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Brown Gets Close to Oakland’s Crime

Special to The Times

Accompanied by his dog, Dharma, Jerry Brown pads down the darkened streets of his neighborhood in the city over which he presides.

Mayor Brown peeks into the Karaoke Box, where the owner recently was shot, moves past the three-story brown brick building that served as a safe house for drugs until the city boarded it up and approaches another apartment building.

“Hi, mayor!”

“Bad man Brown!”

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Clustered on the stoop, the residents, all African American, greet their famous neighbor before pouring out their problems. This building, too, is slated to be boarded up for repeated code violations.

The mayor has arranged for renewal of one woman’s federal housing stipend and for all the residents to be given a couple of thousand dollars each in moving expenses.

He has brought in five social workers and offered mental health services and physical exams to the residents. “The state can’t remedy everything,” he admits, “but we’re trying.”

Until recently, Brown thought he understood the city’s crime problems, which cut a wide swath but skirted the wealthy neighborhoods in the hills. It was not until four months ago, when he moved from his apartment near tony Jack London Square to his girlfriend’s elegant loft in a much seedier section of downtown, that he became aware of the full blast of mayhem and murder.

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Most nights he walks Dharma along these streets and learns more about the city that he once thought he understood.

As the former Jesuit seminarian speaks to the druggies, the drunks, the sober and the scared, a furtive young man with baggy jeans lifts his bike around the mayor, up the stairs and into the building -- to emerge, head tucked in like a turtle, minutes later. Then another passerby comes and goes, and another, and another.

“There’s no crime here,” says resident Angela Alford. “Just drugs.”

The police have made hundreds of visits to this building. A few years back, Alford’s friend’s nephew was killed in her apartment. It was a hate crime, says the friend, Berna Blake. The nephew was gay, but the killer, she says, was a drug dealer.

Oakland’s homicide rate has risen again this year, though it’s still far below that of 1992, when 175 people were killed. The vast majority of the murders are drug-related, beleaguered homicide investigators say. And most of the victims and suspects are African American males between 18 and 25.

So far this year, 81 people have been killed -- seven in the last week. Though the Brown administration would rather tout the city’s many new work/living spaces and hundreds of handsome new low-cost housing units, Oakland also is distinguished for having more cases per homicide investigator than any other city in the state.

With one out of every 14 adult males on parole or probation, it’s also the ex-con capital of California.

During more halcyon days, Brown was more idealistic about improving people’s lives. In the late 1970s, the then-governor spent a night at San Francisco’s notorious Pink Palace, a crime-ridden public housing complex where he befriended residents, trying to understand their lives.

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In his early days in office Brown intellectualized his tasks, consulting physicists, writers, critics and philosophers. He and his followers saw in this grimy city by the Bay the potential to become a cultural community.

A skinny woman in a long brown T-shirt, with eyes tinged pink and a voice in slow motion, drags herself and a plastic bag up the stairs to the drug building, emerging a few minutes later with the bag hanging lower.

The mayor calls out, “Carol!” Barely able to walk, she fails to respond. Someone says Carol has four children.

Brown is neither foolish nor naive. As he strolls down the block, he says, “We seriously could get our heads blown off here.”

Although he knew the statistics and had heard all the stories before, living in the community has left its own imprint. “The concentration of misery and dysfunction is shocking,” he says. “It’s totally under the rug. And so far from middle-class society.”

Dharma and Brown cross the street to Kim’s, where its few patrons, all of them functioning citizens and employed, are laughing at the end of the bar. Sipping a bourbon on the rocks and scarfing popcorn, the mayor chats with Kim, whom he helped get a disc jockey license after one was denied by the city.

“There’s a lot of mindless bureaucracy,” he says.

Meanwhile, Dharma has wandered into a back room. Brown and his black Labrador are both bright and endlessly inquisitive. And, having reached middle age, each has a roll in the middle that was not there before.

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Periodically, the mayor pops his head out the front door, observing the drug house across the way. One minute no one is there. The next, five people congregate. Then, no one. Then 10 people.

He slips off the stool and is out on the street again. Now and then, a police cruiser passes by. One officer even waves -- and drives on.

“Hey, Word!” Brown shouts into his cell phone. He has called Oakland Police Chief Richard L. Word. “There’s no foot patrol at night when all the action is happening. The little punks are walking around. It’s jumping, and the only guy you’ve got out here is me.”

Brown’s new neighborhood is not completely bleak. There’s his girlfriend’s loft building, a former Sears Roebuck store, and a building to house market-rate condos for $300,000 to $400,000 is under construction. At the drug house, one resident complains that white mothers, with baby strollers and kids on roller skates, are making her feel uncomfortable in her own neighborhood.

At the Karaoke Box, where the owner was shot, Sandra Le and Nancy Phan, both UC Berkeley graduates, accompany a Norah Jones song. Someday, they giggle, they might sing the national anthem at a Raiders game.

Across the street, at the lively Stork Club, a band plays for a dozen listeners and the bouncer is reading David Sedaris’ book of essays, “Naked.” Patrons spill out onto the sidewalk for a game of Frisbee.

In his moments of reflection, of which there are many, Brown says these businesses help, but he knows the bar patrons never cross the street. “They’re totally separate” from the larger problems, he says. And those problems seem almost intractable. “Everything is resistant to change,” he says.

Since the mayor has moved in and two foot-patrol officers have started working the daytime beat, about 100 people have been arrested. But that barely stems the flow.

It’s not just that the killings are drug-related. It’s the nature of the culture that dominates the poorest parts of this city. In the homicide division, each victim is reduced to a brown packet that holds the details of his or her life and death. Surrounded by a clutter of these packets, Sgt. R. Tim Nolan explains what the city is up against. “The majority of our cases,” he says, “are committed in front of one or more persons.”

Today’s killers make little or no effort to conceal their identities, Nolan says, because they “want people to know they are murderers and to be feared. That is what they’re seeking.”

It used to be that when Brown talked about the homicide rate, he talked about bad schools, bad parents, bad media. No doubt he still considers the problems to be multifaceted, but here in the darkness of Telegraph Avenue and 26th Street, he’s lost the glibness he once possessed. “There’s a lot of stuff here,” he says, glancing down the street, “but what are you supposed to do? Bring in an occupying army?”

He considers what happened to the Pink Palace, where he spent his overnight many years ago. The building was so crime-infested, its elevators and hallways so unusable, that the city could solve the problem only by evicting its residents and converting the apartments into a home for seniors. The only workable solution was to bring in old people.

But what solution exists for the many crime-ridden neighborhoods of Oakland?

A man saunters up, drunk or drugged, and says he wants to sketch the mayor. A young man with soulful eyes and a dark beret says he was thrown out of a three-story window and needs to talk to the mayor. In private. While a man named Ed is claiming, “This is a beautiful place,” the mayor and the boy in the beret hold a private sidewalk conference away from the gathering crowd.

“This is a tough city,” the mayor admits. “The people at the bottom have a lot of stress.”

Here on the streets of late-night Oakland, the political gymnastics of the gubernatorial recall seem like a distant event in another nation or from another time.

Brown’s focus, his campaign this night, is here among those who don’t vote and don’t care, doing what he’s done since those days at the Pink Palace.

Crossing the street and heading home, he laughs for a moment and nods. “It is,” he says, “my pastoral work.”


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