What We Can Learn From Oakland, California

Last week, I scanned the headlines and saw that four police officers and another man, Lovelle Mixon, had been killed in a shoot-out in Oakland, California. I have to admit that I cringed and quickly moved on, not wanting to give it any further thought.

My reaction is what I have been pondering for a week. Why did I not want to know any more about this issue? The answer was relatively simple. I had a feeling that it was going to take me, and everyone else, down a familiar road of a well-traveled narrative, which would stir strong emotions and further escalate a situation that was already out of control. I guess I was trying to avoid the complexity, the sadness and the hopelessness of the situation.

The catalyst in my reflection was a post I read by Samhita, a courageous blogger who attempted to offer another perspective on these unfortunate deaths, that of police brutality against Oakland's visible minorities. Although emotionally invested in her native Oakland, Samhita offered an alternative narrative that few would have dared to post.

In the end, I wanted to know more about Lovelle Mixon. There was no shortage of details on Mixon's past or why the four police officers were trying to apprehend him. As I dug further, I learned that Oakland had a bloody history between its police force and citizens, which began with a shoot-out with the Black Panthers in the 1960s. The legacy of that history could have been a contributing factor in the tragic deaths of five people last week.

In just a few minutes, I found the following information on Oakland:
- Population of Oakland: 400,000.
- One of the most culturally diverse cities in the US. Over 150 languages are spoken in Oakland.
- A report in USA Today of police brutality: "There were 10 [shootings] last year, including six fatalities [...]. No officers involved in shootings since 2004 were charged with crimes, and so far none have been fired."
- The murder of Oscar Grant who was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer on January 1, 2009. This shooting was videotaped by another commuter.
(CAUTION: this video is graphic.)


I know that it may seem strange for me to blog about a city that I have never been to before, but the distance makes it easier to talk about. When a police officer killed a young man, Fredy Villanueva, in a park on a sunny Saturday morning in Montreal North last summer, I was speechless. When a riot took place days later, I was stunned. How could a minor incident in a park escalate into a death and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage in just a few days? There had obviously been a problem festering for some time, but could we have stopped it? Were there any telltale signs that we ignored?

In a few days, several studies and recommendations are to be released on the shooting of Fredy Villanueva and the rioting that ensued in Montreal North. Unless some prompter action is taken, we may have a lot more problems on our hands. If in doubt, we only have to look at last week's tragic events in Oakland for a not-so-gentle reminder.

2 comments:

epochs | April 4, 2009 at 1:30 AM

The ongoing carnage in Vancouver with the police being implicated in killing at the airport and the seeming impunity of drug gangsters to shot each other up in the street, the total is now past twenty since the beginning of the year is indicative of the inability of the police to solve these crimes.
In Vancouver the police routinely harass poor people because in Vancouver its a crime to be poor. its hardly surprising that people would start to push back.

JWL

epochs | April 4, 2009 at 1:40 AM

The situation in Vancouver is similar to the situation in Oakland. In Vancouver its a crime to be poor and the police routinely physically harass the homeless. Just one week ago they gunned down a homeless man armed with an exacto knife and then confiscated a video phone and deleted the record that a citizen had taken of the incident.
We all know about the incident in December at the Vancouver airport and have watched the RCMP constables lie through their teeth about what actually happened.

It is little wonder that after years of being pushed around that someone would push back.

JWL

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