Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Crime Wave in Oakland as the Incarceration Generation Comes of Age

Is it just me or does the year 1968 seem to be coming back all around us? An unpopular war bleeds on continents away while a lame duck President solemnly intones his commitment to fight to the last drop. A spectacular primary campaign in the Democratic Party has two progressive senators battling it out through the late spring primaries.

Thankfully there is no wave of riots rocking the country, but a crime wave in some parts of the country is roiling urban residents and pushing citizens and politicians toward a potent combination of fear and anger about crime. Oakland, California, along with nearby Berkeley (and other East Bay communities) has been suffering an unsettling wave of violence over the last several years including homicides and armed robberies by very young men. In a particularly upsetting example (for this foodie area) some 8 East Bay restaurants have been taken over by gun wielding young men who hold customers and staff hostage while they clean out everyone's cash. (see SF Chron coverage of a recent arrest)

As in 1968, there is a sense that unpredictable violence was all around us, especially in large cities where traditionally Democratic Party constituents, affluent liberals, blue collar workers, and African Americans, are concentrated. In 1968 that sense distracted these voters from the ongoing struggles over political power in America and delivered a crucial fraction of them to the law and order appeals of George Wallace and Richard Nixon.

In progressive Oakland, city council members meeting on a new police report documenting the city's alarming crime trends (robberies, actually, are slightly down, but homicides are up) and a comparison showing Oakland to be more dangerous than cities of similar size like Miami (which has an even poorer population), were sounding just those themes of fear, anger, and crackdowns. According to Carolyn Jones' reporting in the SF Chron:

"I have people yelling and screaming because they're so fearful," City Councilwoman Jean Quan, whose district includes several of the restaurants that have been robbed recently, said earlier in the day. "I tell them, you want me to promise that you'll be safe forever? I can't do that. People get robbed everywhere, even in San Ramon."

The most remarkable difference from 1968 in responding to the crime wave and the gathering storm of public fear is in the attitude of the police. Then, Oakland's finest were only too happy to crack down on Oakland's largely African American and Latino poor neighborhoods. Today, under Chief Wayne Tucker, the department has spoken out forthrightly about the limits of traditional arrest oriented policing while seeking to experiment with promising alternatives.

"Right now, it's pretty clear we are in a time of increased crime," said Oakland police Deputy Chief Dave Kozicki, adding that crime nationwide is up due to the faltering economy. "But the bottom line is we believe we cannot arrest our way out of these problems."

How long will such realism be tolerated by an increasingly alarmed public and politicians? Not long one suspects.

"You said you can't arrest our way out of this problem," City Councilwoman Pat Kernighan told Kozicki and other police leaders, including Police Chief Wayne Tucker. "Well, you sure better try. We all have our jobs to do, and your job is to arrest people."

Thats too bad, because while criminological explanations for the crime wave are just starting, I suspect they will show that areas of resurgent violence are the areas that have suffered the highest degrees of mass incarceration during the 1980s and 1990s. The 16 year olds terrorizing East Bay restaurants today came of age as California's epoch wave of harsh tough on crime laws removed tens of thousands of their fathers, uncles, cousins, and sometimes mothers. If we are reaping the results of this incarceration generation, a wave of new tough anti-gang laws and a politically led police crack down is the just the thing to make sure it all gets worse.

And now back to the Presidential race....

1 comment:

david751 said...

The Councilwoman’s comments are a sad illustration that people continue to cling to ineffective crime reduction methods. Even when faced with a experienced cop (who is essentially saying that the “tried and true” crime fighting methods are not working), she continues to tow the line of arresting and incarceration.