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Relentless Violence Ravages Oakland

Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND -- Pastor Bob Jackson ministers on the urban battlefield of East Oakland, a gritty stretch of liquor stores, fast food restaurants and vacant lots where he has seen the value of life drop like a spent shell casing.

One by one, the gray-haired leader of the Acts Full Gospel Church points out the street corners where young men have been gunned down. The reasons make him shake his head: drug-peddling turf wars. Drunken arguments. Retaliation for some perceived personal slight.

Oakland’s murder rate -- last year the highest per capita for any major California city -- is continuing its ominous rise after one of the bloodiest summers in years. When police found the latest victim Sunday, the grim tally reached 95 -- 10 more than the 2001 homicide total Oakland reported to federal authorities.

Eight of 10 victims are African American, two-thirds of them younger than 35. And 97% of the 55 suspects identified by police are black. The youngest victim was 15; the oldest 70.

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The body count has sent a chill through this working class community, where Mayor Jerry Brown labors to attract new business to a city known for deadly violence. It has caused politicians to point fingers over how best to resolve this newest spike in murders. And, as the police force endures an embarrassing federal trial of four of its own officers, citizens question who is more dangerous -- the drug dealers or the police.

As Jackson looks for answers, he doesn’t mention either police or politicians; he looks to the community itself.

Jackson is the leader of the fledgling group Black Men First, 200 African American professionals, from lawyers to plumbers, who are weary of watching the funeral hearses creep through their neighborhoods. Group members walk the streets, opening dialogues with young drug dealers who loiter in their midst. They have ventured to West Oakland’s Dogtown, which police consider especially dangerous.

And they are rallying black males to play more constructive roles, such as voting and volunteering at schools.

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“These killings aren’t a police problem. They’re a black problem,” said Jackson, a taut 57-year-old former college football player now presiding over one of Oakland’s largest black churches. “I blame a lack of education and family structure. There’s no men at home or in the city schools. These youths have no role models but rap video stars and drug dealers.”

Brown insisted that the homicide rate is not out of character for a city Oakland’s size. He pointed out that the death toll is roughly half the record of 165 reported in 1992 -- carnage that gave Oakland a dubious reputation as “Murdertown, U.S.A.”

Damaged Esteem

In comparison, San Francisco, with a population twice the size of Oakland’s 400,000, has had 25% fewer murders in recent years: 67 in 2001 and 53 through September. Los Angeles--a city of 3.7 million people--had 550 murders last year and 489 through last month.

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“This kind of violence is part of the urban experience, from the South Bronx to Los Angeles,” Brown said. “But the fact is that Oakland is changing at a pace faster than any other time since World War II. Is it perfect? No. But overall crime is 40% below what it’s been over a 30-year average.”

Yet the killings have damaged the self-esteem of a city reeling from the collapse of its beginning high-tech industry, a place where the Sears and Roebuck store remains downtown’s only chain retailer.

Unemployment hovers at 10%, and one in five families lives at or below the poverty line, city statistics show.

The killings have also hit middle-class residents. In August, the older brother of a veteran Oakland police officer was killed after he scolded youths for making their car tires squeal in his neighborhood. Black leaders say the mayhem has prompted a new round of black flight from a city that’s 36% African American.

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“Ride around Oakland, and you’ll see young people with nothing to do, standing on corners with their hands in their pockets,” said a civil rights lawyer, John Burris. “You know that environment isn’t going to lead anywhere but trouble.”

Business consultant Will G. Bass Jr. joined Black Men First to talk sense to those young men.

The former church sports coach is convinced the youths will listen. “If you feel it from your heart and are honest in your approach, the kids will feel it, too,” he said. “If you go in talking down to them, they’ll feel that as well.”

Bass said most Oakland youths, even many drug dealers, are not bad at heart: “As black men, our backs are against the wall now. We’ve got no choice but to go in and fight for these kids.”

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To try to stop the killing in more traditional ways, Brown seeks to hire 100 new police officers. To raise the needed $70 million, the city council voted 7-1 to add a measure to November’s ballot to increase hotel, parking and utility taxes.

Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, the lone holdout, says some of the money should go to job programs and anger management seminars for ex-offenders.

Brown disagrees.

“Do you watch ‘The Sopranos?’ Ever see ‘The Godfather?’ ” he asked in an interview. “Do you think if we put the Godfather and his gang in a job program, they’d change their line of work? Do you think they’d benefit from a little anger management? Well, we’ve got the same kinds of crime groups in this city.”

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Police are also frustrated that tight-lipped residents often withhold information that might help solve many killings.

Oakland homicide Lt. Brian Thiem described a killing outside a bar. “One hundred people, and nobody knows nothing,” said Thiem, who attributes the public silence to a fear among residents of being labeled a “snitch.”

Others cited a different reason -- an antipathy for law enforcement.

Officers on Trial

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As the four Oakland cops nicknamed the “Riders” stand trial on charges that they faked evidence, planted drugs and beat suspects, black leaders say public confidence in the police force has reached an all-time low.

“This is a community that really does view police as an occupying force,” said Burris, who represents numerous victims in the Riders trial.

Experts say Oakland’s homicide rise follows a nationwide trend.

“The size of the young adult cohort is increasing, with more people reaching the peak age of criminal activity, between 15 and 25,” said Jack Riley, of Santa Monica’s Rand Institute.

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Crime dropped in the 1990s, thanks to higher felon incarceration rates, a stronger economy and a diminishing crack cocaine epidemic. But now the trend is reversing itself, Riley said.

Each year, he said, California releases 100,000 parolees from state prisons “with poor prospects for finding jobs or staying off drugs.”

Oakland gets its share of those felons. Brown, who receives regular police briefings on homicide rates, said 50% of the city’s murder victims have criminal records with five or more felonies apiece. Thirty percent have more than 10 felonies apiece.

Jackson has identified 23 neighborhood trouble spots and 200 suspects who he believes are at the root of the city’s drug problem.

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The Oakland native founded the Men of Valor Academy in Oakland, where 50 youths are housed and fed, as a way to reduce the pull of street gangs and work toward a high school degree equivalent.

“These boys have never been mentored or taught by anybody,” he said. “Most come from single-parent homes where their mothers talk about how they’re growing up to be just like their no-good fathers. Black girls do better because they’ve got their mothers as models. But not the boys -- they’re programmed to be bad.”

Police Troubled

The murders trouble police, too. Thiem, a homicide detective during the record year, 1992, recognizes a hangdog look among his men. “The dead come day after day, and you bang your head against the wall,” he said.

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Across town, Jackson mourned another youth lost to the violence.

He and Bass visited the site outside his Men of Valor Academy where a suspected gang member had been shot after a traffic confrontation.

Jackson and a fellow activist stood over a memorial of wilted roses and spent Remy Martin cognac bottles. And they grimaced.

“Alcohol is the painkiller for these boys,” Bass said. “The problem runs from the cradle to the tomb, from when they’re babies until they’re old men. The problem is, they never get to become old men.”

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