The police are useless in the face of tragedy

March 26, 2015

Alessandro Tinonga explains why the Oakland establishment's reliance on more police is no solution to the problem of violence--and suggests some real alternatives.

TRAGEDY ROCKED Oakland, California, on March 9 when Chyemil Pierce, a 30-year-old mother of three, was killed by a stray bullet from a shoot-out that erupted half a block from her home. The gun battle broke out between two groups around 4:45 p.m., and Pierce was caught in the crossfire as she scrambled to get her children into the safety of their home.

Pierce, a human resources employee for Kaiser Permanente, was well liked by her neighbors and co-workers. She died in front of the house where she was raised--it was purchased by her family decades ago. Her death has had a devastating impact in the community--as a hard-hitting reminder of the toll of crime and violence in Oakland.

"It makes me feel like I can't be as free as I want to be, my children can't be as free," 44-year-old Tidia Hill-Harvey told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We have to keep them confined--they want to ride their bikes, but we keep them in the backyard."

After the outcry over Pierce's death, the Oakland Police Department (OPD) scrambled to find those responsible. As of this writing, three men have been arraigned for the killing and are currently being held in jail without bail. The Oakland establishment quickly congratulated themselves on carrying out swift justice.

Oakland police hold a press conference about the death of Chyemil Pierce (pictured)
Oakland police hold a press conference about the death of Chyemil Pierce (pictured)

During a press conference, Assistant District Attorney Teresa Drenick stated that all three are "legally as well as morally responsible for the killing, no matter which person fired the fatal bullet...The horrendous violence inflicted on our community that afternoon left three children without a mother and left our city shaken to its core and reeling in horror." Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said that she hoped the defendants would be held accountable for their "callous and reckless behaviors."

But while the person who fired the bullet that killed Chyemil Pierce may be in custody, and facing prosecution to the fullest extent of the law, it's doubtful that this will do anything to solve the ongoing problems that affect working people in Oakland.

PIERCE'S SENSELESS killing is the latest in a seemingly unending series of violent incidents that hurts the city. In the last 10 years, more than 100 lives have been claimed by murder each year on average. While there has been a decline in murders in the last two years, 20 people have been killed so far this year, which is almost exactly the same rate as the year before.

Despite many years of Oakland residents demanding that the city take action to end the levels of violence, the mayor's office and police department have failed to deliver any substantial results. Whether the police force has 600 officers or 800 officers, it doesn't seem to have any lasting impact on the unacceptable number of murders that occur every year.

Furthermore, despite the increased police force and the battle cries of newly elected Mayor Schaaf about cracking down on crime, the city and the police are incapable of preventing violence.

Most of Oakland, and West Oakland in particular, continues to be plagued by unemployment, drug abuse and evictions. Despite the crying need for jobs, social programs and public funding, the political establishment of Oakland has focused its efforts on intensifying the police presence in the neighborhood.

This has had produced few results. Even the San Francisco Chronicle reported, "Despite repeated crackdowns on those gangs by Oakland police, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, someone always fills the leadership void."

And in the case of Chyemil Pierce, the police were incapable of preventing the violence despite warning signs. Thirteen minutes before Pierce was shot dead, a resident warned police about a big fight and said he believed someone was about to get hurt. Yet no officers were dispatched until after shots were fired.

OPD officials say that it's impossible to predict when calls foreshadow the outbreak of violence or dangerous situations. "Even the best crime-fighting methods out there, you're not going to have the sense that someone is getting a gun or arming themselves," 24-year department veteran Lt. Henderson Jordan told the Chronicle. "These are the kinds of things you really can't predict."

This is an incredible statement given that Pierce's neighborhood had been a hot spot for violence. In the past six months, neighbors have documented six shootings, including two in the past month, that were only one block away from Pierce's home. What's more, earlier in November, dozens of heavily armed Oakland police officers and other law enforcement agents raided a house a block away. But despite the heavy focus of law enforcement in West Oakland, they still failed to prevent tragedy.

Worse yet, police have been unrelenting and completely indiscriminate in their crackdown on working-class neighborhoods of color. Several law enforcement scandals have been exposed in the East Bay Area in the last 10 years. From the killing of Oscar Grant III, the Oakland Riders scandal which continues to have consequences, the brutality directed at Occupy protesters, and the recent murder of Yuvette Henderson by Emeryville police, the New Jim Crow pushes down the Black community.

On the same day as Pierce's death, U.S. marshals targeted well-known activist Jabari Shaw and his family, forcing his car into an intersection and causing an accident in which several people were seriously injured.

"Our car was cut off by an unmarked black truck, and three people jump out and start running toward us," Shaw said in a video posted on Facebook. "I was worried--what were these cars behind me for? The neighborhood we live in...People get robbed, people get shot."

In a press conference following the crash, officials from the U.S. marshals did not admit fault for the injuries, but stated that Shaw "ended up not being the person we were looking for."

The truth is that in addition to failing to prevent violence and tragedy in Oakland, police and law enforcement contribute to it.

SO WHAT is the alternative? There are many possible strategies, but one that suggests itself immediately would be to shift funding for the Oakland police--which makes up 40 percent of the city budget--to programs that produce jobs and housing. If most of Oakland's crime is committed by desperate people, living in desperate conditions, then we need to transform that desperation into hope.

While Schaaf and the Oakland business community want to attract revenue by gentrifying half the city, there are a growing number of people who are open to alternatives. For instance, last year, civil rights attorney Dan Siegel ran for mayor on a platform of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and doing sweeping reforms of the Oakland Police Department. Despite little name recognition and far less campaign funds than most of his contenders, Siegel came in fourth place, and won many of the precincts in West Oakland that are hardest hit by poverty and crime.

Following the rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the police murder of Mike Brown, and the protests that erupted after New York City police killed Eric Garner, more than 3,000 people participated in multiracial marches in Oakland against police brutality on December 13, among many other demonstrations in the days before the Christmas holiday. Even more people came out to the streets during a weekend of action to reclaim the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in January.

To stop the ongoing violence that plagues Oakland and bring true justice for people like Chyemil Pierce, there needs to be a movement that can achieve sweeping reforms that get to the roots of crime. The funds that uphold a racist and heavily armed police force that acts with impunity need to be reallocated to provide jobs, education, good health care and housing.

The current strategies have only led to ongoing tragedy. The people of Oakland deserve an alternative solution that can bring hope.

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