Opening Up A "Second Front" In The Black Lives Matter Movement In Oakland

August 21, 2016

The time has come—where it’s not happening already—to open up a “second front” in the direct action campaign to save and preserve Black lives in cities like Oakland, California.

“Front” in this context is a military term, which is appropriate to use here since direct action campaigns are often compared to military campaigns. A “front” describes a defined geographic area in which units of opposing armies do battle, or, sometimes, the first set of tactics used by one side or the other in their initial attack. A “second front,” therefore, is the second set of battle lines established after the first set of battle lines have been set and fought over for a time.

Typically in a war, a “second front” is opened up for one of two reasons:

First, action on the “first front” has stalled and one of the sides tries to break the stalemate by attacking in another area, or

Second, action on the “first front” is so successful for one of the sides that they are able to open up an attack in another area in order to put added pressure on a weakened opponent.

Even before the term “Black Lives Matter” was coined, the movement that would later be identified with that term opened up its first front following the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer at a BART station in East Oakland. And while there has been a large turnover in the leadership and membership of that Oakland-based movement since the days of the Oscar Grant protest day, the tactics have remained generally similar.

Each time a police officer shoots and kills a Black suspect in Oakland, a rally, vigil, or demonstration is almost immediately organized at the spot of the shooting. Shortly afterwards, a rally is then organized in some central location in Oakland—often in the plaza in front of City Hall—with a march following that often ends with an action of civil disobedience somewhere within Oakland, sometimes in front of the Oakland Police Department, sometimes on one of the city’s freeways. If the police-involved shooting death happens outside of Oakland, the protests begin with the central rally.

And while there have been variations in the tactics used during these marches and demonstrations over the years since Oscar Grant’s death, the geographical location of the battleground has largely remained the same: within the confines of the city of Oakland. These rolling rounds of demonstrations have come at a large cost of tax money, loss of business revenue, and city image to Oakland, and there is ample evidence that they have have forced some positive changes in the attitude of Oakland’s police leadership towards Oakland’s Black population and city leaders’ attitude towards its police problems.

Some examples?

For all the years before the Black Lives Matter era began, Oakland police chiefs consistently blamed the “poor relationship” between Oakland police and Oakland’s African-American community entirely on the African-American community itself. Typically we were told that it was Black Oaklanders’ responsibility to “cooperate” with Oakland police in order to get better police services in order to cut down the high rate of crime in our neighborhoods.

However, that OPD “blame the victims” attitude abruptly changed during the tenure of Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent, who served in that position between 2013 and 2016.

In numerous public and community appearances during his tenure—many of them with a large contingent of his officers on hand to listen and take note—Whent consistently put a large portion of the blame for Oakland’s police/Black community difficulties on the police themselves. He noted that OPD officers had often made “mistakes” in dealing with the city’s African-American community in the past, and pledged that police attitudes would change under his watch.

This would have been a step in the right direction even if Mr. Whent’s words turned out to be mostly rhetoric. But, in fact, there is evidence that some Oakland police actions on the street changed during Mr. Whent’s three-year tenure.

In a September 2, 2015 article entitled “Sharp downturn in use of force at Oakland Police Department,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “Despite several recent officer-involved shootings, a Chronicle analysis of Oakland Police Department data shows [use-of-force] incidents are becoming less common. Officer-involved shootings, excessive force complaints and incidents in which officers used force have all declined precipitously over the past three years in Oakland.”

Meanwhile, earlier this year, the Oakland City Council voted to put on the ballot a measure that would create a citizens’ Community Police Review Agency to oversee some of the actions of the Oakland police. The Mercury News quoted Tom Nolan, a retired Boston police lieutenant and criminology professor at Merrimack College, as saying that “This could arguably be the strongest police oversight board in the country, what many hope would be a national model.” ("Proposed Oakland police commission called one of the strongest in the nation" Mercury News August 30, 2016)

Some advocates for strong citizen oversight were disappointed in some of the compromises that were made to get the measure through the Council, and argue that a stronger citizens’ commission could have been put in place. But what is inarguable is that as near in time as two years ago, it would have been inconceivable that a majority of the Oakland City Council would have approved putting the new citizens’ oversight commission on the ballot in any form.

The reversal by police authorities in naming who is to blame for the bad relationship between African-Americans and police in Oakland, the recent downturn in Oakland police use-of-force incidents, and City Council’s approval of a citizens’ police oversight commission ballot measure all have multiple causes. But one of those causes most certainly was the direct action campaign within the city of Oakland in the last seven and a half years aimed directly at making radical changes in the way Oakland police interact with the city’s Black residents.

But while there have been positive steps in the past few years, there is also evidence that Oakland police actions towards Black Oakland residents have gone in the opposite direction during the same period.

That downturn in OPD use-of-force reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, looks not quite as good on closer inspection as it does on the surface. In the same article, the Chronicle reproduced a chart based on police sources that showed no suspect shootings whatsoever by Oakland police in 2014. That might be cause for celebration, except for the fact that the number of police-involved shootings immediately rose to 6 the next year, roughly the same number police were averaging in the five years before the 2014 moratorium.

During a Democracy Now! interview last June, Cat Brooks of the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project—one of the organizations most active in the Black Lives Matters protests in Oakland—charged that the six men shot and killed by Oakland police in 2015 were “murder[s].” Brooks included a seventh man in that “murdered” by police statistics, an African-American man named  Richard Linyard who, according to Indybay online newspaper, “police claim suffocated to death after he squeezed himself between two buildings during a police chase.” (“Oakland police killed yet another black man todayIndybay August 27, 2015)

Brooks is one of the leaders most closely associated with the Black Lives Matters movement demonstrations in Oakland over the past few years.

And earlier this summer, Stanford University released the results of a two-year study of traffic and pedestrian stops of citizens by Oakland police that found “significant differences in ... police conduct toward African Americans.” (“Stanford big data study finds racial disparities in Oakland, Calif., police behavior, offers solutions”)

Among the findings,” the study concluded, was that “African American men were four times more likely to be searched than whites during a traffic stop [in Oakland]. African Americans were also more likely to be handcuffed, even if they ultimately were not arrested.”

The Stanford report “found that 60 percent of police stops in Oakland, or nearly 17,000 stops, were made of African Americans,” even though African-Americans make up only 28 percent of Oakland’s population. The report added that the rate of police stops of Black citizens in Oakland was “more than three times that of the next most common group, Hispanics,” with whites accounting for 13 percent of the police stops.

The directly contradictory nature of the above statistics and charges raises the difficult questions: have the Black Lives Matter movement marches and demonstrations improved the police situation for Black Folk in Oakland, have things gotten worse since the demonstrations started seven and a half years ago, or have things remained much the same? And what does all of that mean towards my original point...the recommendation that a “second front” in the Black Lives Movement direct action campaign in the Oakland area needs to be opened up?

September 2, 2016

As I’ve shown in the first part of this essay, during the era of Black Lives Matter protests in Oakland, Oakland police have cut back on some of the actions the protesters have complained about, but have failed to change their ways in other areas. Is there a rationale explanation for that?

There is, and some of the reasons for that mixed outcome goes directly to who is targeted by those demonstrations, the location in which most of these demonstrations take place, and who is most affected by demonstrations in those locations.

As I wrote in the first part of this column, some four years before the Black Lives Matter name was coined sometime around 2013 after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the Oakland version of that movement was already initiating BLM movement-type protest demonstrations surrounding the police murder of Oscar Grant. Since that time, the great majority of those Oakland-initiated BLM protests in the years afterward have taken place inside the boundaries of Oakland, either in front of Oakland public buildings or on Oakland streets or highways.

When those inside-Oakland-city-limits marches or protests happen, pressure mounts directly on both City of Oakland and Oakland Police Department leadership to address in some way the concerns and complaints raised by the protesters. Sometimes it is the Oakland chief of police who is directly named as the responsible party in those protests. More often it has been whoever has been mayor of Oakland at the time—Ron Dellums, Jean Quan, and now Libby Schaaf—who has been the target of the protesters’ wrath.

Strangely the group that rarely receives direct pressure—and the emphasis is on the “direct”—growing out of these Oakland-based BLM protests over the past several years, however, are the rank-and-file Oakland patrol officers themselves and their immediate supervisors. While individual officers are often named in the protests—officers, for example, who may have shot and killed an African-American or Latino in Oakland—the protesters rarely demand anything from these individual officers themselves or their fellow officers or supervisors. Instead, the protesters demand is almost always for the District Attorney to prosecute offending officers, for the chief to discipline them, for the mayor to fire the chief if the chief doesn’t do enough disciplining, and, most importantly, to direct the officers under his or her command to change the ways they deal with African-American and Latino residents in Oakland.

The problem with the last demand is that while police administrators have some control over the actions of the officers under their command, many of their officers’ activities—particularly the ones of interest to the demonstrators—are left to the discretion of the officers themselves.

Directing police to do their job of making the city safe, after all, is not like overseeing the safety of a bridge or a building. The safety of a bridge or a building can be quantified in facts and figures; either they can hold a certain load of cars or people or they are in danger of collapse, and that can be measured with rulers and stress tests and computers.

Whether or not a situation involving a possible police suspect is “safe” or not—and whether an officer should intervene with a stop and search or the more serious use of force—is much more highly subjective, and necessarily so. Because there is an infinite number of the variables surrounding any single human interaction, there is no possible way to put all of them down in advance to direct police what to do in each and every situation. Instead, police departments put out general directives giving the parameters of actions and reactions police officers can and must take in different situations, and leave it to the officers to decide—often in a matter of seconds—which actions are appropriate to apply.

And so the Oakland Police Department’s Use Of Force Definitions and Policies effective October of 2014 reads, at section I.C., for example, as follows:

“Members are allowed to use a reasonable amount of force based on a totality of the circumstances. Members are required to de-escalate the force when the member reasonably believes a lesser level or no further force is appropriate. Members shall intervene and prevent or stop the use of unreasonable force by other members [the bold emphasis is in the original].” 

At section II, the OPD policy defines exactly what is meant by “reasonable force” in the above requirement. The policy explains that “the amount of force that is objectively reasonable to affect a lawful police purpose and protect the safety of members or others” is based upon “the totality of circumstances” that include “the severity of the crime at issue, “whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of law enforcement officers or others,” and “whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade by flight.”

OPD’s Use Of Force policy goes on to define “immediate threat” as a situation in which “a suspect has demonstrated actions that would lead one to reasonably believe that the suspect will continue to pose a threat of death or serious bodily injury if not apprehended without delay.”

It is difficult to see how such Use Of Force policies could be much more specific. Officer discretion has to be allowed to a certain degree because, while the law or a police manual can certainly spell out when no threat of danger exists, it cannot determine in advance that such a threat actually exists in a situation where there are a number of factors pointing to the fact that it might or might not. Somebody who is actually on the scene has to decide.

But, of course, it is the presence of such department-authorized officer discretion in potentially dangerous situations that greatly increases the ability of bigoted officers to discriminate against African-American and Latino suspects and still stay within department guidelines. In a situation where officer response could go one of several ways, it allows officers to decide that a situation is already so dangerous that a suspect must be taken by force, up to including shooting that suspect, even when another officer might encounter that same situation and either talk the suspect into custody or decide that there was a mistake and no detainment or arrest was even necessary. Officer discretion also allows officers to purposely escalate a situation with a Black or Brown suspect in order to put themselves in actual immediate danger, thus meeting one of the key requirements that make the use of force necessary in effecting an arrest where one might not have otherwise existed.

We know from experience and anecdotal evidence that racial discrimination and excesses in the use of force are being committed by a minority of Oakland police and, in the case of the most extreme instances such as unnecessary shootings of civilians, by a small minority.

We also know that the while the vast majority of Oakland police officers are not the ones committing these actions, the rest are standing by and doing nothing to stop the excesses and not reporting them to their superiors afterwards, even when these officers privately disagree with these actions. And in many instances, officers on the scene but not committing the offenses—as well as supervising superiors—are actively participating in cover ups to keep the offending officers from being disciplined or having legal action brought against them.

In fact, the legendary “blue wall of silence” all but requires police officers to remain publicly silent when they see their fellow officers break or bend the law, and even encourages police to give false reports and testimony to help their fellow officers avoid the consequences of discriminatory actions. And despite the fact that we are seeing a small upswing in officers around the country reporting on fellow officers in recent months as more of those bad police actions are exposed to the light of day, the truth is that the vast majority of officers suffer the wrath of their fellow officers if they stand up and tell on their own.

One should never forget the story of Keith Batt, the former Oakland rookie officer who blew the whistle on the original “Oakland Riders,” the four self-described OPD officers who were arrested in 2000 for a massive campaign of falsifying reports, planting evidence, and beating suspects, most of them Black.

Batt quit the Oakland force after coming forward” and went to work as an officer in the Pleasanton Police Department, according to a 2004 article in The San Francisco Chronicle. “Under questioning ... by [the Alameda County] Deputy District Attorney,” the Chronicle article continued, “Batt said he had kept quiet at first about the alleged misconduct of the Riders, knowing that if he broke the code of silence and decided to ‘rat on cops,’ fellow officers would ‘turn their back on me.’”

“At that time, I didn't know what to do,” Batt was quoted in the Chronicle story as saying. “I knew what was going on was wrong, but I wanted my job.” (“Riders Lied, Brutalized Man, Ex-Rookie Testifies/Whistle-Blower Says He Feared LosingJob By Coming Forward San Francisco Chronicle December 14, 2004 [])

What is true for OPD’s use of deadly force policy—discretion in application and cover-up by fellow officers and immediate superiors when the policy is broken—is even more the case with regard to searches during police foot and traffic stops. OPD’s November 15, 2004 policy on “Prohibitions Regarding Racial Profiling And Other Bias-Based Policing” only requires that “investigative detentions, traffic stops, arrests, searches and property seizures by officers shall be based on a standard of reasonable suspicion or probable cause in accordance with the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

Despite the fact that Oakland’s foot and traffic stop policy specifically requires Oakland police officers to “articulate specific facts and circumstances that support reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” forbids the consideration of “actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, or disability” in determining that suspicion or probable cause, Oakland police officers still managed to search African American men during a traffic stop four times the rate they searched white men and make traffic stops of African Americans at double the rate of their presence in the Oakland population, according to the recent Stanford study on Oakland police discrimination.

This can happen because—as with use of force—it is left up to the discretion of the police officers themselves to decide whether somebody’s actions in each particular case adds up to enough “reasonable suspicion” to warrant a police stop, or a police stop and a subsequent search. Using that discretion, of OPD officers making at least one stop during a recent year-long period, “only 20% stopped a White person, while 96% stopped an African American person,” the Stanford study reported.

And so, while Oakland’s mayor and chief of police can be pressured, like Shakespeare’s Glendower, to summon the spirits of racism and bigotry from the “vasty deep” of Oakland’s police, they cannot force those demons to come out.

Instead, in many instances of concern expressed by the Black Lives Matter protests taking place in Oakland, the exorcism of the Oakland Police Department’s bigoted and discriminatory practices lies not in the hands of the mayor or the chief or anyone else at the top of the chain of command, but rather in the hands of the rank-and-file police officers themselves, along with their immediate supervisors. And Oakland’s rank-and-file police are rarely directly challenged to change their ways by marches and demonstrations taking place inside the city limits of Oakland because—to the suprise of few—most Oakland police officers don’t live in Oakland.

According to a 2014 article in Oakland North newspaper, “only 49 of 626 sworn [Oakland police] officers live in Oakland. Most OPD officers commute from Contra Costa County or other parts of Alameda County, according to police data from June.” (“Kaplan proposes 50 percent of next police academy are residentsOakland North September 18, 2014)

And so when Oakland businesses are adversely impacted by Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and when essential Oakland city services have to be cut back in order to pay for massive overtime costs to provide police for those demonstrations, the rank-and-file police themselves go back to their own communities to find their own parks and libraries and playgrounds undisturbed, and their businesses unbothered by the problems those Oakland police have left behind them in Oakland.

This, then, is one of the major reasons why there has been such a mixed response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the years, with significant progress in some areas of police conduct, but a stubborn, dug-in stagnation in others.

That mixed response will not likely change until Oakland police officers and detectives and their immediate supervisors begin to feel the heat of the demonstrations, not in Oakland, but in their own communities. When their home taxes are forced to go up to pay for police supervision of demonstrations, when their own home businesses suffer, and when their own friends and neighbors and family begin to complain about the inconveniences—when Contra Costa communities and not just Oakland residents begin to howl about police misconduct in Oakland, as Sherman said of an invaded Georgia at the height of the Civil War—then that is the point when these Oakland police officers will begin understand that whatever happens in Oakland will not stay in Oakland but will follow them to their own home streets. And that is the point when Oakland officers living in outlying communities will have the incentive to change the way Oakland streets are patrolled, and the Black and Brown citizens of Oakland are treated and mistreated.

And that is why and where a Second Front needs to be opened up in the direct action campaign to save and preserve Black lives in cities like Oakland, California. This is not a call for the demonstrations in Oakland to stop. It is a call for some of those the marches and demonstrations to cross over the eastern hills and take the struggle into those quiet and pleasant communities where Oakland police officers live. That is the Second Front.


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