East Oakland Still Suffers From The Spoils Of The Dark Alliance

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Originally Published September 8, 1996 in the San Jose Mercury News

WITH THE exception of South-Central Los Angeles, there is no community more affected by the crack trade than East Oakland. And therefore, no one should be angrier than I to learn that the explosive growth of the crack trade in my community in the 1980s probably came about largely through the sponsorship and protection of an agency of the federal government, as reported in the Mercury News' recent Dark Alliance series.

I am a single father. I live with three teen-age daughters in what is called the flatlands of East Oakland: the heart of drug country. This is where I grew up, where my parents still live and operate the family business, and where I returned after an absence of 20 years to raise my children.

But I find that I am too weary for anger and even if I could manage it, who would I be angry with? There will be news conferences and hearings and investigations, sure, but will they ever uncover the names and faces of those who authored this abomination? I think not. The perpetrators are not humans but pale imitations of humans, cowards, those who will never come forward and admit their complicity but who will forever stand in the shadows beyond the streetlights, throwing their bricks and hiding their hands.

Walking home from my parents' house, my children and I come upon a young woman standing in the middle of our street. She has a large stick in her hand and while she waves it in the air, she is shouting into the darkness.

''Who you think you are . . . huh? What? You think you can take advantage of me? You son of a bitch! You can't take advantage of me! I'm somebody's child! Who you think you are?''

Who she thought was trying to take advantage of her, I do not have the slightest idea. There was no one else in sight.

I hustle my children into the house.

I have seen this woman often since I returned to East Oakland. She is about 30, only a little bit older than my eldest daughter. I have heard that she has two or three children of her own, raised by a grandmother somewhere. People around here call her Pat, but that may not even be her right name. So much about street people is false. The only thing I can be certain about her that is real is her pain.

Pat is a crack whore, working the main avenue a block from my house, selling sex all night for just enough money each time to buy herself a couple of rocks. She probably got hooked in that period of ignorance before the full horrific addictive effects of crack were known, perhaps around the time when Freeway Rick was moving the trade up the coast from Southern California.

When I first came back to Oakland, she used to take my breath away when I'd see her out on East 14th, as achingly lovely as any woman I'd ever been close to. She was a dark beauty with the long, smooth-muscled legs of a dancer, a Louisiana sashay of a walk, and a dimpled, devilish smile that made men drivers almost wreck trying to make U-turns in the middle of the street.

I have watched her deteriorate, week by week, month by month, in the years since then. Crack does that to you.

What was once lithe and slender about Pat is now skinny and emaciated; her clothes hang about her body as if they belonged to somebody else. They probably do. Her cheekbones bulge while the skin below them is lined and sunken. She hides her hair under a knit cap, even in the heat of the summer, and she scratches at it absently and often, so one can only imagine its condition. Her eyes are dull and brittle as old plastic, and dart out at you from places where you do not wish to venture.

This is what the Dark Alliance has left my community with. Long after Reagan has been buried and canonized on a new-denomination bill - long after the CIA's Contra operatives have retired to their Central American villas - long after Republican and Democratic politicians have tired of trading their mutual recriminations - long after all of this, it is my community and my people who will be left to live with the human disasters of people like Pat and her children, wherever they are, and who will be left to clean up the mess.

Inside the house, my daughters want to watch the spectacle of Pat through the venetian blinds. She is a great show to them, I am sure. I shoo them away from the window and tell them to turn on the television, but that is a mistake.

Immediately they find something called ''Cops,'' one of their favorite programs, the one where the cameras supposedly follow real police around and shows all the sweating and grunting and blood of catching real criminals. My children are fascinated by the world of violence, from which they are separated by only a pane of glass. I cannot watch these things, and I retreat to my room.

I have seen too much in these eight years since I came back home.

I have witnessed four high-speed auto chases, one in which a car came within a few feet of wiping me off of the curb where I was standing, another in which a car lost control and plowed through the chain-link fence adjacent to the building where I work.

One night, driving home two blocks from my house, I turned onto a street on which Oakland Police Department Tactical Squad members were crouching in the dark with guns drawn, about to bust into a dealer's house. I put my car in reverse just as the police began racing across the street.

Walking to the post office each morning, I have seen the street memorials to slain young African American men: slogans of farewell and regret spray-painted on the sidewalk, ghastly altars of wreaths and worn tennis shoes, cold puddles of burned wax surrounding emptied bottles of 8-Ball and Mickey's Big Mouth, castoff cellophane marijuana packets discarded around them in odd patterns.

At night there is sometimes so much gunfire in the neighborhood - automatic weapons, mostly, and now and then the boom of what must be a shotgun or, perhaps, something larger - that I have stopped paying attention unless I hear the sound of someone running, and only then when the running is coming toward my house.

My daughters learned early how to duck at the sound of loud noises. It is a lesson I did not teach them. This is what the Dark Alliance has left my community with, the dogs.

East Oakland was not always like this. When my parents moved here in the midst of World War II, it was a mostly white community of stable families and unlocked doors. The neighborhood rolled over white to black in the years that I was growing up, but its family nature and peace and stability remained, a neighborhood of backyard cookouts with red Kool-Aid tinkling in iced glasses, and Ray Charles and Johnny Otis on the 45.

After the African-Americans came Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans and lately, the Southeast Asians, all seeking a safe haven for their families along the tree-shaded streets and within the grassy backyards. Regardless of language or culture, that has been the common denominator of East Oakland: family.

Every Fourth of July, our relatives would converge upon my parents' house for an annual barbecue. They still do. They do this not out of our sense of patriotism, but out of our sense of family. For us, commitment to family values is not a political slogan. It is our life. It is how we have survived and remained whole amid the madness. It is how we will survive the residue of littered bodies and shattered structures left by the Dark Alliance.

It is long after midnight, and my daughters have gone to bed. Pat has been quiet for a while but now she has returned to the middle of the street. She is banging her stick on the pavement, pounding it, and has taken to shouting again.

''You wrong, you damn bastard, you wrong!'' I wonder who she is upset with. Perhaps someone who has tried to take her money. Life among the hustlers is vicious. Or perhaps her boyfriend, who beats her regularly. Or maybe it is the larger system she rails at . . . the government that leaves her on the streets to rot while rewarding those who enslaved her, who shot the drugs into her veins. She is an intelligent woman, it seems, but it doesn't take much intelligence to figure that one out. ''It ain't right!'' she shouts. 'I'm somebody's child!''

I close the venetian blinds, and decide to let it be. Perhaps someone will call the police on her tonight, but it won't be me. After all, she has a point.