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In ‘Deep East’ Oakland, youths pegged as criminals say police harassment spurs more violence

Crosscurrents on KALW Public Radio
 — Oct 7 2009 - 3:39pm

 By Sandhya Dirks

(Editor's note: In the first installment of KALW-FM’s six-part Fault Lines series, which aired last month, Sandhya Dirks reported about the cultural “fault line” between the Oakland Police Department and many Oakland residents. The piece delves into the perspectives and stories of young men in East Oakland, many of whom feel deep distrust, even hatred, toward the police. The following is an adaptation of the report by Jon Kawamoto of The Public Press, in partnership with “Crosscurrents Radio” on KALW-FM.)

For many, the police are here to serve and protect. The men and women in blue are those we call when we’re in trouble. And no part of Oakland is more in need of policing than the streets between the East 70s avenues and the East 100s avenues — stretching from the base of the hills to the bottom of the flatlands — or what residents call the “Deep East.”

It is where over one-third of the city’s 124 homicides occurred last year. But many of the youths living on these dangerous streets don’t welcome the police as protectors — they consider them the enemy.

“And there are clearly two different sides to this problem,” said Deputy Chief of Police Dave Kozicki. “There’s the youth and then there’s the police. And I think that there is distrust on both sides.”

Oakland’s collective trauma

On a corner in Deep East Oakland, Darrell Armstead, 20, is talking with his friends. A police car rolls up and idles as the officer watches the youths hang out.

“I don’t want to be right here with the police and I am getting uncomfortable … so yeah … I’m gonna walk off… ,” Armstead said.

After a few minutes, the police car leaves, but Armstead — who everyone calls D-real — is still shaking. He falls to the ground clutching his stomach. He’s in the throes of a panic attack — he’s rendered speechless.

Aaron Smith, a mental health clinician at Youth Uprising, a teen group in Oakland, said that Armstead’s reaction is common, especially since Armstead has been arrested before. Smith said that in many ways, the community shares in a collective trauma when it comes to interacting with the Oakland police.

“There have been a lot of traumatizing events ...,” Smith said. “I don’t know if you are aware of The Riders, say, for instance, as an example … evidence being planted on people, police harassment, brutality. These are things that happen on a regular basis, it seems like in Oakland, and there’s a long history behind it.”

The Riders case was a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department in which 119 plaintiffs claimed that they were victimized by a group of four rogue officers known as The Riders during the summer of 2000. The plaintiffs alleged that the police beat, kidnapped, bribed and planted evidence on them. The lawsuit suggested the police department either encouraged or turned a blind eye to this misconduct. The city settled the lawsuit for $10.5 million in 2003.

Then, on New Year’s Day this year, there was the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale station in Oakland. Grant, an African American, was killed by a BART police officer, but for many of Grant’s peers, that distinction is meaningless.

Instances like these — the Riders case, the Grant shooting — are part of the reason that young men like Armstead say they truly hate the police.

Armstead explained that his anger comes from having guns pulled on him by police — but it goes deeper than that. Two years ago, he went to jail on assault charges.

“When you go to jail, you got to get strip-searched,” Armstead said. “You got a male deputy telling you to lift your balls, move your penis from your balls, and do this with your toes, and spread your cheeks. Like, you a man, you want to go through that? Come on now, no. That was the most hurtful thing in my life.”

Smith said these negative experiences can leave deep scars. For these young people, the police have come to represent a system that’s failed them.

Martial metaphors mislead cops

And many believe that police protocol can create tensions.

“Usually, most of the time police escalate situations,” said Alton “Squeaky” Surrell, an outreach worker with Youth Uprising’s Peacemaker team. He said that police treat his neighborhood of deep East Oakland as if it’s a war zone.

Surrell tells the story of a shooting in a parking lot near MacArthur Boulevard.

When Surrell arrived at the scene, police were applying ice to the head of the victim — a woman who had just been shot by her son’s father.

“When I get there, her son was with her — 8 years old, no, 9 years old. No one had grabbed the son, pulled him away. He’s just sitting there watching his mother,” Surrell said.

Surrell said he went to the little boy and consoled him while the ambulance came and took his mother away.

“When I was coming back in to find out where the ambulance was going, the police drew guns out on me, the little boy and his brother,” Surrell said. “Here is the situation where you are victimizing a victim. This little boy just watched his daddy shoot his mama in the head, and here was the Oakland police your pulling a gun in his face. …”

Surrell acknowledged that the police act this way for personal safety reasons.

Some police looking for trouble

Armstead is walking the stretch of MacArthur Boulevard near Youth Uprising, interviewing his peers. One of the peers, who goes by the street name Legend Larry, said that most of the time he is stopped by the police, he feels it is unprovoked. He gives an example.

“We was all sitting in the car, and they just came all bounced out their car with guns drawn and told everybody in our car to get out the car, and we like, ‘Why?’

We (were) sitting in my garage, in my house, and like, ‘What’s the matter, why you all running up on us?’ And they say it’s ’cause someone had a gun, and I’m telling them, ‘I got my ID on me, I’m Charlie, I ain’t got nothing on me, I ain’t got no record or nothing,’ he telling me I’m not under arrest. Then, ‘Why am I in these handcuffs? Why you treating me like this?’”

“What’s the solution to the animosity towards the community and the police itself?” Armstead asked.

“The community needs to stop seeing the police as enemies,” Legend Larry said.

“So why do the community see them as enemies?” Armstead asked.

“Because of the stereotype, the community stereotype as well,” Legend Larry said.

Racial expectations

Nate Blumsack, 27, is a white man who grew up in the Oakland hills. He said police treated him differently when they pulled him over in East Oakland. 

“As a white kid in the turf, (I have) definitely been treated (by police) as ‘You’re definitely buying drugs,’ ‘What are you doing here?’ They will run your ID but they will not immediately pull you out of the car, search you,” Blumsack said.

Blumsack said that everyone is aware of the stereotypes — and they can be used to an advantage. In high school, his friends asked him to transport drugs precisely because he was a white kid from the hills.

And many youth on these streets in East Oakland say that if they dress or look a certain way that police are more likely to stop them. “Dollar,” 21, who asked that only his street name be used, has dreadlocks and a stocky build. He was just released after spending 10 months in jail, and he told Armstead that he has been trying to dress differently, which he calls, “squaring up.”

“Even when I try to ‘square up’ and dress, I did that like all last week, I still get pulled over,” Dollar said. “Like, that’s not even working anymore, you know, D (Armstead) — you do the same thing — you try to ‘square up’ sometimes, and they still pulling you over too, you know? So, like, I can’t even find a way to do it, unless I get a bunch of light makeup.

“Police is the biggest gang in America, you know,” he added.

When asked how police could establish better relationships with people in the community, Dollar replied: “Yeah, I know one perfect way — leave me alone. That’s how you can establish a better relationship; just leave me alone. Just go over there. You could come when we call you. ’Cause you don’t come when we call you, but when we don’t want you, they there.”

Armstead asked Dollar what he would ask the police if he had the chance.

“Yeah, whatever happened to ‘innocent ’til proven guilty’?” Dollar said. “That’s the whole thing. We guilty ’til proven innocent out here. You know, so they just — they harass me. My main question is, ‘Why me, and why my peers?’”

Telling officers how it feels

A few days later, Armstead gets a chance to take the concerns to Deputy Chief of Police David Kozicki, whom he meets at police headquarters. Armstead is nervous, wearing a long-sleeved sweatshirt that covers his tattoos on a hot summer day. It’s the first time that Armstead has talked to police without the threat of arrest or without the possibility of guns being drawn.

“Do you think it’s healthy for a community to deal with having guns drawn on ’em for, like, simple things?” Armstead said. “I’ve actually come across where I was in the car with somebody, and it was their mom’s car. And they were driving their mom’s car, license and everything, I had hands like this in my pockets, and I had a gun put directly in my face.

“And I feel like over the time, after a while, a lot of youth that do go through that after a while, it kind of bring a lot of distraught in your mind, because it’s a gun put directly at your face, so. …”

“I think that anytime that police are out there with a show of force is not healthy for a community, right” Kozicki said. “And I think that much of what we have to do — I don’t know about your situation — did they ever explain to you why?”

“Basically, he said my movement or the suspicion of my movement … but I really didn’t understand that,” Armstead said.

Misreading common gestures

“Police officers are all taught that people conceal firearms in their waistband, and we know people conceal firearms in their waistbands,” Kozicki said. “This is how we are taught to think, this is how we do think, such that we are now in a life-threatening situation. Movement to the waistband could be as simple as someone trying to keep their baggy pants up — and we have shot unarmed people, police across this country have shot unarmed people, in that very situation. And the problem with it is, is that there needs to be dialogue around that issue.”

For the most part, the dialogue isn’t taking place. It almost appears that the police and the young men in the community are speaking two different languages. What for the young men is a normal gesture, for the police is a threat.

But these are no simple misunderstandings. Armstead said this inability to communicate can increase the violence.

“And there is distrust,” Armstead said. “Do you think that this leads to some of the violence upon the police, or do you think that can create more animosity or violence in the community itself?”

“I think it is a two-way street,” Kozicki said. “And there are clearly two different sides to this problem. There’s the youth and then there’s the police. And I think that there is distrust on both sides. And I think that what happens so often is that both sides paint with a broad brush, Such that if you believe that everybody is like the police officers in Rodney King ... If the youth believe that, then they paint with the same broad brush as police officers who think that all young African American males are a threat to their safety. We can’t stereotype, but yeah, you’re right. Police do what police do, first to keep themselves safe.”

From suspects to snitches

In neighborhoods like East Oakland, there is a moral and cultural code that is unique to the streets. Part of this code is no snitching. Being a snitch means you are a traitor — and the no-snitching code is often enforced with violence.

Armstead asked Kozicki about a common event — an officer calling out a young man on the corner by name.

“Well, we want our officers to know people in the community, we want them to stop and engage people,” Kozicki said.

But Armstead said that when an officer calls out your name, it isn’t always to talk — it can be the prelude to handcuffs or harassment. And beyond that, the fact that an officer knows his name could make a youth look like an informant.

“In the urban environment, it’s a mentality or a rule: no snitching. And it kind of put you in danger,” Armstead said.

“That’s a tough one, that’s a good point, you see that’s one of those perception things,” Kozicki said. “The officer may be thinking that he’s relating to you on a personal level, right, for whatever reason. Perhaps you knew the officer, but you take it as, ‘You’re fronting me off,’ for no reason. And so, I mean that’s one of those things. I can take away from this conversation and talk to officers about.” 

Frank discussions between police and young people in the community like this one are few and far between. And there is still resistance, even from Armstead, to continue the conversation. Armstead said that’s because the police just don’t understand his world.

Youth Uprising’s Surrell said that he had to overcome the same feelings that Armstead has.

“I was one of the same people that said, ‘The police, I hate the police,’ and on some level still have that mentality," Surrell said. "But I understand now that everyone has a job to do. And that’s someone’s job, if we just got the right people to start filling the jobs, then that would probably change the culture.”

Surrell often encourages young people to join the police force. That’s because he believes if more police officers came from this community, they might better understand the issues residents face.

But even if they were from Oakland, the nature of police work may feed the antagonism with the community. The cultural code is not to snitch, but the police need information to do their job.

“We find that most of our information comes from, in a lot of crimes, comes from people who are snitching,” Kozicki said. “And when I talk about snitching, it’s that they catch a case and they want to get out of the case, as opposed to people who are just telling us because they saw something that occurred was so wrong that they would tell the police. And that’s really a sad commentary on culture more than it is on the police.”

Street code of silence

Most in this East Oakland neighborhood don’t come forward when they witness a crime. For officers and many in the general public, that doesn’t make sense. But the street code of silence is something that Emma Stanfield understands all too well.

“My son was killed Aug. 28, 2008, and he was shot by a 19-year-old boy in East Oakland,” Stanfield said. “That day ... that night, I can say, was the worst night of my life.”

Stanfield’s son, Isaac, was 17 when he was killed. Her living room now stands as a memorial to him.

In a glass cabinet, Stanfield has collected objects of her son’s life and death — a list of girls’ phone numbers that Isaac carried around, a pair of his eyeglasses and on a shelf at eye level, the urn that holds Isaac’s remains. When Stanfield first heard of her son’s murder, no witnesses would come forward.

“It wasn’t just the one boy that was out there when my son got killed,” Stanfield said. “It was a few people that was out there — and I wasn’t mad at them for not coming forward. Because they have families and the law is not gonna protect them.”

What she can’t forgive is what happened next. A suspect in the case confessed to the crime, but two days later, the district attorney told her he wasn’t going to press charges.

“My thing is the boy probably gave them something bigger than Issac’s case,” Stanfield said. “Although nothing is bigger than this, this is my son. This is something that I have to live with every day of not seeing him, and our justice system is saying that’s OK. But it’s not OK.”

Stanfield’s mistrust of the judicial system is widespread among residents of East Oakland. The people involved in criminal activity and the victims of their actions have something in common: They both feel the police don’t have the community’s best interests at heart.

“You know, you’ll give somebody you catch with 10 rocks 10 years,” Stanfield said. “But somebody who takes somebody’s life, you let them go free. So the justice system is not, is not, working. Something needs to be fixed.”

Listen to the full news report at KALW-FM.