Listening to Oakland

Scott Duke Harris last wrote for the magazine about Marin County's hot tub legacy.

Fated to live in the sunset shadows of San Francisco, Oakland has often been called an underdog town, but it’s an underdog with a growl. People with money live in its hills, but Oakland, at heart, is a tough waterfront place, an unflinching antihero of a city that has earned its scars and the right to be suspicious.

Maybe this put-upon feeling is a black thing. Thirty-five percent of Oakland’s residents, a slight plurality, are African American, and the political stew boils. It’s not for nothing that Oakland, in its struggle for social justice, gave birth to the Black Panther Party in the mid-1960s and created the Ebonics language mess in 1996. The struggle continues now amid failing, bankrupt schools, a bustling crack trade and trouble with rogue cops. Yet today, those problems have been compounded by a newer misery--the troubled and troublesome class of Oakland citizens who, largely because of the get-tough laws that state and federal lawmakers adopted in the 1980s, are chronically cycled through jails and prisons and dumped back on the streets.

State law requires the return of parolees to the county of their last residence. Given $200 and a one-way bus pass, they gravitate toward familiar surroundings. They have made Oakland the ex-con capital of California.

One of every 14 adult males in Oakland today is on active parole or probation, with an estimated total of 11,400 parolees and probationers in the city. Those numbers rose quietly through the 1990s, then burst into public view last year as officials searched for reasons the city’s homicide rate, after years of decline, jumped abruptly, to 113 from 87 in 2001. If current trends hold, just as many murders will occur this year. Many are linked to drug disputes or old grudges. Parolees or probationers, or others with felony records, were involved in most of the killings, either as murderers or victims, police say.


And that, sad to say, is a black thing too. Criminologists say the troubles in Oakland may represent the first signs of a long-festering crisis that contrasts with a generation of social progress by African Americans. Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice symbolize an era that now boasts more African American CEOs and professionals than ever before. The black middle class is growing. Yet in poor, crime-ridden sectors such as “Oaktown,” as the rappers call black Oakland, the streets seem made of quicksand; there is more downward mobility than upward. Hopes for a typical black child (particularly male) from East Oakland or West Oakland have gotten worse, and the most damning evidence is ever greater numbers of those who find themselves on a path of crime, incarceration and parole, and then repeat the cycle.

That experience makes Oakland valuable, in a perverse way. It is an ideal laboratory for studying the effects of the tough 1980s-era drug, gun-use and repeat offender laws that pushed judges to impose long sentences for what had been fairly minor crimes. Critics argued at the time that the laws and enforcement practices would unfairly target African Americans. They cited a federal statute that imposes stiffer penalties on crimes involving crack cocaine, popular in the inner city, than crimes involving powder cocaine, popular among whites. Some criminologists warned that the nation would create a permanent criminal underclass by locking away small-time offenders who would graduate from prison with criminal records--and an education from their big-time felon cellmates.

So what happened? Places like Oaktown. Many men from the city’s large black community were cycled through the prisons and put back on the streets. As gangsta rap celebrated the “thug life,” University of Pennsylvania sociologist Elijah Anderson and others have documented the depressing rise of an “oppositional culture,” in which elementary school children are looking up to dope dealers as role models.

Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, the former California governor, a few years ago was touting his city’s urban renaissance. Now he finds himself touting prison reforms as a key step to addressing the ex-con crisis. Ironically, as governor for two terms, ending in 1983, Brown signed the tough determinate sentencing laws, which emphasized punishment as prison’s purpose, not rehabilitation. As a result, many prison-based counseling and education programs were gutted. The pattern, more or less, was repeated across the country.

Now Brown says Oakland is struggling to do what the state Department of Corrections failed to do--prepare convicted felons to lead law-abiding lives. Brown faults his successors as governor for escalating the incarceration crusade. Govs. George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, he says, “beat their chests like Tarzan,” eager to prove who was tougher on crime.

“Lock ‘em up and throw away the key--I was all for it,” recalls Oakland Police Chief Richard L. Word, who rose through the ranks, working as a street cop and undercover narcotics officer. But Word, who is African American, now says the push for more punishment was tragically “short-sighted,” contributing to a pathology of pain. As the misery deepens in Oakland, the same woes are showing across the country, especially in cities with large black populations. “How do you break that cycle?” Word asks. “I don’t know. That’s tough.”

Iif affirmative action and corporate diversity initiatives offered the carrots of upward mobility, the crackdown on crime that began in the late 1970s is a stick that critics say has unjustly come down on African Americans. The federal sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine are a case in point. A dealer convicted of selling 500 grams of powder cocaine faces a mandatory five-year prison term. But if that powder has been “rocked up” into crack, a practice common in minority neighborhoods, the sale of just five grams triggers the same sentence.

Racial bias, critics say, is also prevalent in policing strategies. And in the courts, many argue, the scales of justice are tipped against poorer defendants who rely on overworked public defenders or court-appointed attorneys.

“Racism is at the core of this criminal justice system and anybody who tells you otherwise is lying,” says Rose Braz, director of Critical Resistance, an Oakland-based advocacy group that is calling for drastic reform of what it calls America’s “prison industrial complex.”

America’s prison population stood at 2 million last year, with blacks accounting for an increasingly disproportionately large share. Although a federal survey found that African Americans constitute about 14% of the nation’s drug abusers, Human Rights Watch reports show they represent roughly 35% of the people arrested for drug crimes, 55% of the people convicted, and 74% of those imprisoned. Consider: By mid-2002, according to the Department of Justice, 1 in 8 African American males ages 25 to 29, about 13%, were in prison or jail. This compared with 4.3% of Latinos and 1.6% of whites of the same gender and age.

Many Oakland leaders, however, suggest racial inequities can be overemphasized when so much of the crime is, as police say, black-on-black. “Racism is alive and well,” says businessman Shannon Reeves, president of the Oakland NAACP. “But there were 113 homicides last year, and somebody had to pull the trigger.”

For Oakland, the surge in violence seemed to come from nowhere, a sudden U-turn from declining crime. It is a brutal new story line for a city that, only a few years ago, appeared on the verge of an urban renaissance as high-tech firms moved in and dot-com dollars flowed. Now irrational exuberance has been replaced by troubles as tangible as the teenagers dropping out of school, the crack houses of East and West Oakland and the newly released prisoners who keep coming home.

Some leading criminologists are saying the justice system is backfiring badly, and inner-city communities that suffer most from crime are also suffering from the putative cure. Like Braz, some argue that a better way to fight crime would be to channel some of the billions of dollars spent on the constructing and operating of prisons into education, job programs, youth services, drug rehab and health care.

Jeremy Travis, former director of the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, co-authored an extensive study of prisoner reentry in 2001 and concluded: “Our nation’s punishment policies have significantly weakened the capacity of communities to do the work that communities should do: raise children, provide a healthy environment for families, provide jobs for the young and old, sustain a vibrant civic life.”

Oakland’s troubles seem to fit a perplexing pathology that criminologists have found in such disparate locales as Brooklyn, Cleveland and Tallahassee: Locking up more people for longer periods of time for committing smaller crimes may actually be destabilizing to communities. In impoverished urban districts, drug dealers, thieves and robbers who are arrested and imprisoned are quickly replaced by others on the street willing to take the risk--of arrest, robbery, murder. In these communities, UC Irvine criminologist Joan Petersilia says, incarceration has become “normative” behavior. Not only has it lost much of its power to deter, but for some it becomes a rite of passage.

Oakland police chief Word is familiar with the mentality: “You get arrested, you do time, you don’t snitch--you’re a soldier, you’re a gangsta!” Violence is ever more common and life ever more cheap.

In February, Oakland police solved five homicides, including those of a 14-year-old boy and of a young father who was robbed of $31. Five men and a woman, ages 17 to 26, were charged. They called themselves the “Nut Cases.” The San Francisco Chronicle quoted one detective as describing the suspects as “totally desensitized.”

The question isn’t whether criminals should be punished, and violent ones, especially, locked up. But Oakland’s experience raises stickier issues lawmakers thought they resolved two decades ago with their hard-line laws: Should drug addiction be handled as a crime or an illness? Should a parolee who commits a technical violation of a parole term, such as unauthorized travel, be given a warning and a second chance or be swiftly locked up? What about the punishment of a parolee arrested for, say, driving under the influence of alcohol--weeks in jail or months in prison? Should an emaciated state budget be spent on a larger prison system or smaller class sizes?

California’s answers have been decisive: It’s a crime, lock ‘em up, months in prison, build more cells. And the get-tough attitude has prevailed across the country.

Given such a crackdown, the great American ex-con boom was inevitable. Now we are seeing the long-term results. As long as crime rates declined--a phenomenon researchers also attributed to demographic trends and a relatively healthy economy--the strategy was popular. But with violent crime again on the rise, researcher Travis says he regularly encounters “shock, disbelief or denial” when he describes how 600,000 parolees are coming out of America’s state and federal prisons annually, a rate of 1,600 a day. As usual, California, which adopted stiffer penalties than most other states, is a pacesetter. From 1980 to 2000, California’s prison population rose nearly 600%, to 158,117, almost twice the national rate.

To make matters worse, UC Irvine’s Petersilia says today’s parolees are less likely to transition back into society successfully because they have served longer in prison, lengthening their records and exposing them more to other criminals, and because there are fewer rehabilitation programs.

Many ex-cons do go straight, and Braz points out that the ease with which parolees are targeted by police makes it that much harder on those who try. But if Oakland’s 11,400 parolees and probationers are unfairly viewed as the usual suspects, they are only some of the city’s ex-cons. Oakland is also home to a large but unmeasured number of felons who have done time but completed their parole or probation.

Ask Chief Word how many ex-cons live in Oakland. His answer: “Wow.” He knows only that it’s a huge group, whose members have a hard time finding work because of their records.

Oakland copes day by day, with government and nonprofit agencies trying to guide parolees to law-abiding lives. Once a week, parole agents who cover Alameda County order newly minted parolees to gather at their East Oakland offices for an orientation session. For about two hours, parolees listen as a procession of ex-cons and bureaucrats offers pep talks and promote programs--literacy, GED, job training, drug rehab--that are no longer readily available inside prison walls.

The first gathering of 2003 was particularly large and racially stark. Blacks make up only 16% of Alameda County’s population, but on this particular morning, 93 of the 101 parolees were black. Among them were grizzled middle-aged men wearing charity handouts and young guys slouching in baggy clothes with cavalier attitudes to match their gold-capped teeth. Five were women. “Turn off your cell phones and pagers,” a parole agent commanded at the start.

Parole coordinator Shirley Poe said African Americans typically make up a large majority in these sessions. She blames the drug epidemic for making life tougher than the one she remembers while growing up in Oakland and nearby Richmond. “I see a lot of hopelessness I didn’t see before.”

After the session, a couple of parolees volunteered that they had two strikes--two convictions--and wanted badly to get away from Oakland and the temptations they fear might lure them into a third crime, and a lengthy prison sentence. But permission to leave Alameda County would require special dispensation. I talked to a 23-year-old who had served five years for armed robbery and then was sent back for a few months for a parole violation: “Wrong place, wrong time, man. When you’re on parole, people think you’re the devil.”

A more compelling story came from a neatly dressed man who looked as though he had stepped out of a department store ad.

“If you read my file, you’d think I was a monster,” Juan Martinez told me, holding back details. His ancestry was mixed, but he was culturally black. The point he wanted to make was that his evil deed, robbery, was nine years past, and he’d turned his life around, really he had. Then he made a big mistake.

This was the way Martinez told it: During his first parole, he had been trained as a truck driver and landed a city job, earning $17 an hour and paying his bills and taxes. He had married and was looking forward to the birth of a child. Then he went out partying one night. A DUI, as a first offense without an accident or injuries, will get most Californians a night in jail and cost a couple thousand dollars in fines and insurance premiums. It got Martinez, as a new offense by a parolee, five more months in San Quentin. It cost him his job, about $17,000 in income and the chance to witness the birth of his son--a boy who is now, statistically speaking, just a bit more likely to wind up behind bars himself.

Martinez says he’s not trying to make excuses. What he did was wrong and he has no one but himself to blame for “that DUI.” Travis says California is particularly tough on parolees for technical violations of rules and any new offenses, such as a DUI. But is the state really better off for treating Martinez so? What about his family? In Oakland, home to thousands of felons and their families and friends, such questions are coming up again and again. Oakland, they say, is getting violated.

The tour of East Oakland that Shannon Reeves takes me on stops in the neighborhood where, as a teenager, his grandmother raised him. He points out a small bungalow with bars on its windows. “The bars aren’t there because you’re afraid of the Klan, like our grandparents were,” says Reeves, 34. “You have bars on your windows because you’re afraid other black people might break into your house.”

Reeves is among the black Oakland leaders who emphasize that much of the damage, both to individuals and the community, is self-inflicted and calls for deep soul-searching. Elsewhere on the tour, he points out two groups of men on street corners a few blocks apart. The Latinos are day laborers hoping someone will offer them an honest day. The young black men with gold jewelry, he says, are probably waiting for a crack customer.

Reeves is an iconoclast, a political activist who somehow has become both a three-term president of the Oakland NAACP and an officer of the California Republican Party. Politically ambitious, he ran an uphill mayoral campaign against Brown in 1998, employing the slogan “No More Excuses.” It is a theme that strikes a chord with some other black leaders who see the community as self-destructive and in need of self-improvement.

“We have to put black men back into the family, back into the schools, back into the community,” preaches the Rev. Bob Jackson of East Oakland’s Acts Full Gospel Church of God in Christ. He has organized Black Men First, a group that proselytizes on the streets against crime and for responsible parenthood. “As black men, we have to come together, because it’s our problem. It’s not the white man’s problem. It’s not the politician’s problem. It’s not anybody’s problem but the black man’s.”

Jackson traces the roots of Oakland’s troubles to the impact of the welfare rules of the 1960s, a viewpoint it took him years to embrace because it challenged liberal orthodoxy. He says he has seen two, sometimes three, generations of women who could get bigger welfare checks by bearing children without a husband. This skewed the economics of the family, Jackson reasons, devaluing the role of men as patriarchs, prompting many to abdicate responsibility and denying their children the guidance, protection and discipline of a father. He is suspicious enough to wonder whether this was really good intentions gone awry, or a more sinister design of oppression. “I don’t know what the intent was,” he says. “But I know the outcome.”

The outcome in East and West Oakland, Jackson says, is “spiritually broken” communities where drugs are used to mask the pain. The typical parolee of today and the future, he says, is a young male who barely knows his father, who dropped out of school in the ninth grade and has a fourth-grade reading level. “Who’s going to give them a job, if not the dope dealer?” he asks. Once they are arrested, their criminal record makes it harder to find honest work. In the end, Jackson says, many in the drug trade become addicts themselves. “Then we really have a mess on our hands.”

The pathology of poor, crime-ridden communities has been studied by researchers. UC Irvine criminologist Petersilia says the incarceration boom has deeply affected psychology in such neighborhoods: “Youth see few positive role models and no positive sense of the future.” Unemployment is high, she says, as is the sense of alienation from society.

“Eventually they get sent to prison, and the vicious cycle continues, with prison being an almost normative life experience for an increasing number of youth,” she says.

The clinical language pales against the stories shared at Men of Valor, a kind of halfway house established by Jackson to help parolees make a successful transition. The program, housed in a church sanctuary that once served as Black Panther headquarters, had 27 residents on the days I visited. The number had been larger, but the program had evicted dozens of drug addicts, says director Tom Bowden. Some of those who remained say the program is saving their lives.

Bowden, 64, is an ex-con and reformed crack addict known as “Terrible Tom.” He’s a raconteur who carries the scars of a shooting on the streets and a stabbing in a prison race riot and confesses to a shameful time when he took up with a woman on welfare, a crack addict herself, who had four kids: “We’d smoke up the children’s check.”

Oakland’s rise in homicides, Bowden says, is no surprise to a certain social class--the crack class. Sometimes it might just be business, with drug dealers invading each others’ turf. Sometimes it’s personal. “The little kingpins” who operate on East Oakland corners, Bowden says, have been known to wind up in prison and meet up with a former customer. The weak junkie they had beaten up because he owed them money is now off drugs, well-fed, has been pumping iron and has some friends. And it’s the little kingpin who now gets the beating.

Not everybody at Men of Valor is a parolee. Bowden introduces me to an 18-year-old named Jerome. He is said to be here for his own protection--from being killed . . . or becoming a killer.

The story Jerome tells begins with the murder of an older, dope-dealing friend he called Big Brother. Four men had posed as customers before turning it into a shakedown. When Big Brother reached for his .45, the robbers blasted him with a shotgun. Jerome witnessed the killing, and for two weeks snooped around, planning vengeance. After his mother and grandmother learned what happened, Jerome was persuaded to move into the Men of Valor Academy.

The Black Panthers movement may have started in this building, but in talking to people in East Oakland, it becomes obvious that their influence locally was fleeting compared to the likes of the late heroin kingpin Felix Mitchell. An Al Capone-like figure who curried favor by giving away microwave ovens and turkeys in the housing projects he ruled, Mitchell was stabbed to death in federal prison in 1986 at the age of 32. Even in death he made an impression. His funeral is remembered as a colorful parade. Oaklanders gathered and gawked as his casket was carried on a horse-drawn carriage, followed by a procession of 10 Rolls-Royce limousines. On the tour, Reeves points out his own experience with Mitchell’s crowd. It’s a schoolyard where, in junior high, Reeves was beaten by a gang of classmates led by Mitchell’s cousin.

Reeves turns down another street, to show where Juan Martinez had lived. Reeves and Martinez are the same age and both attended Castlemont High; not only did Reeves remember Martinez, but they had been friends who lived a few blocks apart and hung out with two other guys, one who now works for FedEx and another who is in prison.

Reeves circles back to 98th Street, to the sparkling Chevron station and mini-mart he co-owns that is a symbol of economic hope amid the blight of East Oakland. When Reeves and his partner acquired the site, it was home to Oakland’s busiest heroin marketplace. Reeves dreams of erecting a Popeyes chicken franchise next door and installing a laundromat across the street. In East Oakland, this is serious economic progress, and one reason why a Republican can lead the Oakland NAACP. Another is that Reeves believes in second chances. Several of his employees are ex-cons.

“This is black history month,” the youth counselor, an African American woman, announces to the assembled wards of Alameda County’s Camp Wilmont Sweeney juvenile detention facility. “So it’s good to have someone here who has made history in his own right.”

On this February evening, the Rev. Mickey Moore, natty in a red suit and black turtleneck, is to talk to the inmates. The racial composition is striking. By my count, 61 of the 72 young men are black.

Moore is here as a cautionary tale, a 51-year-old man who was a thief, a thug and a pimp before building a heroin empire--and becoming a rival of Felix Mitchell. One thing Moore didn’t tell the boys, but he did tell me, is that he is also the father of seven children by seven women.

Now he is the Rev. Moore of Keys to the Heart International Church, a tiny storefront not far from the Victorian crack houses of West Oakland’s “Lower Bottom” district. Some of the boys have seen his self-published autobiography, “The Man: The Life Story of a Drug Kingpin,” with a cover that shows a younger Moore in glistening gold jewelry sitting on the hood of his red Bentley. Moore knows he’s not as famous as the legendary Mitchell. When he asks how many boys know about Mitchell, maybe 15 hands go up--and most hadn’t been born when Mitchell was killed. “I’m here to tell my story,” Moore says. “He’s not.”

Moore gives a rambling talk, boasting that his crew, known as The Family, pulled in $72 million in heroin sales from 1978 to 1982. But, Moore asks, was it worth getting shot? Is it worth living your life in such fear that you always pack a gun? A boy sitting in back answers with an incredulous snort: “Yeah--for $72 million?”

Moore presses on, warning about the inevitability of drug addiction, prison or death for those who don’t straighten out their lives. His two eldest children, he says, are in prison themselves, one for second-degree murder.

If these boys are being scared straight, they don’t show it. Their attention peaks when Moore veers into conspiracy theories that are not unusual in Oakland: How the American government must have secretly supported the drug trade. “Who do you think supplied the dope?” he asks.

A boy answers: “The CIA?”

Not only that, Moore declares, but rock cocaine “was designed for the minorities. It was designed for us.” And that, he suggests, explains why the law comes down so hard on crack users.

Moore invites questions. The boys are impressed when he says that, no, he never joined a prison gang. “Everybody don’t have to clique up.” They’re impressed to learn that, as part of his plea bargain, he managed to hang on to his Bentley and still had $35,000 in cash when he was released after serving seven years for heroin and weapon possession.

It was hard to say exactly what kind of lesson was learned. In the end, Moore asked the boys to come forward and accept Jesus as their lord and savior. A crowd gathered around Moore in a ritual of salvation, repeating a prayer in a chorus. Maybe some souls were touched. As for the others, they’ll always remember how they got up close and personal with an ex-con, a genuine kingpin who lived to tell about it, and says he has a Bentley in the garage.