February 6, 2013

There is danger in Oakland acting too quickly—and without thinking—in reaction to the recent murderous shooting at First Friday.

Last weekend a gunman shot and killed 18 year old Kiante Campbell and wounded three others—two of them bystanders—following a confrontation at a Telegraph Avenue and 20th Street parking lot about a half-hour after this month’s First Friday event officially shut down.

Far less violent and deadly incidents led directly to the shutting down of two of Oakland’s most popular street events—Festival At The Lake and Carijama—so it is not out of the realm of possibility that First Friday could suffer the same fate.

In response to Friday’s shooting, Mayor Jean Quan issued the following statement: “Unfortunately, no amount of planning and security can provide 100% protection against gun crimes and random, senseless acts of violence. However, the City is taking immediate action to assess the security and overall nature of the event and will meet with our community partners to determine the needed measures to make sure First Fridays will continue to be safe and successful moving forward.”

In the past, Oakland has tried to keep such “senseless violence” away from its public outdoor entertainment events by trying to find ways to discourage violent people from attending. The problem is, in the absence of any agreed-upon understanding of who, exactly, it is who might be violent, or why, the city’s response has been broad-brushed. Despite the fact that hip-hop music rules American popular culture, it is largely absent from official Oakland open-air events, so that while a large portion of Oakland youth are not officially excluded from such events, they certainly are not made to feel welcome and wanted in their own home town. And long ago, Oakland fenced off its annual Art & Soul Festival and demanded money for attendance. That has kept out the occasional random shooter wandering in with a gun, but it has also kept out large numbers of Oakland residents, as well, who might want to enjoy an official street festival in their own city, but don’t have the price of admission.

Those “solutions” don’t seem applicable to First Friday. Since it’s not a music-based festival, keeping out hip hop won’t help, and fencing off uptown would kill off the free-flowing “let’s just wander around up there” atmosphere that makes First Fridays so attractive and has led to its explosive growth.

That leaves more security as the most likely option of city and organizers response, a solution that immediately got shot down by several Oakland City Councilmembers this week, at least if it involved the use of more Oakland police officers.

Councilmembers Larry Reid and Desley Brooks—who represent two of the most violence-plagued areas of Oakland in the eastern section of the city—used the open forum period of Tuesday’s City Council meeting to throw cold water on any “increase the police” at First Fridays plan.

Mr. Reid and Ms. Brooks made the argument that with an epidemic of crime and violence in many parts of the city, Oakland cannot afford taking officers away from regular patrol to support, in Mr. Reid’s colorful words, “a big party.” Reid said he would rather have the 35 officers assigned to First Friday responding to “all the home burglaries and the home invasions that are taking place in my district.”

Ms. Brooks, at least, needs to be listened to, because she has experience in this area that could be of benefit for the rest of the city.

For years, the District 6 Councilmember has sponsored open-air summer concerts in Arroyo Park, in the middle of one of the most violence-plagued areas of Oakland. While the first few concerts had a large police presence, that presence gradually diminished, so that police were reduced to a couple of officers standing under the trees listening to the music, replaced by a small contingent of unobtrusive private community security folks. I’ve been to many of those concerts and never witnessed any trouble or incidents of violence, despite the fact that the Arroyo concerts regularly attract a large crowd of East Oakland youth. In any discussions on how to make First Friday safer, she ought to be pulled in as a knowledgeable party, as should members of such groups as the East Side Arts Alliance and the East Bay Dragons, who also regularly operate open-air events in areas of the city otherwise infamous for their violence. Among those groups should be organizers of Oakland’s annual Pan African Family Reunion, who have quietly and successfully replaced Carijama at Mosswood Park.

Mayor Quan is charged with the responsibility of making certain that upcoming First Fridays are safe, and there’s going to be rapidly growing political pressure on the City Administration to “do something.” That’s an invitation to panic, with the “something” being done ending up as “doing the wrong thing.” I’d suggest that we give the mayor space enough to get it right. There are a lot of folks in Oakland who can help her, if the mayor takes the time—and is given the time—to ask.