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The Making of an angry Black Man (Community Voices)

Photo of Cabel's Reef by Kheven LaGrone

Photo of Cabel's Reef by Kheven LaGrone

A few years ago, there was a notorious “drug-dealing” corner near Lake Merritt.  It was a predominately African American neighborhood and most of the citizens simply avoided the corner.  They stayed inside at night.  There was little police presence there. Drug dealers ran the corner.
 
As part of the “Oakland Renaissance,” the City pegged that corner for redevelopment.  I often saw a police car sitting on that corner.  I saw police harass African Americans for loitering.  The drug dealers went underground.  White people began to hang out at night.  White people—not African Americans—went to the new clubs in the neighborhood.   Now, the city is placing fancy streetlights and rebuilding the sidewalk in the area.  Cars used to race dangerously down the street without stopping for pedestrians; now traffic lights have been installed.
 
Because Black meant “blight” for many, “gentrification” or the “Oakland Renaissance” required changing Oakland’s “notoriety” for being “too black.” During Oakland/San Francisco’s hot housing market of the early 2000s, many African Americans could not compete and so they had to move out.  As Oakland’s African American population dropped drastically, politicians and the media promoted the “new” Oakland’s “vibrant diversity.”   While I heard African Americans complain about feeling pushed out of Oakland, I read news articles heralding Oakland’s “changing demographics.” Even though I’ve seen several interracial clashes, I keep reading how Oakland “celebrates diversity.”
 
So how does Oakland “celebrate diversity”?  How do the native African American communities fit into the “Oakland Renaissance”?  In separate conversations with me, two Black downtown Oakland residents angrily recounted recently seeing white men yell outside their window at Black men “hey niggers, get away from my apartment.”  According to them, it happened several times.  In one incident, the shocked Black resident waited to see what would happen.  He said that an Asian and white policemen quickly came and harassed the Black men—checking to see if they were on parole.  Meanwhile, he angrily watched the white men continue yelling “niggers” at the Black men. As if they had come to defend white skin privilege, the policemen said nothing to stop the white men.
 
Yet Oakland has a proud history of being a safe place for a diversity of African American communities.  For example, years ago, outsiders may have seen downtown Oakland at night as a wasteland.  But to many Black gay men, it was a community to socialize with other Black gay men.  Downtown Oakland had criminals and hustlers and the streets were dark, but Black gay men found a sanctuary from gay bashers. It also was a home from the blatant racism of the white gay community.  In fact, in the late 80s through the early 90s, many national Black gay leaders considered Oakland to be a center of Black gay arts, culture and activism.
 
However, developers constructed stark, characterless, overpriced condominiums that overshadowed downtown Oakland’s Black gay presence.  The redevelopment catered to, employed and attracted non-African Americans from outside Oakland. Out of curiosity, I asked some of the employees of a few establishments where they were from—not one was African American and none were from Oakland.  To make matter worse, City reports have shown that a paucity of the construction jobs have gone to Oakland’s African Americans (I have observed the lack of African Americans working around Lake Merritt).  Thus, Oakland’s African Americans had less money to support any businesses that catered to them. They would continue to be priced out of the housing market.
 
To make the newcomers feel safe and secure, the new development included visible security guards and police, security cameras and even traffic lights.  For example, the area around the Fox Theater, the center of the main nightspot, is well-lit.
 
The law-abiding citizens of East/West Oakland would have appreciated feeling as secure in their homes.  However, few did.  A few criminals terrorized the neighborhoods.  For self-protection, residents locked their doors.  They got watchdogs.  They watched out for each other.  They knew who the criminals were and avoided them.  They informed each other of any criminal activity.  Sometimes, they fought violence with violence.  They prayed. When they could, some moved away.
 
Many citizens there still didn’t rely on the police because they feared police harassment and brutality—or apathy and even condescension.  Thus, these citizens had an awkward relationship with law enforcement:  they knew of life-or-death emergencies where the police had been needed; yet they feared being treated or confused with the criminals who terrorized their neighborhoods.
 
Violence controls people with fear.  So when a neighborhood terrorist was killed, some in the neighborhood breathed a sigh of relief.  However, some worried about retaliation—especially if they’re accused of  “snitching.”  All parents can do was try to keep their children busy and away from the bad elements.  Because of normal teenage angst, this was not always possible.  The newspapers often have stories of a  teenager getting killed in cross-fire or mistaken identity.
 
The law-abiding citizens of East/West Oakland would be thankful for whatever police presence they could get.  Unfortunately, Occupy Oakland took up police time and deprived East/West Oakland of that security.  According to Oakland’s police chief, while his department was pre-occupied with the January Occupy Oakland protest, there were 1176 calls for service including 482 calls to 911.  The East and West Oakland gangbangers knew the policemen would be preoccupied with the protesters downtown.  Thus, there was a rash of shootings in East and West Oakland.
 
Perhaps the protesters did not know this or were so self-indulgent as not to care.  However, at the February 7, 2012, City Council Meeting, a councilman pointed out how their protests contributed to the violence in East/West Oakland.  The Councilman’s statement did not deter the predominately white protesters from complaining about their “freedom of speech.”  The Occupy Oakland protesters felt entitled to hijack Oakland’s City Council Meetings as a way of determining policy for the new Oakland.  Thus, they came to determine the new Oakland or the “Oakland Renaissance.”
 
The protesters came to bully Oakland’s leadership.  They acted as if only they were entitled to freedom of speech.  At the meeting, the protesters yelled about their “freedom of speech” as they shouted down and heckled those who disagreed with them.  They talked over the city council members who disagreed with them.  This is ironic, considering that at least one of the council members/elected officials once seem to welcome Occupy Oakland in the name of “activism” and “progressivism.”
 
In addition, Occupy Oakland acted as if their idealism was more important than East and West Oakland African Americans’ right to personal safety.  At one point, a white woman yelled what is the cost for her freedom?  I ask, who actually pays the price for her tantrum?  An African American man in East/West Oakland might pay his life for her “freedom.” That makes me an angry Black man.
 
But then I read that Occupy Oakland, backed by the ACLU, continues to distract Oakland with a lawsuit.  That infuriated me.

Kheven LaGrone is the editor of "Alice Walker's The Color Purple," a collection of literary criticism on the controversial novel. He was also the curator of Coloring Outside the Lines: Black Cartoonists as Social Commentators at the San Francisco Main Public Library and Laney College Library. Kheven LaGrone is currently curating "Remember My Name: Black Genealogy Through the Eye of An Artist" which will exhibit at the San Francisco Main Public Library later this year.