Thoughts on a fractured city

January 8, 2009

As I sit, there are helicopters circling over our house. Normally, we’d see people out and about this time of night, walking dogs or heading home from the grocery store down the street. But tonight, our neighborhood is quiet. A few blocks away, streets are lined with police in riot gear, closely watching the development of a violent reaction to the New Year’s Eve killing by a transit police officer of a young unarmed man. People peer out of windows, wondering what’s going on. A photographer friend of ours works late into the night, snapping shots of quiet protests that soon become raucous riots. Cars are ablaze. Shop windows shatter. Again and again and again, the copters pass over us. The dog paces back and forth, watching the ceiling, waiting to see what comes next.

By morning, the news has hit the national media: “Riots in Oakland!” one paper shouts. “Oakland turns violent over shooting,” another announces. The narrative is disturbing, the images even more so. Most devastating, though, are the many commenters. People living hundreds of miles away are unfazed by this. “Oakland? That hellhole?” one writes. “Let the whole place burn!” “Not surprising,” another notes. “It is Oakland, after all.”

It is Oakland, after all. For as long as we’ve lived here, friends and family have wondered whether we’re safe here. “Isn’t that the murder capital of the nation?” they ask. It’s true that the murder rate here is unconscionably high—in 2008, 124 Oaklanders were killed, roughly 30 deaths for every 100,000 residents. That’s down a tiny amount from last year, when it was 31, and more significantly from 2006, when it was 36—but some of that drop comes from a growing population, not necessarily from a marked decrease in murders. Compare that to 37 per 100,000 this past year in Detroit, which is likely to have the highest rate nationally for 2008, as it did in 2007. (New Orleans, with 179 murders in 2008, is up there too.)

The thing about Oakland, though, is that this city is a kaleidoscope of experiences, each changing as they overlap. My Oakland is not the Oakland of the teen in Brookfield Village; neither is it the Oakland of the retired couple in Upper Rockridge. In spite of being one of the nation’s most diverse cities, Oakland is still dramatically segregated, especially socioeconomically. Much of our violence is concentrated in our poorest neighborhoods, some of which are in very dire straits now that the foreclosure crisis has them in its grips. The deep-rooted culture of violence has especially devastating effects on youth and young men of color. Only rarely does it spill over into my Oakland, though. When you read about crime in Oakland, it’s not often that it’s just down the street or around the corner from us. More commonly, the violence is six or eight or even ten miles away, often in neighborhoods so removed from our Oakland experience that we’ve never even visited them. The victims are faceless, anonymous. Another cross appears in the front yard of St. Columba’s on San Pablo, and we move on. I’ve never known anyone who was murdered—or even anyone who has been personally touched by an Oakland murder.

Until this week. When the first photographs of Oscar Grant appeared, I was taken aback. The face looking back at me was familiar—the eyes, the smile. It was some time before I figured out why: as it turns out, Oscar was training to be a butcher at the Dimond Farmer Joe’s, one of our favorite grocery stores. I remembered him clearly then: he’d helped me at the counter just a few weeks before. We’d only exchanged a few words, but there it was—I knew him, at least in some vague sense. His Oakland had become my Oakland.

The shooting and its aftermath disturb me deeply on so many levels. There are countless layers to it: fear in its many forms, anger, prejudices and quick judgments, weighty decisions with life-altering consequences. We may never know exactly what was going through that officer’s mind in those early morning hours. Although the many videos make it clear to me that there was no need to fire, those of us watching on YouTube have the benefit of hindsight. We’re not standing inside that scene, weighing our options, uncertain. That’s not to say the officer is any less accountable for his actions, as we each live our lives by the decisions we make in the instant. It’s only to say that we may never know what emotions ran through his mind as he made that choice or in the moments afterwards.

I never expected what followed, though. The protests and vigils made sense, of course: BART’s leadership was remiss in their initial response to this tragedy, I think, and in the months to come, the agency will probably dissect these days one by one, trying to determine what might have been done differently. And given that the shooting happened in Oakland and BART’s headquarters are here, it was only logical that gatherings should be here as well. But the riots stunned me. How can the destruction of our neighborhoods possibly further the cause in any way? What’s worse is that the riots do not even seem to have been wholly Oakland-grown—many of the media reports and images profile young people from San Francisco and Berkeley and places farther afield attacking OPD cruisers, torching dumpsters, smashing windows. “I feel like Oakland should make some noise,” one protester from San Francisco told a reporter. “This is how we need to fight back.” And of the Oaklander whose small business had just had its windows smashed: “She should be glad she just lost her business and not her life.” This is the way to fight back? Is the killing of a young black male truly avenged by the destruction of black-owned businesses—and in someone else’s city, no less?

Oakland does need to make some noise. But Oaklanders should make it. We should be asking the hard questions about this tragedy—not who or how, but why. Why is there such deep distrust in our community? Why is there such fear of one another? How do we work together to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again in this city? Hold the officer and BART accountable, yes. But hold one another accountable, too—how do we build a city in which this culture of violence is only a distant memory?

There will be no easy resolution to this crisis. There’s a deep fury burning here, particularly among the many Oaklanders who have watched this cycle of violence and distrust go on for generations. Where do we go from here? I couldn’t say. There will, I’m sure, be a trial, and it will probably entail more frustration and more anger—and hopefully, by its end, peace.

I close the paper. I close my eyes. I think of Oakland as it is in my mind. Dodging Canada geese along Lake Merritt on a Sunday afternoon. Dim sum in Chinatown. Boating along the Embarcadero, watching the cranes in action. Outdoor movies on 49th Street. Summertime beers on our neighbors’ front steps. The Oakland Rose Garden. Dancing in the streets on Election Night. Picnics at Lake Temescal. Biking along Skyline, coasting down the hill into Orinda. Fire arts at the Crucible. Vintage movies at the Paramount. Cable cars over the Oakland Zoo. Coffee and tamales at the Temescal Farmers’ Market. Tasting feijoas in the Kaiser Rooftop Garden. Dia de los Muertos celebrations at the Oakland Museum. Discovering the Cleveland Cascade. Watching the Oscars on the big screen at the Parkway. Late night taco stops at the taco trucks in Fruitvale. Children’s Fairyland. Seeing the Mormon Temple lit up in the distance. Sitting at an ironing board eating sticky buns outside Bakesale Betty’s. Dragon boats on the lake. Listening to the organ before the Saturday night movie at the Grand Lake. Neighborhood block parties. The holiday parade. Hiking with the dog through Redwood Regional Park. Cocktails at Flora. Jazz at Yoshi’s. Powdered sugar-coated beignets at the Fruitvale BART station, just feet away from the platform where our community would be rocked. My Oakland—your Oakland—our Oakland.

To the world: we are not trapped here in this city; we have chosen to be here. We are here not because it is the only place we can afford living, but because it is the only place we can imagine living. I believe in this city, in its vast potential and its vibrant communities—and I love it, with all its imperfections. As a community, we will work through the anger and the violence, unearthing the very roots of it. Then, together, we will rebuild trust across the city and create from the fragments a single unified community. There’s a long road ahead, but I have faith that it is one that the people of this city will travel together.

It is Oakland, after all.


  1. Excellent post, very moving. Reminds me so much of our former life in a much-criticized Brooklyn neighborhood.

  2. What a beautiful and eloquent way to sum up why so many of us live here. I’m tired of reading the comments on SFGate.com calling for the burning of Oakland to the ground, I’m tired of my co-workers saying, “God, I hate Oakland … how can you even live there?” I’m starting a weekly post on my blog where I’m going to highlight the wonderful things about Oakland. Maybe, just maybe, I can convince my readers that it’s a great place to live.

  3. Great post. Few people know the real Oakland. They just believe what the garbage that the Ess Eff media spills out.

  4. I live in Oakland now and I was born in Bed Stuy. The contempt for Oakland and the people in it is nothing new, it is always there. I have always lived with that kind of contempt for me, my communities, and the place where I was born. In fact, so have many of the people in Oakland, which is why so many of them are so enraged.

  5. Sally, I’m curious—do you think the places that elicit such contempt from those who don’t know them can ever escape from it? I grew up in New Haven, so I’m definitely used to it as well—but that doesn’t make me any less angry about it. In an odd way, I think maybe that’s one reason I came out to Oakland….it felt a lot like home.

  6. I am very glad you wrote this. It has brought tears to my eyes and showcases the TRUE Oakland. Not the one that is perceived by the masses. Oakland is a beautiful place. It is also a city that needs a LOT of love, especially right now.
    As I read it, I can feel the love you have for Oakland. You have expressed it very well.

    Oakland holds a very dear place in my heart and always will.

    The only part I disagree with is your comment:”Oakland does need to make some noise. But Oaklanders should make it.”
    Yes, Oakland needs to make some noise (in a non-violent manner). However, Mr. Grant was a resident of Hayward, yet another city that shares a lot of the same struggles that Oakland does.

    If Oakland has become the center of this issue, then it is only fair that other residents of nearby cities be allowed to participate.

    After all, Hayward has lost a great man when they lost Mr. Grant. That needs to be respected as well.

    Thank you for sharing that Oakland is not an empty pit of violence, as perceived by some.

    Oakland deserves it’s place to shine in our country among other great cities.

  7. Thanks, Alonis—and I didn’t mean to exclude the people of Hayward and of the many other communities across the Bay Area who’ve been struck deeply by Oscar’s loss. I was heartened to see an interview today with the protest organizer, who shared his utter devastation over how his peaceful event had turned violent; hopefully future protests will be opportunities for residents from across the region to come together in peace. It was more that I was frustrated to see outsiders come in and decide that Oakland needed to be devastated to make a point—especially when, for once, the city was an innocent bystander in this tragedy. What can possibly be gained from that? Oakland is hardly a city that needs to be taught how it feels to live in fear.

  8. Beautiful post. The riots definitely put a damper on the city’s image. Too many times I hear people judge Oakland, without ever having lived there or spending much time.

    As an Oaklander (albeit only 3 years), I know of the city you portrayed. Oakland deserve better than how “outsiders” portray it.

  9. Wonderful post. I feel the same way. I worked in Oakland for a long time and I loved being there every day. Walking around, the feeling of community. I hope more people read this, then they would know. Thank you.

  10. I would just like to join in saying thanks for this excellent post. You’ve expressed my thoughts about the city and this recent trouble far more eloquently than I would have been able to.

  11. This is the single finest piece I’ve seen yet about Oscar Grant, and the most beautiful thing I’ve read in recent memory.

  12. A great post. I read it first shortly after you posted it, but I’ve been thinking about it and about Oscar Grant a lot since then. I blogged about some of my thoughts. Today we saw the statue Sigame/Follow Me in Union Point Park, and it made me think of your post again.

  13. i’m surprised that you were surprised by the riots. i would have been surprised if there had not been violent reaction eventually to the highly publicized shooting.

    while it might not be the oakland parallel universe you or i inhabit, there are large parts of town that have numbers of young ghetto am kids who have nothing to lose except their lives (and these riots were just safer than many a night in east o).

    Add to that the ample supply of nearby willing young upper middle class kids (whose parents would bail them out and pay for smart attorneys) who romanticize violence and anarchist goals, plus a mayor who probably told his opd ala rumsfield to let them vent instead of asking berkeley and san leandro for more police.

    -len raphael

  14. I do not know what to say – this is a great post and incredibly well written.

    I would like to ask that we can post a snipit of this and link to it from our blog:


    So our readers can benifit from it..

    Can you let us know if that is ok with you..


  15. Thanks, Brent. And it’s fine to post snippets of this (or other posts on this blog) elsewhere—I only ask that bloggers provide a link back to the original posts so that nothing wanders too far out of context.

  16. I don’t live in Oakland nor have I ever. I too was one of those people who had fear and some contempt for the Oakland that I didn’t know. The media truly blinded me in so many ways.

    I now know some of Oakland thanks to some friends in various parts. The Oakland I now know is the good that many of you speak of. I am glad that my eyes were opened because I know I am a much better person for it.

    Thank You!

  17. A bit late to comment perhaps, but a tip of the hat for these useful words – just remember, you are a part of your city, and that counts for a lot.

  18. […] get this started by posting an excerpt to one of my favorite blog posts of the year, “Thoughts on a fractured city” at City Homestead, which reflected on the killing of Oscar Grants and the riots that ensued in […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: