No Cruising for You: African American Youth and Police in Oakland

It's called freedom of assembly, and it's part of the Constitution. I suppose the police would argue that these kids aren't being peaceable, so the First Amendment doesn't apply.

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Originally Published in Bad Subjects Progressive Political Online Newspaper Issue #59, February 2002 []

February 2, 2000

My 17 year-old left the house with her friends the other night, all giggling and bubbly and enthusiastic about a night out in Oakland. They are all at that wonderful age between child and adult, when the reality of the world has not yet set in, and all weekend nights are filled with possible magic.

She returned several hours later, shaken and upset. She had been to the now infamous HotBoyz concert at the Oakland Coliseum. And her anger was directed not at the fighting, which we've all seen displayed over and over on our television sets, but at the Alameda County Sheriff's Deputies who were supposed to provide security for the event.

"Daddy, you won't believe how disrespectful they were to people," she said.

Disrespectful is only the beginning of it.

My daughter tells me that when sporadic fighting broke out on the floor of the Coliseum during an intermission in the program, it could have easily been broken up by county deputies. Most of the deputies, however, never entered the floor area, remaining instead in a cordoned off area in front of the stage. When the concert was canceled, an act which apparently caused the fighting to escalate, the deputies even abandoned that post, retreating first to the stage itself, and then disappearing behind the curtains. Coliseum security had long since left the area. Meanwhile, without police protection, youngsters were being assaulted all across the floor. In panic, people began frantically racing for the exits. Within moments, the Coliseum was virtually deserted.

Except for my daughter and her friends, and about 20 other young people. They were no dummies. To run with a crowd in a riot is idiotic. The crowd carries the riot with it. And so my daughter and her friends and a few other people remained in the safest place they could find, in their seats in the now-empty arena.

Until county deputies came and drove them outside.

"They came up the aisles knocking their batons on the sides of the chairs," my daughter tells me. "And they told us we had to leave. When we said that we were scared and wanted one of them to escort us to our car they told us that wasn't our job, and just to get our asses out of there. When we asked for help, they kept telling us, 'Take it up with the Coliseum.'"

This was the point when my daughter got scared.

"Daddy, it was crazy outside!" she says. "You could hear people shouting out there. It was dark; there were just streetlights. And everybody knew that people would be out there popping their trunks, and then everybody would be strapping. We didn't want to go."

Alameda County deputies gave them no choice. They herded the young people out of the arena and into the lobby area.

In the lobby, my daughter says, about 50 people had gathered, all afraid to go into the chaos outside. By this time, news of the violence was being broadcast on radio and television. The pager of one of my daughter's friends went off, blinking her home number. She went to a pay phone and called her frantic mother, letting her know that the girls were alright, and they were trying to get away and get home.

But while my daughter's friend was talking to her mother on the telephone, a county deputy walked up and snatched the receiver out of her hand and slammed it down on the hook. "You've got to clear this area!" he shouted at her. When my daughter's friend protested, the deputy loomed over her and said, "Girl, I'll spit on your black ass! Get out of here!"

Given no choice, my daughter and her friends left the lobby.

In the tunnels outside, they received no help from two other sheriff's deputies. The girls were not familiar with the layout of the Coliseum and though they knew the parking lot section where their car was parked, they had no idea how to get there. Two of the deputies refused to give them directions, saying that it wasn't their job. Finally, a third deputy came over and told them where to go. But he refused to let them stay inside the Coliseum tunnels, and refused to accompany the girls to the car.

My daughter describes a hellish scene outside, with people running and fights breaking out everywhere. "We saw one man just walk up to another and hit him and knock him down," she says. "Boys were grabbing at girls." And there was no security. The Alameda County Sheriff's Deputies remained inside. Fortunately, the girls saw some young men they knew from school, who walked them to their car.

My daughter and her friends came away with only the scars that are left by fear and anger. They were luckier than the several young people who were beaten severely while law enforcement officials stood by. But perhaps the cops did what they had been sent out there to do. The reports were that there was minimal damage to the Coliseum itself, and the Warriors were able to play a game on the arena floor the next night.

The Oakland City Council has said that it is going to investigate the riot at the HotBoyz concert at the Coliseum. Yes, let's investigate. Starting with the conduct of Alameda County Sheriff's Deputies, and whether they think that protecting the young people of this county is part of their mandate.


March 29, 2000

When violence comes to this city, it's not like it is in the movies. It comes without warning to allow you to brace yourself. There's no recognizable hero upon whom you can pin your hopes. There's no soundtrack available on CD. When violence comes to this city, there's no storyline to give it meaning. It comes rough-cut. Unedited.

Wednesday began in celebration of early spring, a riot of birds shouting in joy at each other in the trees across from my yard, proclaiming the end of the rain and the cold. Wednesday began in hope. Wednesday ended with a Mexican American kid lying in the gutter a block away, his head cradled in the arms of strangers, sobbing for an ambulance, his blood running away into the street, mixing with the discarded blunts and crumpled potato chip packages.

A few minutes before, I saw him standing on the corner, as I made the turn in my car. But it was the black kid across the street who caught my attention. Something in the expression on his face, or his movement as he stepped off the curb. Some malice. Some menace. Something that made me turn and look.

The Latino kid took off running up the sidewalk out of my view. I watched through my rear window as the black kid followed him, crouching low at a run-walk, pulling a gun from somewhere out of his jacket, holding his weapon in that peculiar, sidearm, gangsta way these kids do and then firing, four quick bursts, then a pause, then one or two more, the yellow flames leaping out like snake tongues, barking their guttural, hellish sounds.

The black kid turned and came running up my street, looking at me with wide eyes as he ran past. Just a young kid. 16? 17? He held the power in his hand, but all that showed on his face was fear.

Later I tried to recall the black kid's face, but I couldn't. It occurred to me that, yes, here it was like a movie. The Godfather, the part where someone tells Michael Corleone that when he shoots someone, spectators will never see his face, so they will never be able to identify him. They will only see the gun. That is what I remembered. And the sound of his sneakers patting off the pavement as he disappeared into the East Oakland night.

I got out of the truck and walked to the corner. Up the street I saw the Latino kid lying face-down in the gutter, wedged between the curb and a car, crying as a couple of people tried to comfort him. Only then did the violence become real to me, in the only way that violence becomes real: not in its execution, but in its aftermath.

Later a policeman found shell casings in the intersection and bent down, talking to himself or anyone who would listen. "Funny thing about Oakland," he said. "You never know if these aren't from some other shooting. Hell of a commentary on our fair city."

Late into the night, sitting on my couch, I tried to make sense of what had happened, but I couldn't find a point to it. And maybe, after all, that's the point.


June 13, 2001

It's not the job of police to solve social problems. Give them such a task, and more often than not they'll either muddle around and make the situation worse, or push it out into somebody else's jurisdiction, making it somebody else's problem. And why should we expect otherwise? Solving social problems is not part of police training. It's not in their mentality. It's not in their job descriptions. Asking them to take on such tasks is just asking for trouble.

So why is the City of Oakland asking its police department to solve the problem of the Sideshows?

Sideshows are the gatherings of mostly African American young folk, who congregate in parking lots and along certain city streets to play music and show off their cars. Although these gatherings have a particular Oakland, African American, hip-hop, turn-of-the-millennium beat to them, they are not much different than what American kids have been doing on American streets since cars were invented. It's a lot like the 1960's-era, Central Valley white kids in American Graffiti. But instead of going out to the edge of town for drag races, these Oakland kids are turning donuts in the middle of intersections. Yeah, it's sometimes dangerous, and it's almost always annoying to older folk (like myself) who have to put up with the noise and the inconveniences.

But the Sideshows are not a gang, or a crowd of people setting out to cause trouble. It's mostly kids with a lot of exuberance and youthful enthusiasm, with a lot of time on their hands, and not a lot of things to do in a city that does not especially value black teenagers and young adults. Sure, there are a few troublemakers and knuckleheads in the crowd, but they are in the distinct minority.

Lately, in an effort to break up the Sideshows, Oakland cops have been dispersing the cars, herding them onto the freeway, and then blocking off the exits so that the kids can't get off until far out of town. The hope, I guess, is that the drivers will get so spread out that they will not be able to get back together again. There is a scent of martial law in this that all of us should find troubling. Not only that, a couple of weekends ago, police officers blocked off all I-880 exits until A Street in Hayward. The result? A small number of the gatherers got out of their cars in a Hayward parking lot, broke into a convenience store, trashed the place, and stole thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. Such actions weren't happening a few years ago, before the police tried to break up the gatherings.

Now we learn that the Oakland Police Department wants to hold town meetings, hoping to invite young people to find alternatives to the Sideshows. With all due respect, that's not the job of the Oakland police. Although they ought to be consulted on law enforcement matters, the police should not be taking the lead in providing social outlets for our young folk.

Chief Richard Word has told the Oakland Tribune that Oakland cops have, in some ways, contributed to the problem. "We made a mistake," he said, "by pushing them out of the parking lot of Eastmont Mall [where the Sideshow began several years ago] and into the neighborhoods." He's right. I lived with my kids near Eastmont Mall for a couple of years, when the Sideshows were going on over there. My kids went to them all the time. There never seemed to be any problems back then. No reports of fights. Or shootings. Or lootings. Now they've forced the Sideshows out onto city streets, and we've got running battles every weekend, with the young folks trying to find some place to congregate, and the cops trying to keep them from doing so.

Maybe, in the beginning, we should have just trusted our kids, and let them alone. And certainly somebody besides the cops should take the lead in working this out.


August 1, 2001

They beat a man in the street in front of our apartment house the other night, who knows why. Beat him bad. Beat him for a while. Beat him while he cried for help. Beat him until he lay helpless and alone in the middle of the street, right beside the driveway where my daughters walk up to get in our house. The neighbors were all afraid to intervene while it lasted, because in this neighborhood, everyone worries about guns. But as soon as the bangers had jumped into their car and headed off, the houses emptied all around and folks came running to see what they could do. There wasn't much, except to wait for the EMT.

The police responded fairly fast, swooping down from both ends. I suppose there are some benefits to living in a neighborhood that the police chief has designated a quick-response area. But the police came too late to do anything but pick up the pieces.

I doubt if you'll read anything about this beating anyplace but here. If it happened near College Avenue or Piedmont or Lakeshore, it would be big news. People don't expect folks to get attacked in the street in those neighborhoods. But if you read about a beat-down near Seminary and Bancroft in East Oakland, well what do you think? Oh, over there. As if, somehow, it's supposed to be normal on this end.

A week or so ago, a kid got killed in front of his house off of Seminary, a couple of blocks from here. 19 or 20 bullets shot at him in the middle of a summer afternoon, in a neighborhood where children ride their bikes and scooters and wet each other down with water hoses and buy Popsicles from those Latino guys with their pushcarts. The police came down, pulled their yellow tape across the street to block it off, and set down those ghastly numbered cones on the pavement to count the shell casings.

A bunch of kids witnessed the shooting and saw the bloody body sprawled on the ground, but no one sent a trauma team around to counsel them. No one thought to, I guess. In this neighborhood, we're not supposed to suffer trauma. I guess it's like the politicians used to talk about the Vietnamese during the war. The death of loved ones doesn't affect them the same way it affects us, our leaders used to say. They have a different attitude about life. Just as other folks must feel about us, here on Oakland's eastern outskirts.

The "incident" rated a small item in a back page of the Tribune. Meanwhile, in the same week, the Chronicle ran a headline on the first page of its East Bay section that read: "Gun slaying in quiet part of Oakland." Oh, of course. That's news. When it happens in the quiet parts.

Elsewhere in East Oakland, groups of kids gather on Saturday nights to spin their cars in the middle of the street and play their music, bass-booming loud. Yes, it's annoying. No, I wouldn't want a Sideshow on my corner. I don't like one car spinning donuts. But as far as I have heard, no one has died at one of these Sideshows, in all the years they have been going on. As far as I have heard, no one has even gotten seriously injured. Yet the Tribune reports that Oakland police will spend a million dollars on overtime this year "to keep tabs on the action" at the Sideshows. Meanwhile, youth programs and schools go wanting for funding, and there's a war on Oakland's streets that's killing Oakland's kids.

We have lost our perspective on what is annoying, and what is abominable. We are a city that has got its priorities wrong.


August 29, 2001

It's 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 don't 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 an Oakland Tribune story called "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 "don't 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 exactly is it that the Oakland Police Department is not giving "them" the opportunity to "do"?

This sounds very much like the city's 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, it's an invitation for city officials to pick and choose who they want to ban from certain neighborhoods. It's all legal, of course. But to paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, calling it legal doesn't mean it's 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 which potential gatherings are desirable, and which 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. She'd 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 daughter's car towed and impounded for 30 days.

A call to the City Attorney's office got the response that my daughter's 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 wasn't 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.

And why had my daughter's boyfriend's license been suspended in the first place? For another, earlier "random stop," in which he hadn't been able to produce proof of insurance, and missed the court date to correct it. The car was insured. He just didn't have the insurance card on him, because it wasn't 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 law abridging the right of the people peaceably to assemble." It's called freedom of assembly, and it's part of the Constitution. I suppose the police would argue that these kids aren't being peaceable, so the First Amendment doesn't apply. I guess it depends on who gets the chance to give the spin.

"...don't give them the opportunity to do anything."

Pretty much sums it up, I think.

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is an author, a journalist, and a native of Oakland, California. This article is adapted from his newspaper column "Oakland Unwrapped," one of the best local chronicles on the reign of Jerry Brown.

Copyright © 2002 by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor. All rights reserved.