City defined by its violence

In the neighborhood where four Oakland police officers were killed last weekend, a large makeshift memorial still adorns a sidewalk with flowers, notes and photographs of the slain police. Across the street lies another, smaller sidewalk memorial -- this one for the parolee who killed the officers.

A cluster of African American women in front of the police memorial argued last week about a candlelight vigil planned for the felon, whom police had just linked by DNA to the rape of a 12-year-old.

One incensed woman said it would send the wrong message to children.

“This man killed the police,” Janice James, 52, said in exasperation. “It looks like you are condoning what he did.”


The neighborhood where this sidewalk debate occurred is a world away from other parts of Oakland, a 56-square-mile city of about 400,000 people of many races and extremely diverse incomes in the shadow of San Francisco.

Yet it is this neighborhood and other crime-plagued pockets that have come to define Oakland, creating an image of a city that many of its own residents do not recognize and that others know painfully well.

The killings of the officers, among the deadliest such incidents in state history, drew national headlines last week and reinforced Oakland’s bloody image. It came nearly three months after a videotaped shooting of a black man by a white transit police officer prompted sporadic rioting downtown and heightened tensions in East Oakland between African Americans and police.

None of the four officers killed last week was African American. The man who shot them was.

Sam Romano, 56, a white contractor who lives in a racially diverse, middle-class neighborhood just up the hill from where the police were killed, said he was largely untouched by the violence below.

He blamed the troubles on “people without jobs, without training programs and without hope.”

“Mix that together with a minority of the people who are of the criminal element and add the ease of getting guns, and violence erupts, and it creates chaos,” said Romano, who moved to Oakland 25 years ago because it was more affordable than San Francisco, has a better climate and is filled with people “who don’t want to live in a suburb of one color or one type of person.”

East Oakland’s flatlands, with wide boulevards of tattered storefronts, check-cashing stores and barbershops, are a constant reminder to their largely poor residents that they have not benefited from the large-scale redevelopment projects that have helped transform other troubled Oakland neighborhoods, such as the once-decaying downtown.

Yet just miles from where the police were gunned down, the middle-class and affluent shop at organic grocery stores, visit galleries, eat at upscale restaurants and hike and jog on tree-lined trails.

The last decade has seen an exodus of African Americans from Oakland and an influx of other races, gay people and young families who no longer can afford San Francisco. An Urban Institute study of 2000 census data found that Oakland has more lesbian couples per capita than any other major U.S. city.

In 2000, African-Americans were the plurality. By 2007, a survey estimated that whites made up 35% of the population; blacks, 30.8%; Latinos, 25%; and Asians, 15%.

Night life is returning downtown. Restaurants and clubs have followed large-scale residential development. A historic movie palace, the Fox Theater, an ornate Art Deco building shuttered for decades, reopened last month and is booking well-known performers.

West Oakland, another historically troubled neighborhood with graceful Victorian homes, also has experienced a small revival, although the entire city has been hurt by the recession.

But little change has come to the East Oakland flatlands, whose predominantly black residents refer to their home as Beirut and “the killing zone.” The city had an estimated 124 homicides last year, most in the flatlands.


Troubled area

In the neighborhood where the police were killed, residents live in modest bungalows with bars on the windows and locked gates around tiny patches of lawn. Many homes are boarded up, victims of foreclosure. Cooperating with police is seen by some as dangerous, an invitation to retaliation.

Industrial jobs that drew both blacks and whites in large numbers from the South during World War II have largely disappeared, and drug dealing and other economic crimes have filled the void. Residents are arrested and sent to prison, then return as parolees and probationers.

Melva Fonteno, 47, a retired African American nurse, stood in front of the sidewalk memorial last week to pay respects to Officer Daniel Sakai, 35, one of the slain officers. She said Sakai had investigated the nonfatal shooting of her teenage son, who was struck by 13 bullets at a bus stop two years ago.

“It was a jealousy thing,” his mother said of the shooting. “He had on expensive shoes.”

The police recently made arrests in the case, she said.

“Officer Sakai would call me personally,” Fonteno said, smiling at the memory. “I always appreciated him and the rest of the officers because they always came by and told me how the case was going. That young man has always been there for me and my family.”

Fonteno grimaced, though, as she recalled once watching other officers slam three teenage boys to the ground with unnecessary brutality. “But I want more cops,” she said. “There are robberies, stealing. You can’t even go to the check-cashing places without getting robbed.”

The division in the neighborhood is reflected at a nearby barbershop, where a customer expressed bitterness about the wide attention the police killings have captured.

“Black people are marginalized by the city and hounded by the police,” said the African American man, 37, who gave his name only as D. because he said he feared getting “jumped on” by the police.

“Cops are so arrogant,” he said. “They kill black men and for the most part they are getting away with it.”

On weekend nights, young men and women take over major intersections in the neighborhood, driving doughnuts around circles of dancing people, disrupting traffic, destroying property and playing loud music in what are called sideshows.

Drive a short distance from East Oakland’s flatlands and the city is transformed into vibrant neighborhoods, some Latino, others Asian, others multiracial.

At Lake Merritt, in the heart of Oakland, residents jog trails, rent boats and picnic on the lawns. Ringed with lights at night, the lake is described by the city as the largest of its kind in an urban setting.

On a typical sunny afternoon, three white-haired couples enjoyed lawn bowling. Mothers escorted children to Fairyland, where they could pet llamas. An old man in a beret fed the sea gulls, and geese strutted past couples lounging on the lawn.

Shontay Newell, 34, an African American hot-dog vendor, was staring out at the lake when the conversation turned to East Oakland -- a place Newell said she tries to avoid. She said she went to a bar there a few months ago, and a man pointed a rusty .22 at her after she told him she had no money.

“I was so scared,” she said. She did not report the incident to the police because “they are not going to do anything about it.”

In the Fruitvale District, a street that was once East 14th has been aptly renamed International Boulevard. Latin music pours from cars, people chat in Spanish on the sidewalks, the storefronts have Spanish names, and taco and fruit carts dot the corners.

“I like the town, the climate, no problems,” said Rogelio Ruiz, 48, enjoying the sunshine outside the sporting goods store where he worked. “Crime? It’s OK. People walk here every day, the families, the babies. No problem.”

Heading downtown on International Boulevard, the store names become Asian and the neighborhoods brim with people of Southeast Asian descent.


Different opinions

In northern Oakland, residents sip coffee at outdoor tables in the trendy and pricey Rockridge District, which borders Berkeley. Marla Leech, 47, a white college instructor at one of the outdoor tables, complained that the media have given Oakland a horrible image and said there is little conflict between the city’s races. “People mix together here.”

As Oakland prepared last week to bury the dead, many were united in their support of the police, showering the stations with flowers, bringing food and writing notes.

But residents in East Oakland braced for trouble on the evening of the march for Lovelle Mixon, a high school dropout who had taken occasional jobs since his release from prison and missed appointments with a parole officer in the weeks before he killed the police officers.

The news media descended in droves for the march, although it attracted only a few dozen people.

Local newspapers had reported that Mixon also was a suspect in another murder and may have been linked to several rapes in the neighborhood in addition to the attack on the young girl.

“He didn’t rape nobody,” a woman in the crowd hissed. “That’s a lie. They just got to pin that on somebody.”

“George Washington was a rapist! Thomas Jefferson was a rapist!” shouted a man.

An African American woman pushing her granddaughter in a stroller and keeping her eye on a grandson said she came because Mixon was her daughter’s cousin.

But what he did, she said, was not right.

“Nooooo,” said the woman, Ella, 47, shaking her head sadly.

The demonstration ended in front of an empty building that used to house the neighborhood police. The officers have since moved into a building across the parking lot, and through its glass doors the motorcycles of two of the slain officers could be seen surrounded by flowers and a lighted candle.


Times researchers Scott Wilson and Vicki Gallay contributed to this report.