GIVING THEM THE OPPORTUNITY

Itís a pretty easy story for the police to spin.

The black kids riding around Oakland looking for something to do have no media handlers or paid spokespersons to massage the press. They donít have a central telephone number to call. They are black kids coming of age in a city that does not honor or particularly value black kids, and so they are an easy target.

On the second page of a Sunday Tribune story on "Police feel they have a handle on sideshow cruisers," we get a pretty candid revelation on how this is being done. According to OPD Officer George Phillips, the police "donít give them the opportunity to do anything. Anytime an officer sees a group starting to gather, he radios up, gives their location, and everybody responds to chase them away."

What immediately jumps out is who is the "them" Mr. Phillips is talking about, and what is exactly is it that the Oakland Police Department are not giving "them" and opportunity to "do"?

This sounds very much like the cityís infamous 1995 no-cruising ordinance, which defines cruising as "the driving of or being a passenger in a motor vehicle driven two times within a four-hour period past a traffic control point which has been posted as a no cruising zone." In order to properly enforce this ordinance, an officer would have to sit on the corner with a notepad, writing down the time and the license number of every car passing. And each time a car passed, he would have to simultaneously flip back through the pages to see if that car had passed less than four hours before. Anybody out there think that this is how the no-cruising ordinance gets enforced? Instead, itís an invitation for city officials to pick and choose who they want to ban from certain neighborhoods. Itís all legal, of course. But to paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, calling it legal doesnít mean that itís right.

Back to the sideshows.

How do Oakland police define a sideshow, and how do they determine that one is gathering? How large is the group that must form to trigger the police radio calls to "chase them away"? Ten cars? Two? How do they determine what potential gatherings are desireable, and what ones are not? By race? By age? And in what form does this "chasing" take place?

Earlier this summer, one of my daughters paid $1,300 in storage fees to get her car retrieved from impound. Sheíd leant the car to her boyfriend while she went out of state to visit relatives. Unknown to her, his license had been suspended, and when Oakland police stopped him one night, they had my daughterís car towed and impounded for 30 days.

A call to the City Attorneyís office got the response that my daughterís boyfriend must have gotten stopped in one of the sideshow crackdowns, or maybe he was somewhere buying drugs or soliciting a prostitute. Interesting assumption. Actually the kid wasnít even stopped for a traffic violation. It was apparently one of those "random stops" by police that always seem more random in some neighborhoods, less random in others.

Oh, and why had my daughterís boyfriendís license been suspended in the first place? For another, earlier "random stop," in which he hadnít been able to produce proof of insurance, and missed the court date to correct it. The car was insured. He just didnít have the insurance card on him, because it wasnít his car. In South Africa, they used to call this a "pass law."

There are other laws. Once, a long time ago, we ratified one saying, in part, that "Congress shall make no lawÖabridging theÖthe right of the people peaceably to assemble." Itís called freedom of assembly, and itís part of the Constitution. I suppose the police would argue that these kids arenít being peaceable, so the First Amendment doesnít apply. I guess it depends on who gets the chance to give the spin.

"We donít give them the opportunity to do anything." Pretty much sums it up, I think.


Originally Published August 29, 2001 in URBANVIEW Newspaper, Oakland, CA