As my son and I were walking home from his Glenview District elementary school, I noticed two men sprinting toward us, one pulling his hood over his head. I realized we were about to be robbed, right outside our front gate.

I shielded my son as the man in the hooded sweatshirt pulled out a gun and demanded our money. I told him to take the money and leave. And he did, throwing the wallet back.

It all happened in a flash, no longer than two minutes, but seemed like an eternity. Instead of feeling scared or angry, I felt sorry for them. Clean-cut, barely out of their teens, looking like the many young men l had once worked with as a community organizer. (In the early-1990s I worked with at-risk youth and their families as part of the San Francisco Mayoral Office’s community organizing initiative called Neighborhoods in Transition: A Multicultural Partnership.)

This was two years ago. But I’ve been an Oakland crime victim ever since I arrived here in 1982.

My cousins and I came to Oakland at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. Violence raged across the city, but to us it was heaven. We had risked our lives escaping war-ravaged Vietnam to get here, but within a few months we came home to find the TV missing. We found scratch marks leading to the apartment next door. Being new immigrants with few English words, we did not call the police or confront our neighbors.

I eventually moved into an apartment of my own by Lake Merritt after having saved money from working two jobs—washing dishes and unloading mail at the U.S. Postal Service sorting facility in West Oakland. I felt like I’d achieved the ‘American Dream’ when the building’s manager handed me the key.

Four days later, I came home at 2 a.m. from my USPS job to find the apartment had been broken into. They’d stolen my only worldly possession, a cassette player. A few other units, including the building manager’s, were also hit that night.

Frightened, I moved out immediately, losing not only first and last month’s rents, but also the security deposit. Once again, I did not call the police. The language barrier was the main reason, but also because where I came from, calling the police often led to more trouble.

For 30 years, I’ve cherished and loved Oakland for its diversity and vitality. I’ve participated in its civic life—joining Pro Arts and Koncepts Cultural Gallery, volunteering for the Cultural Arts Funding Committee and becoming director of the pan-ethnic Ohana Cultural Center in the mid-1990s.

During that time, our cars have been broken into, the garage has been ransacked and things have walked out of the gate. We have chalked all this up to life in a big urban center. Oakland never seemed scary or dangerous to me. I’ve seen, and lived in places that were much worse, and survived.

However, the last two years have been trying. Not only I have been robbed at gunpoint, but also so have many of my close friends who represent a diverse cross-section of Oakland. Most have their houses burglarized, one at   gunpoint while she was at home less than a month ago. We no longer feel safe living here.

The already-staggering crime statistics undoubtedly do not include the many limited English-speaking residents, who, like I was, are too scared to call the police. According to the 2010 Census, 27.7% of Oakland residents are foreign-born, and 12% live in ‘linguistically isolated’ households.

Many residents now have to fend for themselves, including pooling money to hire private security guards to patrol the neighborhood. While these efforts may provide residents some semblance of security, there’s a potentially more corrosive long-term impact.

Young Latino and African-American men can no longer walk their very own neighborhood streets without prying eyes following their every move, questioning whether they belong. Hyper-vigilant new residents in gentrified areas may unwittingly profile fellow residents. Even I do a double take every time I see an African-American man on my way to and from my son’s school.

All this will affect Oakland’s race relations beyond the current crime wave.

We still love Oakland, but have lost faith in our elected leaders’ ability to tackle the crime problem and poverty, its root cause. The recession is not of their doing, but the lack of a coherent economic development plan and inability to prioritize limited resources leave us wondering whether the City Council and Mayor Jean Quan know what they’re doing.

Furthermore, the mixed message on crime, compounded by the constant bickering, doesn’t instill confidence among weary residents that the City Council and the Mayor have our best interests at heart.

Oakland has long been ill served by neighborhood activists become elected city leaders who lack the imagination and citywide worldview to steer a diverse, dynamic city of the 21st Century. During both good and bad times, Oakland’s elected leaders perpetually lead us in to the wrong boat, heading in the wrong direction. It’s time for us to demand better qualifications from the candidates and rethink how we elect City Council members and the mayor.

As for my robbery, two Oakland Police officers responded within a few minutes. They were very attentive and helpful. I was told someone would follow up with me within two weeks.

It now has been two years. No one has called me. I’ve called the police department three times inquiring the status of my case and was told it hadn’t been entered into the system. I’ve also called twice to report sightings of the suspects. Again, I was told a nearby officer would come to the area and follow up with me.

Now, I’m riding it out. Hopefully, like previous crime waves, this one shall come to pass.


Sonny Le is a communications consultant and an instructor in the Nonprofit Management Program at San Francisco State University, School of Extended Learning. He recently joined the Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) board of directors.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.

8 Responses

  1. Jeff

    Here’s an idea… running this City is like running a business. Shouldn’t these people have the credentials that verify their ability to run a multi-million dollar business effectively? The City Council Members seem to be elected because of how they look, more so than an ability to manage for the public good. Can you think of any business that remains solvent that appoints management based on how they look and smile? Nope. It is a failing system of leadership that we have… with these City Council Members running the show… times have changed in this city…. We need experienced, professional managers making the hard business decisions. The arrogance, incompetence, and ignorance of this crew is killing our city.

  2. James

    It’s time for stop and frisk policies.

    The crime in Oakland is out of control. And the cops just don’t give a damn.

  3. Pamela Drake

    Another in the long litany of generalized complaints about any and every council member or mayor whoever ran-non-specific, not even to particular council leadership, policies, or failures. What’s the point, really, kvetching for kvetching sake, how to purge oneself of responsibility to talk to ones neighbors and work things out? That this person has those abilities is even more disappointing.

    • Matt of Uptown

      Pamela, people are doing their part and they get virtually NO cooperation from the people paid to cooperate with them. The robbery report wasn’t entered? The victim saw the perpetrators and the police didn’t come back? Most of us are already talking to our neighbors, most of us are already engaging our public officials. Still, there’s no leadership, so not much is getting better. Where were our city leaders when OPD decided ONE (I can’t even believe this) ONE person was enough resources to investigate burglaries in a city that has the highest burglary rate in the NATION! The mayor was quoted as being surprised to find this out.. are you KIDDING?

    • A

      Pamela, do you honestly think that the mayor and city council are doing a good job regarding crime? Statistics and articles like this (which you dismiss) prove that they are NOT. Here’s a question for you, can you name a single program/action that the mayor(s) and city council have done in the past 10 years that has led to a decrease in crime?

      From the sound of your comment you somehow think that crime is magically going to disappear because we have conversations with our neighbors. After we talk to our neighbors then what? The police, as noted in this article and several others aren’t going to do anything. Police resources are scarce and the political will to do the right thing is even scarier. We pay our elected officials and police to keep the city running and safe. They should be ACCOUNTABLE for their decisions/lack of decisions that they make. To otherwise dismiss valid complaints and criticism is being naive to the severity the issue or just plain apathetic.

      We know that you have ties to the mayor so it’s not surprising that you would comment like you did.

  4. Len Raphael

    It’s tempting to blame a series of incompetent elected officials for our lousy municipal services, but a large part of the problem is the structure of Oakland city government. The Mayor doesn’t have a whole bunch more power than a council member. She has the power of appointing administrators and acting as a figurehead leader, but no way does she have the power that say a CA governor has relative to the CA legislature.

    The council’s power should be reduced to voting yes or no on proposals that originate from the Mayor. Consider even taking away the power to negotiate compensation from both the Mayor and the Council.

    As for not having a coherent plan for economic development. Be careful what you wish for. For years most of our elected officials came from either the public, union, or non-profit sector. Back in the 80’s and 90’s they implemented a coherent economic plan to bring a bunch of government and non-profit employers to DTO. They succeeded all too well. Unfortunately, the private sector didn’t follow as hoped for. Government and non-profits don’t pay business or property tax. Their employees aren’t big spenders.

    The other coherent plan was Brown’s 10k DTO. To this day, most Oakland officials equate economic development with real estate development. That’s a mistake that SF did not make. SF ruthlessly worked to attract tech companies despite having non of the tech campus real estate of Silicon Valley. They succeeded.

    At this point, we’d be getting a bigger slice of the overflow from SF if we just did a better job of providing basic services like security, roads, parks, and schools.

  5. Len Raphael

    Half the responsibility for our medicrity belongs to our business community. SF and Silicon Valley, even San Leandro, have business people who step up and speak out publicly and behind the scenes for improving public services. They give financial support to candidates who agree with them.

    In Oakland, Occupy’s belief to the contrary, the only major for profit businesses left, are real estate related ones. Unlike other types of businesses, real estate developers and operators have much more of a stake in any status quo than of changing things. Their dependence on approvals from the city.has to overcome their personal wish for better services.

    When you add to the dearth of business civic leadership, our fascinating history of wedge politics, it’s easy to get gridlock in which the strongest political forces can be the public service unions on issues that affect them.


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