Oakland and crime are interwoven in the popular American consciousness. The city with the highest violent-crime rate in California is where Nancy Reagan gave her famous "Just say no" advice to a group of the city's youth in 1982, when crack cocaine was tearing Oakland's black and brown communities apart. With an official unemployment rate of 15 percent—almost double the national average—more than 100 murders annually for six of the past seven years and a violent-crime rate of 15.3 per thousand, which leads California cities, the East Bay's largest city is no stranger to bloodshed.
Over the years, the federal government has poured millions into various anti-crime programs to stem the tide, ranging from blank-check grants for the war on drugs to intervention programs that combine law enforcement threats with job and educational opportunities.
Now doubts about the effectiveness of those programs are colliding with concerns about what impact federal budget reductions will have. Oakland is a place where urban America is confronting two questions: Does the federal government know how to help fight local crime? Can it afford to?
From War to a Dangerous Peace
Oakland's contemporary shape cannot be understood outside the historical context of World War II–era labor migrations. Work at East Bay shipyards and the Oakland Army Base drew tens of thousands of black migrants to the Bay Area. Their history of voluntary and forced migration is critical to Oakland's present. Drawn initially by economic opportunities presented by the war industries, black migrants were, after the war, left high and dry in the overcrowded, redlined neighborhoods of West Oakland as the region around them—in a very planned execution of classic California sprawl—saw new suburban tracts in East Oakland replace both orchard land and the factories that had paid decent working-class wages. East Bay real estate agents also played a critical role in establishing and enforcing racially exclusive housing covenants that for years shut black homeowners out of many neighborhoods in East and North Oakland, not to mention the affluent hillside areas.
However, it wasn't until the federally financed construction of the freeway complexes in the 1950s and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in the late 1960s and early 1970s, coupled with the Center City project that razed blocks of old downtown Oakland for high-rise development through the late 1960s and 1970s, that this dynamic became directly destructive. All three projects forcibly displaced black renters, homeowners and businesses from established neighborhoods—in the case of BART, literally ripping up 7th Street, the heart of black West Oakland and a renowned mecca for musicians on the West Coast. Roughly 10,000 people were displaced from West Oakland by the freeways and BART, shifting them into formerly majority-white neighborhoods in North and East Oakland that were already experiencing white flight. As people of color arrived, that process of exiting accelerated, with 163,000 white residents leaving Oakland from 1955 to 1966, out of a city of roughly 360,000 people.
During the Johnson administration, a number of federal war-on-poverty projects aimed at reducing poverty proved to be a launching pad for black and Latino politics in Oakland and also offered an entry route for former (or current) radicals into the city's political system. However, these projects were underfunded and did not address the rapid flight of Oakland's industrial manufacturing base south to the expanding cities of Hayward and Fremont, which benefited directly from the freeway and BART systems that had eviscerated much of Oakland.
The freeways also sped the growth of the Port of Oakland, which was at the forefront of containerization and grew to become the third largest port in the country by 1970. Although it proved to be an economic engine for the region, the shipping and trucking traffic that bordered on residential areas of West Oakland created an environmental crisis, as smog and particulate matter from combustion engines led to elevated asthma and respiratory disease rates in the region.
A significant portion of the longshoremen who operate the Port of Oakland are black; however, nothing can make up for the eradication of dozens of black-owned businesses and the forced displacement caused by redevelopment.
As jobs fled Oakland and poverty increased, the narcotics trade boomed. In the 1970s and early 1980s, most of the trafficking in the city was in cocaine and heroin. That changed markedly in the mid-'80s with the introduction of crack, which spread from Southern California to Oakland and San Francisco. Oakland's murder rate skyrocketed to the point where the city was averaging 167 murders per year by the early 1990s.
In response to this sustained rise in violent crime, the federal government provided assistance to Oakland in a number of ways—funding typical law enforcement activities as well as efforts to get at the root causes of the bloodshed.
A Law -and-Order Response
The Byrne Justice Assistance Grant gives the Oakland Police Department (OPD) several hundred thousand dollars a year to devote to whatever policing needs it feels are appropriate. This could include equipment, overtime, forensics or other expenses aimed at targeting, arresting and jailing violent offenders.
Oakland has received Byrne grant money for the past 16 years. From 2005 to 2011, Oakland received $6,914,182 through the program. "We've used those grants over the years to fund investigations, drug units and everything from laptops to vehicles," Deputy Police Chief Jeff Israel tells City Limits. From 2005 through early 2007, $727,708 was put toward funding staff and equipment for the OPD's crime lab to make up for cuts to a state grant that had previously funded evidence analysis.