea behind them (rehabilitating rather than simply punishing people) were suspect.”

    As proof, let me point out that New York City dropped it’s crime rate by 80% in a few short years in the early 1990’s and it most definitely was not because of Restorative Justice. The crime rate has since dropped by an aggregate 90% to the lowest levels since data has been recorded in 1960. The New York prisons were dramatically depopulated, not because of RJ but because, well, crime went down so dramatically. That’s the kind of drama we could use.

    Meanwhile, things are as bad as ever in Oakland and no one is interested in learning what NYC did. Instead they feel compelled to find Feel Good Solutions. That are unproven. And don’t work. Meanwhile, blood runs in our streets daily. But carry on.

    Come back when you have double blind random sampling analysis that shows something real. Then we’ll talk.

    As a note to the good people operating this fine web site:
    You have gotten rid of the option of tracking follow-up comments to articles for which we make comments. Because of that loss of a feature, it seems to me the dialogues that we used to see here are almost entirely dried up. I know I never return to an article to see if there are responses to me, and for that reason I have largely stopped commenting. I comment to listen to those who disagree with me, not to hear myself pontificate.

    I know that the feature of putting every Tweet mentioning an article was cluttering, and useless and a nuisance to enjoying the comments sections. Getting rid of that was a good thing. Getting rid of my ability to track new comments to an article was not. It was fatal.

    Reply
    • Hobart Johnson

      Oakie is right. Oakland has a failure of governance. Specifically a failure to protect the most vulnerable part of our citizenry that is by far the most victimized by drive-by shooters.

      I live in a section of East Oakland a mile or so from where people (most recently a 14 year old boy) are most likely to be shot and killed. My neighbors and I are somewhat less concerned about getting shot and killed than by getting mugged at gunpoint, having our front doors kicked in and being robbed at gunpoint and lesser matters like having our mailboxes regularly burglarized, stolen cars left on our streets at night, or left ablaze on our streets, the predictable racket on Friday and Saturday nights of drive by gunmen practicing their shooting on freeway on-ramp signs, regular dumping of old furniture, pot grow-house waste and garbage generally on our streets. Makes those of us with little children want to think about living elsewhere.

      Reply

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