By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
The time has come—where it’s not happening already—to open up a “Second Front” in the direct action campaign to save and preserve Black lives in cities like Oakland, California.
The term “Black Lives Matter” was coined in the immediate aftermath of the July, 2013 acquittal of civilian George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of Black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. But even before the term was created, the movement that would later be identified with it had already opened up its “First Front” following the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer at a BART station in East Oakland. The name “Black Lives Matter” now refers—sometimes interchangeably—both to the chapter organizations set up by the three women who coined the phrase as well as to the larger movement of organizations and individuals who rally under its banner. In this article, I use the term to refer to that larger movement and not necessarily the chapter organization.
While there has been a large turnover in the leadership and membership in this ‘larger movment’ BLM in Oakland since the days of the Oscar Grant protest, the tactics have remained generally similar. Each time a police officer shoots and kills a Black person in Oakland (and often when the killing occurs elsewhere in the country), a rally is organized in some central location in Oakland—usually in the plaza in front of City Hall—with a march following, which often ends with an action of civil disobedience somewhere within the streets or public spaces of Oakland or on the freeways traversing the city.
And while there have been variations in the tactics used during these marches and demonstrations over the years since Oscar Grant’s death, the geographical location of the battleground has largely remained the same: within the confines of the city of Oakland. These rolling rounds of demonstrations have come at a large cost of tax money, business revenue, and Oakland’s city image, and there is ample evidence that they have have forced some positive changes in the attitude of Oakland’s police leadership towards Oakland’s Black population and city leaders’ attitude towards its police problems.
Better or Worse?
In the fall of 2015, for example the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “Despite several recent officer-involved shootings, a Chronicle analysis of Oakland Police Department [OPD] data shows [use-of-force] incidents are becoming less common. Officer-involved shootings, excessive force complaints and incidents in which officers used force have all declined precipitously over the past three years in Oakland.” 1
More recently, in the November 2016 election, a city council-sponsored ballot measure for a Community Police Review Agency to oversee some of the actions of the Oakland police was passed by the voters. And while some advocates for strong citizen police oversight argued that the review panel could have and should have been stronger, the Mercury News quotes Tom Nolan, a retired Boston police lieutenant and criminology professor at Merrimack College, as saying that “This could arguably be the strongest police oversight board in the country, what many hope would be a national model.”
But while there have been positive steps in the past few years, there is also evidence that Oakland police actions towards Black Oakland residents have gone in the opposite direction during the same period.
That downturn in OPD use-of-force reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, looks not quite as good on closer inspection as it does on the surface. In the same article, the Chronicle reproduced a chart based on police sources that showed no suspect shootings whatsoever by Oakland police in 2014. That might be cause for celebration, except for the fact that the number of police-involved shootings immediately rose to six the next year, roughly the same average number as in the five years prior to 2014.
In a Democracy Now! June 2016 interview, Cat Brooks of the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project2 (APTP)—one of the organizations most active in the Black Lives Matter protests in Oakland—charged that the six men shot and killed by Oakland police in 2015 were murdered.3 Brooks also included a seventh man in the “murdered by police” statistic: an African-American named Richard Linyard who, according to Indybay online newspaper, “police claim suffocated to death after he squeezed himself between two buildings during a police chase.”4
And earlier this summer, Stanford University released the results of a two-year study of traffic and pedestrian stops of citizens by Oakland police that found “significant differences in... police conduct toward African Americans.”5
“Among the findings,” the study concluded, was that “African American men were four times more likely to be searched than whites during a traffic stop [in Oakland]. African Americans were also more likely to be handcuffed, even if they ultimately were not arrested.”
The directly contradictory nature of the above statistics and charges raises the difficult questions: have the marches and demonstrations under the general Black Lives Matter movement banner improved the police situation for Black Folk in Oakland, have things gotten worse since the demonstrations started seven and a half years ago, or have things remained much the same? They appear to have done both, depending upon which are of concern you’re talking about, and some of the reasons for that mixed outcome goes directly to who is targeted by those demonstrations, the location in which most of these demonstrations take place, and who is most affected by demonstrations in those locations.
One approach to understanding what’s changed and what hasn’t is to revisit the role of the targets of the street demonstrations. Who is targeted by these demonstrations? And given the location in which most of these demonstrations take place, who is most affected by them?
Strangely, the group that rarely receives direct pressure—and the emphasis is on the “direct”—are the rank-and-file Oakland patrol officers themselves and their immediate supervisors. While individual officers are often named in the protests—officers, for example, who may have shot and killed an African American or Latino in Oakland—the protesters rarely demand anything from these individual officers themselves or their fellow officers or supervisors. Instead, the demand is almost always for the district attorney to prosecute offending officers, for the chief to discipline them, for the mayor to fire the chief, if the chief doesn’t do enough disciplining, and, most importantly, to direct the officers under his or her command to change the ways they deal with African American and Latino residents in Oakland.
The problem with the last demand is that while police administrators have some control over the actions of the officers under their command, many of their officers’ activities— particularly the ones of interest to the demonstrators—are left to the discretion of the officers themselves. Whether an officer should intervene with a stop-and-search or with the more serious use of force is highly subjective. Police departments put out general directives and parameters for actions and reactions police officers can and must take in different situations, but leave it to the officers to decide—often in a matter of seconds—what actions are appropriate in the moment.
But, of course, it is the presence of such department-authorized officer discretion in potentially dangerous situations that greatly increases the ability of bigoted officers to discriminate against African American and Latino suspects and still stay within department guidelines. In a situation where officer response could go in one of several ways, it allows officers to decide that a situation is already so dangerous that a suspect must be taken by force, up to and including shooting the suspect, even if another officer encountering the same situation might either talk the suspect into custody or decide that there was a mistake and no detainment or arrest was even necessary. Officer discretion also allows officers to purposely escalate a situation with a Black or Brown suspect in order to put themselves in actual immediate danger, thus meeting one of the key requirements that make the use of force necessary in effecting an arrest.
We know from experience and anecdotal evidence that racial discrimination and excessive use of force are being carried out by a minority of Oakland police and, in the case of the most extreme instances, such as unnecessary shootings of civilians, by a small minority.
We also know that while the vast majority of Oakland police officers are not committing these actions, they are also standing by and doing nothing to stop the excesses; nor are they reporting them to their superiors, even when they privately disagree with those actions. In many instances, officers on the scene but not committing the offenses—as well as supervising superiors—are actively participating in cover-ups to keep the offending officers from being disciplined or having legal action brought against them.
In fact, the legendary “blue wall of silence” all but requires police officers to remain publicly silent when they see their fellow officers break or bend the law. It even encourages police to give false reports and testimony to help their fellow officers avoid the consequences of discriminatory actions. And despite the fact that we have seen a small upswing in officers around the country reporting on fellow officers in recent months, the truth is that the vast majority suffer the wrath of their fellow officers if they stand up and tell on their own.
One should never forget the story of Keith Batt, the former Oakland rookie officer who blew the whistle on the self-described “Oakland Riders,” the four OPD officers who were arrested in 2000 for a massive campaign of falsifying reports, planting evidence and beating suspects, most of them Black.
“Batt quit the Oakland force after coming forward” and went to work as an officer in the Pleasanton Police Department, according to a 2004 article in The San Francisco Chronicle.6 “Under questioning... by [the Alameda County] Deputy District Attorney,” the Chronicle article continues, “Batt said he had kept quiet at first about the alleged misconduct of the Riders, knowing that if he broke the code of silence and decided to ‘rat on cops,’ fellow officers would ‘turn their back on me.’”
What is true for OPD’s use of deadly force policy—discretion in application and cover-up by fellow officers and immediate superiors—is even more the case with regard to searches during police foot and traffic stops. OPD’s November 15, 2004, policy on “Prohibitions Regarding Racial Profiling And Other Bias-Based Policing”7 only requires that “investigative detentions, traffic stops, arrests, searches and property seizures by officers shall be based on a standard of reasonable suspicion or probable cause in accordance with the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
Despite the fact that Oakland’s foot and traffic stop policy specifically requires police officers to “articulate specific facts and circumstances that support reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” and forbids the consideration of “actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, or disability” in determining that suspicion or probable cause, OPD officers still managed—as we have seen—to search African American men during a traffic stop at a higher rate than appears necessary to protect the safety of Oakland.
This can happen because—as with the use of force—it is up to the discretion of the police officers themselves to decide whether somebody’s actions in each particular case add up to enough “reasonable suspicion” to warrant a stop, or a stop and a subsequent search.
And so, while Oakland’s mayor and chief of police can be pressured, like Shakespeare’s Glendower, to summon the spirits of racism and bigotry from the “vasty deep” of Oakland’s police, they cannot force those demons to come out.
Why Cops Don’t Care
In many instances of concern expressed by the Black Lives Matter protests in Oakland, the exorcism of the OPD’s bigoted and discriminatory practices lies not in the hands of the mayor or the police chief or anyone else at the top of the chain of command, but rather in the hands of the rank-and-file police officers themselves, along with their immediate supervisors. And Oakland’s rank-and-file police are rarely directly challenged to change their ways by marches and demonstrations taking place inside the city limits of Oakland because—to the suprise of few—most of them don’t live in Oakland.
According to a 2014 article in Oakland North newspaper, “only 49 of 626 sworn [Oakland police] officers live in Oakland. Most OPD officers commute from Contra Costa County or other parts of Alameda County, according to police data from June.”8
And so, while Oakland businesses are adversely impacted by Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and Oakland city services are cut back in order to pay for massive overtime costs to provide police for those demonstrations, the rank-and-file police themselves go back to their own communities to find their own parks and libraries and playgrounds undisturbed, and their businesses unbothered by the problems they have left behind in Oakland.
This, then, is one of the major reasons why there has been such a mixed response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the years, with significant progress in some areas of police conduct, but a stubborn, dug-in stagnation in others.
That mixed response will not likely change until Oakland police officers and detectives and their immediate supervisors begin to feel the heat of the demonstrations, not in Oakland, but in their own communities. When their residential taxes are forced to go up to pay for police supervision of demonstrations, when their own businesses suffer, when their own friends and neighbors and family begin to complain about the inconveniences, when Contra Costa residents begin to howl about police misconduct in Oakland, that is the point when these Oakland police officers will begin to understand that whatever happens in Oakland will not stay in Oakland but will follow them to their own homes.
Not until then will Oakland police officers living in outlying communities have the incentive to change the way Oakland streets are patrolled and its Black and Brown citizens treated.
This is why we need a Second Front opened up in the direct action campaign to save and preserve Black lives in cities like Oakland, California. This is not a call for demonstrations in Oakland to stop. Rather, it’s a call for some of those marches and demonstrations to cross over the eastern hills and take the struggle into those quiet and pleasant communities where Oakland police officers live.
J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is a freelance journalist and author who was born and raised in Oakland, California. You can find an archive of his writings at www.safero.org.
1. www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Sharp-downturn-in-use-of-force-at-Oakland-Police-6481637.php September 2, 2015