May 19, 2013
The Invisible City: Entering Oakland
Posted on Mar 11, 2007
By James Harris
The white woman, who had ridden with me before, jumped into my car at the casual car pool on Grand Avenue in Oakland, Calif., and we were off to work across the bridge to San Francisco. She was chatty, really chatty—an environmental lawyer currently working on an impossible case against the government for environmental abuse. We talked movies and Bush. Then she made a quantum leap:
“The killings in Oakland. Don’t they bother you? They’re all black—almost all of them.”
As a black man, I was struck initially by this white woman’s use of such racially blunt language, then startled by the introspection the question thrust upon me. We drove on, now at Treasure Island, about halfway through our ride; I was quietly trying to figure out just what the hell was going on in Oakland, now one of America’s deadliest cities.
Finally, after a half-mile or so, I said, “You’re right, they are mostly black, probably all black—all in ‘the flatlands.’ ” That’s what Oakland residents call the area between the 580 and 880 freeways, between the hills and the bay. “The idea is to live above 580,” Bryant Reed, another Oakland resident, once told me. That way you don’t have to worry about your kids getting shot on the way home from school. Back in the car, my companion chimed in. “I saw that statistic on the news,” she said.
The next mile or two was dead silent. We shared a listen to AM talk radio and then joined the host in a vociferous assault on President Bush. I pulled up to the bus station, the car-pool drop-off, and we said our goodbyes.
After the drive, I was in a strange fog. I was in a bigger city, surrounded by people, some of whom shared my experiences, most of whom did not. I was there, but not really. That night, I found myself pondering my blackness (my indirect role in the murders) as I read Ralph Ellison:
In “Invisible Man,” Ellison talks about his protagonist feeling trapped in a world that fails to recognize his identity—thus making him “invisible.” Oakland’s black, dead and dying youths have become invisible, too. We hear the gunshots and see the blood spill but, in our minds, it’s only an episode on television. It cannot be real life; it cannot be real blood. It is something dark and frightening, buried deep in our imagination.
I have read the stories before in The New York Times, about the way we treat black death and white death, but there’s more to this story. This is about failed humanity. And everyone—every race and class—is a guilty accomplice to these murders.
The Low-Level Hustle
It’s a kind of “low-level hustle” that kids from the “flatlands” will tell you about if you just ask. “These fools will shoot you in a minute, for nothing,” says former Oakland resident Shayla Monique as she talks to me about the shooting of her ex-boyfriend in front of the 7-Eleven store on Bancroft in the flatlands. A boy rudely drove his bike into Shayla as she and the boyfriend, Jermaine, entered the store. Wanting to speak out on his girlfriend’s behalf, Jermaine yelled to the boy peddling away, “You can’t say excuse me?” “The next thing I know,” Shayla says, “the boy opened fire.” Jermaine, who survived, was shot six times, including shots to the chest, neck and stomach.
Hanging out in the flatlands, hearing these stories again and again, I realize that there my life is worthless and so is yours. If you stand in the way of the flow of drugs or dollars or you disrespect the wrong punk kid, you will be dead—count on it. There seemed to be a time, former Oakland resident James Randall says, “when black folks wouldn’t kill other black folks. We had to worry about white men killing us. Now, it could be said that I feel safer around white people than I do my own.” The news on Oakland has become some weird expo on violence and works only to confirm the worst stereotypes about the city and its people.
The media ignore the problem as an epidemic, and instead treat these murders—the victims mostly poor and black—as an occasional statistic. They fail to address the killings as black genocide, a genocide that is far worse, nationwide, than the American casualty rate in Iraq. Not to diminish the importance of bringing our boys home, but we have American boys dying right here in American streets. And the media, perfectly capable of mounting a movement or increasing awareness, cover the story as though it’s something we cannot change.
This is the story the San Francisco Chronicle filed on Jan. 27, 2007, after the mysterious death of Myisha Grazes:
If I were immune to the racial realities of the United States, this is where I would start asking ideologically sound rhetorical questions like, “If this were a white woman, would there be a stronger report in the news? Would people be up in arms about the death and the dying in general? Would there be countless panels and focus groups talking about ways to stop our children from dying?”
No rhetoric necessary when you’re dealing with a problem that’s invisible, a problem that people dismiss as some figment of their imagination. Myisha died, but it’s just a story about a girl who apparently had no family or friends, but was definitely in the right place to be beaten to death. Was her life not worth saving?
Murder has an all too familiar pattern in Oakland. The years 1992 to 1995 were the most deadly in city history, with as many as 175 killings in ‘92 alone (compared with 148 in 2006). Crack cocaine was the plague responsible then, but now it’s anybody’s guess. Local news outlets have speculated that the violence can be attributed to drug wars or money exchanges gone wrong. Others say the crimes are due to rising gang violence between blacks and Mexican-Americans. I’ve spoke to many police officers, city officials and residents, but there seems to be no definitive answer as to why people are dying with such frequency in Oakland.
It’s not just Oakland that struggles with homicide. In fact, urban homicide in the United States should qualify as a national emergency. The eight most deadly and dangerous cities (according to 2006 research by Morgan Quinto Press) all are predominantly African-American. In each of these, blacks are more likely to be arrested than members of any other racial group, and blacks occupy most of the impoverished territory. St. Louis, Detroit, Flint (Mich.), Compton (Calif.), Camden (N.J.), Cleveland, Birmingham and Oakland all counted at least 148 homicides in 2006. The frequency of death by murder in St. Louis County is one slaying every 1.5 days—in 2006 220 were killed.
Each of the cities on the “danger list” has this commonality: Most residents know exactly where to expect murder rates to continue rising. It’s not an entire city being plagued by violence. What we are talking about here is homicides concentrated in black neighborhoods, with both assailant and victim typically being African-American.
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