BAY AREA QUAKE : Earthquake Just Adds to Anger in 'Dog Town'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cathy Johnson, 35, was ready to fight back.

When an Oakland police officer set a cup of coffee on the hood of her 1987 Geo Spectrum, Johnson, sitting on the steps of her rented house a block from the collapsed Nimitz Freeway, leaped to her feet in anger.

"Get it off my car!" she screamed at the officer. "Get it off."

Only when the officer removed the cup did she sit back down.

"If they want to treat us like animals, we can do the same thing to them," she said.

Johnson is one of hundreds of residents of a poor run-down minority neighborhood that borders the shattered freeway. Police derisively refer to the neighborhood as "Dog Town."

Since the collapse that left more than 30 people dead, anger and frustration have been running high among those living around the block-long media encampment beside the freeway.

Johnson and others say they have been harassed by police trying to keep spectators away from the disaster site. It was the same treatment they had received before the earthquake, she said, made harder to tolerate now that water and electrical power are out in some homes and the community has been invaded by news people, gawkers and others.

Her car ended up inside an area cordoned off by police and, now that it's considered "off limits," Johnson will have to get a special permit to remove it.

Officers have talked rudely to her when she inquired about it, Johnson said, and now won't even allow her to remove personal belongings from the vehicle.

The police indifference is especially galling to Johnson and others because it was the people of Dog Town who first rushed forward to try to save victims of the freeway collapse, even when it meant endangering their own lives.

Dwayne McDougle, 30, who lives about three blocks from the freeway, said that when police first arrived at the disaster site, they actually pulled guns on would-be rescuers and accused them of looting the bodies.

Although there were early reports that some of the trapped victims were robbed, police now say that these reports are unconfirmed.

"Why would we steal from dead people?" McDougle asked. "That's like putting a curse on yourself."

Another resident said that police seem to believe that "everybody around here steals."

And another said he doubted police would feel that way "if this was a white neighborhood."

The neighborhood is part of a district known as West Oakland, which has the largest concentration of blacks in the city. A working-class district, it includes heavy industry, neighborhood stores, low-income housing projects and Victorian-era homes, some of which are run-down and have been converted into apartments, others of which are being restored by affluent black families.

The district also includes the bustling Port of Oakland, which has led Tom Berkley, publisher of a string of minority newspapers in the Bay Area, to call West Oakland "The richest area of the city, and the poorest."

Well-known blacks who grew up in the neighborhood have included Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley), civil rights figure A. Philip Randolph, Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton and basketball great Bill Russell.

Berkley says the construction of the freeway through the heart of West Oakland between 1955 and 1957 tore an irreparable wound in the community.

"There was a big hullabaloo at the time," he said, "but it was a fait accompli because the poor and the weak could not stand up to the powerful."

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