What if First Fridays Descended on East Oakland?

April 18, 2013

Culture, Politics

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Excessive police presence at First Fridays in April

A successful street festival like First Fridays would certainly be welcome along International Blvd in East Oakland, what with it bringing the kind of gritty street life and local culture most business districts would cherish. But I imagine if along with First Fridays moving east of downtown, Occupy Oakland came with it, the police reaction would be different to what we’ve been seeing this year along Telegraph. I think Oakland City Council member Desley Brooks would agree with me.

At the March 19 City Council meeting, Council members Brooks and Larry Reid rightfully took City leadership to task for misdirecting scarce police resources to First Fridays pedestrian patrols and away from fighting crime in East Oakland. And in accruing a bill of over $500,000 over the past 6 months to do so. While Council member Reid was content charging that the police are “babysitting a block party” it was Council member Brooks who took the lead and demanded to know where the money came from for so many police. “I am at a loss why our Crime Reduction Team (CRT) and 35 police officers are out doing pedestrian patrols (at First Fridays) when crime is at the levels it is in the City,” Brooks exclaimed. “If we had CRT teams to pull off (of assigned beats) for First Fridays, I want to know where the police resources are in my District.” She exclaimed “my people need police resources, we are dying out there.” Reid personalized the seriousness of the problem in saying “for the first time in my life I am actually afraid to live here in East Oakland.”

Arturo Sanchez of the City Administrator’s Office responded by saying that the City had to increase the police presence as “an emergency” response to the Occupy movement intervening in First Fridays starting in Summer 2012 and destroying property in the process. Brooks was not buying the Occupy ‘bogeyman.’

“It’s easy to raise the Occupy issue after the fact but tonight’s Council report (on First Friday’s security costs) does not mention Occupy,” Brooks pointed out and then placed an exclamation point on her challenge in stating “35 police officers every month are not protecting people from Occupy, they are assigned because this was someone’s pet event!”

New Councilmember Lynette Gibson-McElhaney of District 3 and Mayor Jean Quan defended the economic importance of First Fridays, by talking about how it helps many local, small businesses earn money to feed their families. Mayor Quan pointed out that Oakland’s economic revenues are up $11 million this year, in part thanks to the success of First Fridays and Oakland’s thriving Uptown scene. “The reason we can have extra recruits this year at the police academy is because the economy grew,” noted Quan. Both she and Gibson-McElhaney see First Fridays as an important economic engine that must be fostered to the greater benefit of Oakland.

Indeed, Oakland makes money off First Fridays, but does it make enough to warrant the diversion of so many police from fighting crime in East Oakland? In a city that saw 131 homicides last year?  Quan explained that “the Art Murmur took us by surprise and grew faster than we expected. Nobody knew it was going to explode the way it did. I looked around one Summer night and saw 25,000 people at an event that was drawing 6 and 7 thousand, and we did our best to adjust.”

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Police Academy members in training-how many should be assigned to First Fridays?

One thing I do know for sure is that Oakland directs way too many police resources to street closures and other gatherings of large numbers of people. At the March 19 Council meeting, Police Chief Howard Jordan was at a loss to justify the number of officers. I applaud Council members Brooks and Reid for taking the Police Department to task for this. Just this past April 5, there was a well-received unveiling of inspiring art sculptures at the Uptown Art Park. It was part of First Fridays and in all respects was a civil event. However, the police over-reacted again with squad cars and men in uniform everywhere, intimidating everyone by their immediate presence. Event organizers were not pleased.

Council member Brooks wants to know when Oakland is going to stop throwing so much money at downtown police security. By challenging staff and the Mayor, she is asking them if the police department’s response to First Fridays growing popularity would have been different if First Fridays descended on East Oakland. Council started a good discussion at March 19’s meeting on the right balance for allocating limited police officers.

Council also took each other to task for improperly prioritizing certain events (First Fridays) over others (Cinco de Mayo). Going forward, Council member Gibson-McElhaney is working with the organizers of First Fridays to get them to take some of the responsibility for security off of the police. Most of the Council also seemed to agree that the City needs a fairer policy about getting the police presence right at public events and not favoring any events. It would nice if the Police Department agreed.

Finally on the issue of where limited police resources should be assigned, the local blog 38thnotes asks us how much it really matters. The author Coolhand Luke says point blank that the violence problem in Oakland is not just a lack of police or due to how they handle crime. He says we all have a responsibility, and then he challenges us:

You see someone harassing women, let them know to be cool. You see kids trying to cause problems, interrupt that shit. No it’s not easy to inject yourselves into testy situations, but if you’re serious about saving something good in Oakland, then you have to put yourself out there. As someone who works in Oakland public high schools, there are many times when I don’t want to put myself in harms way, but doing something to deescalate early on is always more safe than trying to contain something after it’s blown up. This approach mandates that folks really from the streets show up and model positive behavior though. I do have to admit however, that the thought of a bunch of well-intentioned squares leading conflict mediations with a bunch of goons is pretty comical.”

Where does responsibility lie? Is it as simple as being more pragmatic in assigning the officers we have, or do we tax ourselves more and hire additional police to control crowds and fight crime, or do we start injecting ourselves into the fight in order to save Oakland? All of the above?

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About Dave Campbell

Dave Campbell is the Advocacy Director of Bike East Bay lives near Lake Merritt and enjoys his BBQ smoker, in the Georgia tradition of his family.

View all posts by Dave Campbell

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