Black Sacramento under attack

August 8, 2017

Alex Moyle writes from Sacramento, where gentrification, encouraged by city officials, has gone hand in hand with the displacement of the poor and racist police violence.

LIVING CONDITIONS for Sacramento's Black working class are under attack--from increased police brutality to lack of affordable housing--as the city becomes a new target of real-estate development.

Nandi Cain was walking home from a long day at work on April 10 when Sacramento police officer Anthony Figueroa racially profiled him, followed him, slammed him to the ground and punched him in the face 18 times before taking him into custody.

Cain's supposed crime was jaywalking, but when pedestrian advocate group WALKSacramento reviewed the police dashcam video footage, they said he was doing no such thing.

Cain said that after he was taken into custody, he was placed on psychiatric hold in an isolation cell, where Officer Figueroa and Sacramento County Sheriff jail staff beat him repeatedly, stripped him naked and verbally humiliated him before leaving him alone in the cell for nine hours.

Cain was released after a friend caught his initial beating on camera and the video went viral. The charges of resisting arrest were dropped, and Figueroa was suspended. But the indignities and trauma suffered by Cain can't be undone.

Dashcam video captures Nandi Cain being assaulted by Sacramento police
Dashcam video captures Nandi Cain being assaulted by Sacramento police

This was no isolated incident, either. Data obtained by the Sacramento Bee following Cain's beating indicates that Black Sacramentans are more than five times as likely to be issued a jaywalking ticket than residents of other races.

The stat mirrors the fact that Black people are arrested at five times the rate of residents of other races in Sacramento. And driving while Black is no safer than walking, with police stops and harassment so relentless that some Black residents have given up driving altogether.

AFTER CAIN'S vicious beating, Mayor Darrell Steinberg--a liberal advocate of community policing--expressed outrage, but described it as a problem of culture and emphasized the need to rebuild trust between police and young Black men in the Sacramento community.

The trouble, of course, is that asking a young Black man to trust the Sacramento police is asking him to forget history and place himself in lethal danger.

The city is still navigating the political fallout from the Sacramento police killings last year of two Black, homeless, mentally ill men--Dazion Flenaugh and Joseph Mann--and the ensuing cover-ups by police. Mann's murder forced the early retirement of police Chief Sam Somers and the implementation of some toothless reforms of the department.

On June 28, city officials in Sacramento--one of the most diverse cities in the nation with one of the least diverse police forces--announced that they would soon be hiring their first African American chief of police. But any notion that the SPD has made sincere efforts at reform or changing its culture of abuse should be left behind at the ceremony where Dazion Flenaugh's killers were awarded Bronze Medals of Valor.

The Sacramento County Sheriff has its own recent history of escalating racist violence. In May, two Black men died in the custody of the Sheriff's Department in the course of a week.

On May 5, 29-year-old Ryan Ellis died of a head wound sustained while in custody. The Sheriff's Department claims that Ellis, who was arrested for allegedly coming too close to his estranged wife's home, kicked out the rear window of the patrol car and jumped out of the moving vehicle while handcuffed.

Three days later, 32-year-old Mikel McIntyre was shot dead by sheriff's deputies after allegedly throwing rocks at a deputy and a police dog. In both cases, family and friends disputed the official accounts of the Sheriff's Department.

THE UPSURGE in police harassment and violence in the state capital comes at the same time as a surge in gentrification, with real-estate interests eager to lure tech firms from the Bay Area and landlords capitalizing on the fact that even many people with high incomes can no longer afford the preposterous rents in San Francisco and Oakland.

For the working people of Sacramento--many of whom survive on a $10.50-an-hour minimum wage--this spells rapidly rising and unaffordable rents.

These pressures are worsened by the fact that Sacramento has undergone a decimation of Black wealth more acute than most of the country as a result of the great recession. In large measure due to predatory lending, Black home ownership in Sacramento collapsed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, from nearly 50 percent to the current rate of 27 percent.

And it's a bad time to be a renter in Sacramento. While median renter household income adjusted for inflation has decreased 11 percent since 2000, median rent has gone up 18 percent, with rents rising faster than perhaps any other city over the last year.

Combined with Sacramento having lost 66 percent of its state and federal funding for affordable housing since 2008, conditions are ripe for mass displacement and an escalating housing crisis.

Few neighborhoods are seeing a displacement problem as acute as the historically Black neighborhood of Oak Park. It was ominously declared an "up and coming" neighborhood by Inside the Grid's Cecily Hastings--who finds time between selling ad space for real-estate interests and pitching hip restaurants to write editorials defending the sheriff and lamenting how hard times are for "families in blue."

Now an army of cops from the SPD and the County Sheriff are flooding Oak Park to "saturate the area," in the words of sheriff's spokesperson Sgt. Tony Turnbull.

Oak Park was the hub of the civil rights movement in Sacramento, the site of the Black Panthers' local headquarters, a 1969 rebellion and cultural centers like the Guild Theater. Today, the neighborhood is being transformed from the historical epicenter of Black culture and resistance to the profit-making engine of a handful of investors. As Black Lives Matter Sacramento founder Tanya Faison wrote in a poem:

They done took our neighborhood, chopped it up into sections, and are now trying to dilute it, capitalize off of it, exploit it, and white liberalize it.

Everyone is just standing around watching.

Watching while they try to call the police on us for standing in the park that we've been standing in for over 30 years.

While they try to call the police on us for playing the music in our cars that we been playing for over 30 years.

While they try to call the police on us for having barbecues, picnics, and family reunions...

I remember when no one wanted to live here. And now it's "historic."

After Faison wrote this, a Facebook page called "SPD Underground" called her a "racist" and posted "Tanya Faison...supports keeping Oak Park black.....can't get much more racist than that." Since posting the poem, Faison has endured a relentless barrage of online harassment from SPD supporters.

City officials are also trying to raze the majority-Black Seavey Circle public housing projects, which date back to the Second World War and would be torn down to make way for mixed housing, retail and commercial development. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency has acknowledged that they are unsure what percentage of current residents would return.

THE RESULTS of the real-estate developers' project of reshaping the city reveals the contradictions of capitalist redevelopment. While they build the a new arena for the Sacramento Kings basketball team--with public funds--and add posh lofts, high-end restaurants and luxury hotels, city planners have left blocks of crumbling abandoned buildings in the heart of downtown. At the same time, thousands of people live in homelessness.

According to a recent report, Sacramento County's homeless population has increased 31 percent since 2015, the number of homeless veterans has increased by 50 percent, and the number living in tents, cars or on the street instead of shelters has risen by 85 percent.

While the increase in homelessness throughout Sacramento County extends to the suburbs, it is most visible downtown. City council members, state senators and developers meeting for drinks at the upscale Grange restaurant on the ground floor of the Citizen Hotel have to walk past a growing multitude of homeless people on the sidewalk on their way in.

Across the street at Caesar Chavez Park, "Farm to Fork" events and concert in the park nights must contend with the fact that the venue of the city's hippest outdoor events is also currently the largest open-air homeless encampment in the city.

City Council member Steve Hansen, who represents downtown and midtown, is calling for more police and more aggressive prosecution of misdemeanors to clean up downtown. And Mayor Steinberg, who campaigned promising to address the homeless crisis in a humane manner, agreed that police should be encouraged to be more aggressive when they encounter "disruptive behavior" and pledged his support for officers "enforcing a standard of decorum."

The gentrification of the San Francisco Bay Area and its subsequent effects on Sacramento show, yet again, how development goes hand in hand with displacement of poor and working-class people and racist police violence.

Since its beginnings, capitalism has presided over the coerced, and sometimes violent, movement of people. Modern capitalism in the American city can displace people through disinvestment and decay, through the targeted hyper-investment associated with gentrification or both simultaneously.

They employ the police to carry out everything from everyday harassment to increased arrests, to beatings and even murder. And like virtually all of the ravages of American capitalism, the Black working class feels the blow the most severely.

Meanwhile, Sacramento's liberal mayor and city council see more money for cops as the solution to problems ranging from street crime to homelessness, and even police brutality. The answers will have to come from the bottom up.

Sacramento has a history of Black and working-class resistance--a history that activists today still draw upon. Today's struggles may sometimes be small, but they are the only way to build the numbers and organization we'll need for the bigger struggles to come.

Further Reading

From the archives