04/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Oakland: Tragedy in Our Town

As I write this, the city of Oakland, my city, is observing a day of mourning - a huge funeral for the four police officers killed last Saturday in a confrontation with a young man, Lovelle Mixon. It is a tragedy for all the families as well as for our city and the US. What a senseless, horrible waste of life.

And yet. The media has not served us well - has not asked any questions, has not sought a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the context. Nor has anyone dared to question the problems in the police department - not only their contentious and negative relationship with the African American community in East Oakland, but even about the chaos in leadership (the most recent chief just resigned) and command. For example, after two officers -- Mark Dunakin and John Hege -- were shot at MacArthur and 74th during a traffic stop, and after the SWAT team figured out where the shooter had hidden himself, why did they not create a perimeter, get innocent people out, isolate the scene, and act with care for their own personnel and the neighbors? Instead, the police tore into the apartment, not even giving Mixon's sister a chance to get out. Bursting into the bedroom, they were met with a barrage of fire, which killed Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai. Those second two officers certainly did not need to die. A strong leadership, even in the emotion of the moment, would have insisted that no one charge into that bedroom.

And yet. Very little has been said about the proliferation of weaponry, the wild gun culture, that is making our communities shooting galleries. The AK-47 that Mixon had was one that is freely sold over the counter in Nevada. Indeed, the bloody drug wars of US cities as well as all over Mexico are armed by the US gun industry. Someone at the funeral mentioned that whenever a police officer leaves for work, their family does not know if they will come back alive. The same can be said for all Oakland school children. What a horror.

And yet. The funeral for the police officers was made into a platform for speeches and public appearances by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and state Attorney General Jerry Brown, and Mayor Ron Dellums. Such actions always have another motivation, a broader agenda, which seeks to use the tragedy as an opportunity.

And yet. There are those who will try to mount a political offensive as a result of these killings - an offensive that may well have consequences that are the opposite of what is needed. Some of the police who spoke also went beyond the act of mourning - lashing out even at the media (which has been nothing but worshipful in everything I've seen) and proposing an agenda that emphasizes more repression, more prison time. I'm reminded of the period after the terrible crime of 9/11. The US had sympathy and goodwill from all over the world. Instead of seeking a broader understanding of why such a horror would be perpetrated, the Bush administration used it as an opportunity to launch an all-out war of domination in the Middle East. They rejected any discussion of why people from the region hate the US so much, how to build bridges and equity. No. The discussion was about a "clash of civilizations," the enemy being all Muslims, all Arabs, all who were defined as "others." How sad, what a lost moment.

And here we are. Can we talk about the economic crisis that is engulfing communities of color? Or the violence of the drug war? Or the distrust of the police and courts as centers of violence and injustice? Or the massive imprisonment of black men in our country in conditions that amount to cruel and unusual punishment? Attorney General Jerry Brown (prosecutor of the San Francisco 8 case) said that this incident is a failure of the parole system. In fact, it's a failure of the educational, prison-rehabilitative, parole, housing, employment, nutrition, and every other social service system of our society. These young men, who see no opportunities for success in school, who come from generations of impoverished children, relegated to the lowest paying jobs -- if there are jobs at all -- who live with the constant police presence, gentrification, imprisonment, and killings -- they need to be given hope.

I have often been surprised to hear young people talk about the deep importance of not "snitching," of never calling 911. But then again I don't face the prospect of myself, or my children, being thrown into the horrors of the California prison system - which today holds about 160,000 inmates. What would lead a parolee to kill four police and himself to avoid being sent back to prison? I don't live with the memory of Gary King, Oscar Grant, Casper Banjo - black men killed by the police. I was not a target of the criminal Oakland "Riders" police group or the Los Angeles Ramparts Division CRASH unit.

Everyone is hurt by this tragedy. But the media, the politicians, and the police have not taken a stance of uniting with the community. They have fed the notion of the African American community as a site of depravity, a place to be dominated. The ugliest expression of this sentiment can always be found in the "comments" on line at the end of the stories. While the editors apparently screen these for offensive comments, they gladly posted hundreds of comments that referred to Mixon and young black men in general as "animals" and "vermin." They say, in a more raw way, the same message we get from columnists like The San Francisco Chronicle's Chip Johnson as well as some orators at the funeral. These notes express the unedited subconscious, the collective racism, that has a grip on our society. These attitudes are setting up East Oakland to be like Baghdad, a community tensely occupied, one which increasingly alienates the citizens as state violence increases.

And they feed the American disease, the notion that we white people, or we middle class people, or we privileged people are the embattled defenders of civilization against the savagery, barbarism, and animalistic danger -- the dangerous other -- which is always trying to pull us down. This is an age old myth, used by the conquistadors and the yellow press, which is being trotted out again. And it takes us directly away from any solutions.

Oakland is a beautiful city, one with a long and proud history - a wonderful place to live, to take walks, to explore. The lowlands used to be marshy and teeming with life when the Ohlone lived here - particularly the Huchiun-Aguasto tribes. It has always been a working class and port city. During World War II, a great migration, particularly from Texas and Louisiana, of African American workers made its way up here to work in the shipyards. West Oakland had a large number of African American home-owners and strong community institutions. The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland in the 1960's and social activism has been a strong part of our community for many decades. Many immigrants from Mexico and Central America live in East Oakland - traditionally around the Fruitvale district but now out beyond High Street too. We have the old Chinatown and the new, mostly Southeast Asian districts out towards the avenues. Dedicated educators have worked to make the schools more effective, pioneering small school developments and a number of very successful charter schools. And don't forget the A's and the Raiders! For all its problems, Oakland is a city where friendship, solidarity, and interaction between all communities are daily occurrences. We all own it. Not the drug dealers and gun slingers; not the Riders and the haters. We should not let those who would erect the barricades define this city.

I fear for the retaliatory actions that police will take in the coming months. Yesterday I was walking down the street in my lightweight neighborhood of Oakland, Piedmont Avenue. An Oakland police car with two officers in it cruised along. They stopped and glared at the African American homeless man who often solicits money outside the grocery store. They shouted at him to stop leaning on the car, stop blocking the sidewalk. The police officers drove on, their lower lips thrust forward in anger and hurt. This is far different from the behavior of the foot patrol we used to have.

In some ways, being a cop is like being a teacher. I know the students certainly feel that we are the authority figures, the cops. And I hate it when I feel I have to police the youth. But what I mean is that we are responsible to teach all the kids, everyone who comes in the door. When teachers get to a stance that it's "us against them," or when they decide to pick out the "good kids" and to define others as the rejects - then they have lost it. Plenty of teachers get drawn into such a stance by the frustrations of the job. But the beauty of all of our students, and of our city, is still there for those willing to see it.

Setting up African American people as the enemy, continuing to hire police who don't live in Oakland, allowing the reactive emotion of the cops to lead their actions - these are all formulas for more disaster in Oakland. Such a sentiment is not very popular right now. The knee-jerk reactions always dominate after a horror like this. Understanding the context -- the world that creates crime, the awful and stupid and criminal choices that people make in these conditions, the possibility of community, the economic and social issues -- these are the harder things to do.

Can we even talk about it?