March 6, 2013

There is the old children’s fable about the Country Mouse who decides to go back home after a short visit to his cousin, who lived in a mansion in the city.

“You ain’t got nothing to go back to but stale bread and old beans to eat back there, cuz,” the City Mouse asks him. “Up here, we’re eating cake and steak and shrimp every night. Why you leaving so soon?”

“City food is good, true,” the County Mouse replies. “But y’all got that cat in the house up here, and eating while I got to worry about him sneaking up and pouncing on me every minute, it bothers my digestion.”

Violence will do that. It is a ghost that haunts and ruins a good time, even in the times when it doesn’t show up.

And that is why even though the changes in this month’s uptown First Friday event were necessary in the wake of last month’s shooting death of 18 year old Kiante Campbell and wounding of three others in a Telegraph Avenue parking lot, they will not work as a long-term solution.

A few days before this month’s event, following a series of meetings between First Fridays and Art Murmur organizers, local residents, business owners, and city officials, the official First Fridays website posted a statement from Mayor Jean Quan’s office of agreed-upon changes to the event in response to February’s deadly shooting. Among the changes were closing First Friday an hour earlier and restricting its boundaries, discouraging public alcohol consumption, holding two “long moments of silence” to honor the victims of violence, setting up “numerous altars and peace vigils … as a token of remembrance and healing,” sponsoring a youth violence discussion at the Parkway Theater, and, in general, organizing all First Friday programming and performances this month “around themes of unity, diversity, healing and peace.”

The mayor’s announcement also said that there would be “programming changes” for this months’ event, including a Peace Concert and Kiante Campbell stage featuring local artists and musicians, and a “Heal the Hood” stage (the quotation marks were in the original) made up of poets, musicians, Djs and community groups.

Meanwhile, either in stories leading up to Friday’s uptown gathering or reporting on it afterwards, local news outlets stressed the violence aspects.

CBS 5 reported that Oakland leaders were going ahead with plans for this month’s event “despite concerns that were raised by a shooting at the last popular downtown monthly event on Feb. 1” (the emphasis on “despite” is mine). Meanwhile, the headline for KQED’s pre-event story focused on an assumption that the city was just waiting for something else bad to happen at First Fridays (“Oakland Awaits First Friday: Sorrow, Anxiety Mix With Anticipation For Monthly Party”), giving the impression that there’s nothing, really, that can be done to prevent Oakland’s violence, only to wait for it to happen.

The day after First Friday, both the Oakland Tribune story on the event and the San Francisco Chronicle story focused almost entirely on a violence theme.

A lot of this has a sort of circular cause-and-effect quality to it. The mayor and other city officials and community organizations and civic leaders must respond to the shooting death at such a major public event, the news outlets must report on that response, the city officials must follow up with public statements on progress being made in changes to the event or else be accused of talking and not acting, the media outlets then report on the proposed changes, the result being that everybody is talking about the violence. No-one here is being irresponsible, but all of it, taken as a whole, contributes to a rising sense of uneasiness and even danger about Oakland street gatherings.

In the advance announcement detailing the changes that were being made to this month’s First Friday gathering, the mayor’s office concluded that “the changes are specific to the March 1 event. Going forward, much more change is needed to keep Oakland First Fridays safe and sustainable. Both the City and the First Fridays organization are committed to continuing the dialogue around this issue [of violence at the event], and widening the conversation to include the greater Oakland community in working together to create solutions.”

All of which sounds good in the short term. Prior to last month’s deadly shooting, a number of First Fridays participants were warning that the event seemed to be heading for problems, with a lack of focus, larger and larger crowds (up to 20,000 for one gathering last fall, reportedly) made up increasingly of people attracted by something distinctly different from the original Art Murmur art gallery walk and art appreciation focus, expanding territory, blocked-off streets and the open presence of alcohol. But again, that’s just a short term solution, and only for First Fridays.

There are many, like the Country Mouse in the fable, who respond by either moving out of Oakland, or refusing to come here in the first place. For those of us who continue to love and live here, however, we have to face the problem full on. It is long past time that Oakland took a serious, adult look at the causes of violence in our city as well as develop and begin working on long term solutions.