Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's So Predictable: Oakland, Violent Crime, and the Press

There have been a string of brazen gun crimes in Oakland, and once again a Mayor with the right instincts is getting politically nailed by a newspaper columnist speaking in the "common sense" about crime----it is all so predictable.

In this case the crimes are the type that shake the confidence of anyone who loves urban life--- a brazen shooting in a restaurant, a bungled robbery, killing two and wounding four. Earlier this month an Oakland restaurant owner was killed in another robbery. The Mayor, Jean Quan who came into office only this January, dares to suggest something other than the tried and truely failed strategies of a police "crack down" or a new harsh penalty for violent crime (as if we could get much higher than the sentences which currently prevail for violent crime in California). In this case the columnist, Chip Johnson (read his column), is no hack, but instead a veteran and often perceptive observer of Oakland's social scene.

Johnson takes the mayor to task for failing to deter crimes like these.

Her response to a restaurant shooting early Monday in downtown Oakland that killed two people and wounded four others was particularly disappointing.

"I assure you that it is a high priority and the Police Department will schedule increased patrols in the area as they continue to investigate the circumstances," Quan said in a prepared media statement.

Quan believes in providing young people, including those hell-bent on shooting other people, with positive alternatives.

Nothing wrong with that, but that alone is not going to deter crime on the mean streets of Oakland. She needs a clearer, more comprehensive approach that includes spelling out for residents the Oakland Police Department's role.

Actually it's Johnson's analysis that is disappointing. Let's start with what is predictable.

It is predictable that Oakland will continue to suffer from periodic spasms of violent gun crime. We have a large population of extremely alienated young males (older teens and young adults) who have accepted a path to "honor" paved in guns, blood, imprisonment, and early death. Post-industrial cities have that problem not just in America, but, minus the big factor of guns, everywhere in the old industrial world. Urban industries permitted aging young men with limited educations to obtain a life of honor (if not glory) by embracing working class values and objectives. We let our industrial economy die and failed to replace it with any viable alternative. Angry young men stay angry until age and prison break them to a life of low level degradation, pushing a shopping cart across the empty lots of post-industrial cities, collecting cans and bottles. There are societies that chose not to allow their industrial economy to disappear, Germany for instance, and they have far less crime with remarkably low levels of policing or punishment.

It is predictable that any effort to stray from one side of the other of the deterrence equation (more policing or more punishment) will be ridiculed as naive and ineffective. As Johnson writes (with the conviction no doubt shared by most of his readers even in liberal Oakland):

Sad as it is, all the community involvement in the world couldn't stop the bullets that ended the life of Jesus "Chuy" Campos earlier this month. The Fruitvale restaurateur was shot to death April 8 while opening his business.

Of course Chip is right. Better social policies cannot stop bullets fired in the present any more than stopping smoking can stop a malignant tumor from growing in your lung --- but the truth is, nothing we have is going to stop that tumor now. No amount of aggressive patrolling and indiscriminate arrests is going to alter the basic incentives that lead those bullets to fly. Where Johnson falls victim to his own "common sense" is in believing there is a way to deter those bullets today (or the hands firing them). But everything we know from empirical research and the experience of our own failed war on crime is that young men do not put enough stock in the future to be deterred by crackdowns and long prison terms (they already accept those consequences).

Programs aimed at keeping youth in school, creating places to go other than the streets at night, and shaping a policing strategy less likely to drive impressionable younger men into the arms of the gangs are all worth doing because they may, at the margins, diminish the number of bullets flying five years from now. At least these strategies are less destructive and costly than the tried and truly failed war on crime tactics. More realistic would be an economic strategy aimed at producing a new generation of good working class jobs in Oakland and providing the kind of high school education necessary to prepare the current ten year olds for those futures.

What to do about the current young men with guns? Police tactics precisely aimed at deterring them from carrying their guns is one possibility. It worked in New York, but it requires a mass mobilization of police that Oakland cannot afford on its own and California does not have the current budget to support. It also means ignoring the Constitution's bar against unreasonable searches and seizures (but that's for another post).

Another approach would be turbo charging our current juvenile and adult probation with electronic monitoring and low case loads that allow both surveillance and daily engagement with offenders, but that also costs money we cannot afford until Governor Brown's realignment from state prison to country law enforcement happens (currently locked out by the budget impasse).

There is little Mayor Chuan can do on her own to make any of these strategies available in Oakland. She can help lead a real discussion of why Oakland is so violent and what strategies might produce a less violent Oakland in the future, but to do that she'll have to survive the all too predictable common sense promoted by the media.


Rina Palta said...

I just wonder if Johnson's other point (even inadvertently) is that it's politically unfeasible to do nothing--or to do nothing suppressive and immediate. Do you think that Mayor Quan will be able to maintain political support for a strategy that looks 5-10 years down the road (and is, essentially untested)? (Incidentally, just logged about this question: http://informant.kalwnews.org/2011/04/debating-what-to-do-about-oaklands-homicide-wave/)

Jonathan Simon said...

That is a good point Rina. Of course columnists can help define what is politically feasible and Johnson is playing into a very stable pattern of the media reinforcing the crime war logics.

KevinInfobia said...

The media is always pushing some sort of public figure into the corner of the wall. Now i'm not taking any sides of this matter but I do think that the media can take some responsibility. How do media headlines compare to what the police are actually reporting? I just recently wrote u a article regarding this matter that can be found here: