Articles by Howard Dyckoff


About Howard
Howard Dyckoff has lived in Oakland for over 30 years and has been involved with many community groups, including Oakland Digital and Oakland Local and the East Oakland Boxing Association (EOBA). A New York transplant, Howard attended Laney College, where he wrote for the Laney Tower newspaper. He has served as the Berkeley Free Clinic’s Outreach Coordinator, and also worked as an information technology professional at Chevron and Wells Fargo.Howard has been a regular contributor to Oakland Local and currently does event photography around the Bay Area.

Highland Journal, a Miniseries: Part III – The 7th Floor

By Howard Dyckoff

First, there is Sam, the handy man. The “Eat at Mel’s, go for a 6 pack in the park” kind of guy. Having no medical insurance, ignoring health needs, eating the cheaper, high-calorie, low-nutrient food found in mini-marts and the scattered fast-food outlets of Deep East he slowly gets sick.

So  he has diabetes and high blood pressure and parts of his hands and feet are becoming hard and insensitive. These parts of Sam are dying. They are leaving him. He listens to the doctors list his problems and tries to bargain about lifestyle changes. He doesn’t have stable lodging, no regular income, no regular place to cook. He promises to try to eat a little better, but his voice lacks commitment.

Also up there, on Highland Hospital’s 7th floor, was Roberto. He works as a security guard at malls and warehouses. Also diabetic, his feet have developed blisters that did not heal. He ignored the problem for too long. He is hoping to go on disability since he will not be able to walk for weeks as he recovers.

Roberto was very friendly and made efforts to get to know everyone. He would tell his story and he often described his diabetes as bad luck or an unfortunate turn of events. But he never discussed how he got diabetes or what he failed to do to keep it in check. Instead, his diabetes was like a relative he owed money and had tried to avoid. Until one day, he got cornered.

A Korean man was briefly in the bed next to mine. He said little but later I found out his cancer had returned and he quietly endured significant pain. I did not get his name, but his thin and small wife often sat next to him on his bed, sometimes holding his hand as he slept.

When he was discharged, I didn’t know if he had gotten better or was going home for his final days. He was the very portrait of stoicism.

Then there was David, who had many medical problems and deep pain that lasted all night. He was reticent to discuss his case other than to complain the doctors weren’t helping, or a least not fast enough.

But part of the problem was his record as an IV drug user. Hospital policy forbade giving him opiates and meds intravenously. He did receive several visits from his team of doctors, including one that suggested many oral alternatives, some of which he finally accepted.He had to take pain killers by mouth and on a frequent schedule. After a while, his pain was managed, but not before he accused much of the staff of ignoring his suffering.

After 3 days of complaints, and frequent wailing in the night, a nurse came on duty that had worked with him before. She met his complaints by pointing out all that he had failed to do from that last hospital visit and, as an senior, she held the authority of an aunt or mother. He stopped complaining and began to follow her instructions. He got better and then he got released.

In an interesting turn of roles, David eventually rose up to help another Latino man who was alcoholic and was missing his shoes when it came time for discharge. David encouraged the man to complain about the missing shoes and to challenge the discharge. Together, they demanded to see a social worker and to ask for footwear from the lost and found, and they were successful. The found shoes were a little big, but at least the man had foot protection for his way home and to La Clinica de la Raza the next day. That was actually a selfless act. Go, David.

Everyone was in and out in a week or less. But not me. I had to undergo 3 separate procedures, so I was hospitalized over 2 weeks. I saw the patients come and go, I saw the beds turnover. I saw and smelled the nurses aides disinfect each mattress before a new patient  arrived. I stayed.

I saw the staff, most of them anyway, rise to the challenge of each new patient. I saw other patients get better while my own health was more precarious.

I’m sure I seemed a bit demanding to the staff sometimes, I hope not too often. But I was in great pain the first 9 days of my stay. I could barely eat anything and lost close over 15 pounds. I really appreciated any help that could be given and much was.

Part of that long time was due to the black hole that weekends are in this hospital and many others. The ER and Trauma Center get most of the resources on weekends and the senior residents and many technicians are off Sundays and often Saturdays as well. The hospital runs in day-to-day mode, but getting procedures planned, signed-off, and even executed generally doesn’t happen on weekends. Sunday becomes just a visiting day.

My second gall bladder procedure had to wait all of the long Veteran’s Day weekend, because there were no techs to preform it. That was 72 more hours of pain and not eating. But that procedure was actually performed at a different hospital, which shows the weekend black hole also happens at other hospitals.

I am very happy the second procedure was completed without incident and I did quickly get better.

Highland Journal, a Miniseries: Part II

By Howard Dyckoff

She carries needles and tubes, held in slender fingers. She’s looking for human blood. I see earrings, and under her white jacket, jewelry, a sequined top. I catch a honeysuckle scent. Leather heels. She clearly has a life outside of all this bloodsucking.

It all happens in the early morning and the late afternoon. Other medical info is collected then and midday. And near midnight. Meaning I can’t sleep through the night. But these daily tests look for infections and key changes in patients, and show a very high standard of medicine. This is not always appreciated by my fellow patients.
One man on my floor screams at the sight of a needle and doesn’t stop until it is over. These can be superficial sticks for reading blood sugar level.   Another older man, not wiser, had 2 different lines in for his surgery. He complained about that but threw a fit when a lab tech insisted on getting a clean blood draw.
“Use one of those damned lines!,” he bellowed, also threatening the tech and his ancestry.  The head nurse sat him down and explained that the lines were mostly for adding fluids and medicines but that they could not be used for blood draws after they were first put in.
He reluctantly agreed, but wanted one of the 2 lines removed. Since it was after his surgery, the nurse said that should be possible. I had wondered about using the IV lines for blood draws and was happy to hear the explanation. That is just another detail that one learns by asking, or listening.  Also another detail that would be nice to learn up front.
On my floor, thought, there is always latitude for interpretation. Here is an example:
On one thermometer I seemed to be running a temperature between 99  and 100. On another, I was always around a healthy 96-97 degrees.
In many ways, the staff response to requests for help was friendly and consistently professional. But they would retreat into protocol when asked questions above their pay grade.  A few, however, would take the extra minute or two to solve a real  problem. And that would make up for every thing that had gone wrong up to that point.

I remember the extraordinary efforts my nurse had to go through in the long hours of my slow discharge process because the doctor signing the discharge order had prescribed the wrong pain killers.

Although I wore a red tag on  my wrist to indicate I had medical allergies, and stated my allergies out loud to my doctors and nurses every day, one script prescribed the a pain killer that I was allergic to. The busy doctor actually wrote the script in another part of the hospital, and so did not see my wrist band. But the allergy was printed on the prescription form the doctor filled out. Obviously someone was very tired at the end of the day.

Highland Hospital has a discharge pharmacy just for patients being released from the hospital. This is a god-send that reduces what could be am hour-long wait to only 5 or 10 minutes. But it closes at 7 pm. I received to signed prescription at 6:45 pm.

My wife filled the prescription I was allergic to as soon as the discharge order and script came in. When she brought the meds back, I saw the error and contacted my nurse who then spent almost 2 hours trying to get the attention of the doctor who signed my discharge and the erroneous script. My nurse did not have the authority to adjust the script and also could not discharge me without the correct medications. We were entirely in limbo.

I checked with my nurse several times and each time I was told the doctor had said they would come by in 10 or 15 minutes.  And 2 hours later, the doctor did show, somewhat apologetically.  She looked over my chart, nodded when I said that my allergy was prominent in the chart and in the binder they kept on me, then apologized again.  We finally got a correct script, but the discharge pharmacy had been closed for almost two hours.  That meant my wife had to go back to Highland in the morning to get the correct pain killer and also I was uncomfortable for several extra hours.

I recognize that part of the problem was that only one member of my team of doctors was actually on duty after 5 pm that evening and there were no other doctors from the team who might have had less work and could be contacted about the problem.  I was ready for discharge and was no longer a high priority patient.  Still, the system had trouble correcting my problem and discharging me in a timely and efficient manner.

I certainly did not need to be assigned to a bed after 6 pm and did not meed to be in pain the next morning. But staying over another day – something neither I nor the hospital wanted – would have taken less effort.  This needs a fix.

Highland Journal, a Miniseries: Part I

By Howard Dyckoff

This is a tale of pain and fear, abated by the service, smiles and laughter of the Alameda County Medical Center (ACMC) staff.  This is a story about my worst November ever: more than 2 weeks in Highland Hospital, with pain continuing  both inside and outside.

Those quiet, always working, critical but silent internal organs – they became blocked and started digesting… me.

Quickly, here’s a note about my caregivers: back in October, local film makers released the documentary The Waiting Room to praise and acclaim. It’s about a day in the life of Highland Hospital’s Emergency Room. It’s a slice of Oakland life rarely seen on the big screen. It’s also about the heroic efforts of some staff members to help distressed patients navigate the system. I love the film and would recommend it to anyone.

In early November, I had my own odyssey in Highland’s ER. The staff responded efficiently and professionally to my situation. But my problem couldn’t be resolved there so I was admitted. This is that story – what comes after the “Waiting Room.”

In this case, my normally reliable internals were self-digesting. My gall bladder had produced stones and some of those blocked both the gall bladder and the pancreas. This is serious and life-threatening.

In my case, they had to remove my gall bladder and the stones that blocked the secretions of my pancreas. I was scheduled for surgery on Election Day remained in the hospital almost 2 weeks more.

Health is about juggling – the sandwiches, the cafe lattes, the birthday cake slices, the morning jogs, the 8 glasses of water daily. We do it to keep all our bits – from our Achilles tendons to our occipital lobes – in working order, there when we need them.

As we get older, the juggling can seem endless, until something slips, and there’s a mess.

Sometimes we toss up the cookies, and sometimes that is not enough. When a medical intervention is required, the stakes go up. We like to think that a couple of pills can fix things. But if you are hospitalized, the intervention required might be deeper. Sometimes our bits need to be rearranged, some even need to be taken out. Who are we when the sum of our parts is diminished?  If I get my organs snipped or pulled out all together, am I suddenly less Howard than I was before I went under?

I prefer to think we are the sum of our experiences and our responses to those experiences, but losing a limb or a sense like sight can have a profound impact on what we experience.

I have to say that in the 2 months following my surgery and follow-up procedures, I have gradually become myself again.  Well, a self that is not too different from the one I was previously. The pain is certainly gone and there are scars. I am eating a little less than I did before but I embrace that as a healthy change. I am eating less fatty foods, but that is also a good change. But I am aware that I am more cautious and more careful  and that changes my relationship with food in general.

In the next parts of this narrative, I share stories about the hospital, the staff, the patients and the experience of being in Oakland’s infamous Highland Hospital. I was there just over two weeks – I have many stories to share.


Cut Gun Clip Sizes for Fewer Shooting Victims

Emeryville Police Chief James spoke in Oakland with Assembly Representatives Nancy Skinner and Bob Bonta in support of AB 48 in early January. Photo by Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices

By Howard Dyckoff

After a year with 131 murders in Oakland – not the city’s highest ever, but the most since 2005 – and after the massacre in Sandy Hook took 26 lives, mostly children, we started 2013 off with another teen killed in a crossfire in East Oakland.

What I want to highlight here is that she wasn’t a target, but collateral damage, due to the frequent use of guns to settle arguments, guns with large ammo magazines.

February 1st’s shootings after Art Murmur, probably caused by an argument or bad drug deal, killed one and injured three, including 2 women walking nearby.

On January 11th, Oakland experienced 4 gang-related shooting deaths on a single day. Oakland police confiscated several weapons with high capacity ammo magazines.  One of those magazines could hold up to 100 bullets.

We certainly have far too many guns in the hands of our youth. But it’s also true that the nature of these weapons have changed over the last few decades. These aren’t your father’s Saturday Night Specials. Many guns have become militarized – they have huge ammo magazines, they fire quickly, and some are capable of piercing what were bullet-proof vests used by police and federal agents.

I’m a bit old-school here. I remember Jimmy Cliff brandishing a 6-shooter in the 1972 Jamaican gangster film The Harder They ComeIn those days, even semi-automatic pistols carried 7, 8, sometimes 9 shots. That meant there wasn’t a great advantage in using these military-style guns in gun fights. Not then.

If you were in a gun battle in those days, theoretically, with a revolver, you might save a bullet or two so you didn’t have to reload. Fewer shots meant less collateral damage.

But today, Glocks and Berettas can carry 20, 30 and sometimes more shots. These are the guns of choice on the streets of Oakland.  That makes them potential assault weapons and in the terrible mass-shootings of the last 12 years, these weapons have been involved more and more nationally and more even here in Oakland.

M1 Garand 8-round clip, M14 20-round magazine, AR-15/M16 20- and 30-round magazines. Photo: WikiMedia Commons.

I had not realized how high the ammo capacity had grown for the now common hand guns until I caught a documentary on “America’s Favorite Handgun: the Glock,” and heard that Glocks usually have ammo clips of 20 and 30 bullets. That was only a few weeks after a friend had been caught in a cross fire between 2 cars going down MacArthur Blvd between 82nd and 73rd Ave.  My friend said, “they just kept shooting,” and estimated 30 or more shots were fired.

According to OPD Officer David Wong, “during the middle part of 2011 to early 2012 we saw a lot of Glock and Beretta semiautomatic pistols recovered with high-capacity magazines. Wong said that  about 10 percent of all handguns confiscated by OPD  in that period had high-capacity magazines.

OPD Sgt. Christopher Bolton, the staff aide to Chief  Jordon, added to this theme by explaining, “the Oakland Police Department has seized an increased amount of high-capacity magazines for use in both pistols and rifles. It appears that these magazines are more prevalently carried or used in crimes on the streets of Oakland. A search of all incident reports containing the key word string of ‘high capacity magazine’ revealed an average of 60 offenses per year in the last three years. From  2007 through 2009, the average is 22 annually.”

One way to read that is that the rate at which weapons with high capacity magazines are used in Oakland crimes has almost tripled in the last few years.

Speaking to the experience of OPD crime lab technicians, Bolton added, “they have been seeing more extended mags for pistols and most of the rifles recovered that we examine have high cap mags, usually 30-40 rounds, but [we]  have seen capacity of up to 100 [rounds]. ”
Indeed, the infamous 2011 killing of 4 police officers storming an East Oakland apartment was based on an AK-47 assault rifle with 30 shot magazines.

The assault weapons ban used to limit magazines for semi-automatic weapons to 10 bullets. After Sandy Hook, that sounds like a reasonable limit. And I am happy that many legislators are considering reviving and strengthening those limits. California Senator Dianne Feinstein seems to have taken the lead on this in Washington.

Closer to home, East Bay State Assembly Members Nancy Skinner and Bob Bonta have introduced AB 48 which attempts to regulate and register ammo sales, which are not currently reported, and ban the sale of conversion kits that add more bullet-carrying capacity to existing ammo magazines.

According to Rep. Nancy Skinner, “It is easier to buy ammo than to buy cigarettes.” I think that should be tightened-up and I think the many mothers and fathers who have lost children to senseless gun violence would agree.

While I have been a long-time advocate of gun-control and would personally approve of serious legislation to restrict access to these lethal weapons, I recognize the effectiveness of the NRA and the gun industry in arguing for the constitutional freedom to carry weapons. They will resist most efforts to restrict access to guns, even the military-style semi-automatic assault rifles like the AR-15 Bushmaster used to kill those 26 people in Connecticut.

Do ordinary civilians need ammo clips of 100 bullets? Do hunters need more than 10 shots to down a deer?  Apparently some companies in the gun industry believe 100 round clips should be standard. Here’s a link to a review of 60 and 100 bullet magazines for AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. I find it very hard to believe that hunters actually need these military type magazines.

But I think even dyed-in-the wool NRA members – those sometimes called “gundamentalists” – would have difficulty explaining why common citizens need to carry ammo magazines of 30 or more shots. Does everyone need to be in a Hollywood-style shoot-out?  I really hope not.

In the  Tucson, AZ shootings 2 years ago in which 6 people were killed and 12 injured, including US Representative Gabrielle Giffords,
 the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, used a Glock 19 with a 33-round magazine.  That weapon is currently legal and available in most states. It was also the weapon also used by Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus,  in 2007.

I totally support legislation like AB 48, introduced by Rep. Nancy Skinner and Rep. Bob Bonta and described recently in Oakland Local.

Captain James of the Emeryville Police, who spoke at the Oakland press conference in support of AB 48, later told me that large ammo clips led to rapid fire even by seasoned police officers. He described this as a kind of adrenaline-induced  ”tunnel vision” where officers often loose track of the number of shots they fire. He said that when the standard police weapon was a revolver, officers would report firing 2-4 shots but would actually fire 5 or 6 shots, generally emptying the revolver. Nowadays, Emeryville police carry semi-automatic pistols with 15 round magazines and they often report firing only 5 or 6 shots when they actually fire 10 or more shots, sometimes emptying the 15 round clip.

Captain James thought teens and tweeners in gun battles would be less restrained than police officers and that was leading to more shooting wounds and deaths, especially among the non-combatants. If you fire a lot more bullets, he reasoned, you are likely to hit more people, including unintended victims.

We are seeing a few more mass shootings in America, especially in recent years, but the number of victims has increased. And this is because weapons with large ammo capacities are now legal and easily available.

According to Tom Diaz, the senior analyst for the Violence Policy Center (VPC) in Washington, who was a guest on the NPR program “Fresh Air,”  with improvements in gun technology since the 1980s, hand guns now have assault weapon features such as rapid fire and large magazines. Some, such as the FNH Five.Seven 5.7 mm pistol, can use armor-piecing ammo and are preferred by drug cartels and terrorist groups.

VPC’s Legislative Director Kristen Rand said, “High-capacity ammunition magazines facilitate mass shootings by giving attackers the ability to fire numerous rounds without reloading. An effective ban on high-capacity magazines will help prevent tragedies” in the future like those in Arizona, Colorado, and Connecticut.

Toy assault weapons, styled after the AR-15, now feature high-capacity magazines.

As I write this, in New York State senators just voted for the NY SAFE Act of 2013 which tightens restrictions on reselling guns and creates a registry for assault-style weapons, plus restricts ammo magazines to 7 bullets, from the current NY limit of 10. Our state’s proposed AB 48 only seeks to implement the prior federal limit of 10 bullets in a clip.

And earlier this month, former president Bill Clinton told Associated Press “I grew up in this hunting culture, but this is nuts.  Why does anybody need a … 30-round clip for a gun?”

Oakland is awash with guns. I say register all ammo sales to find out who’s stockpiling it. I say  limit ammo capacity of these guns to limit their lethality and to prevent more tragedies like Aurora, Col., and Newtown, Conn. We already have had one mass shooting in Oakland.  Let’s prevent any more.     

I say, “Let’s clip the clip!” Ten shots should be enough to down a deer or kill an adversary. Let’s reduce collateral damage on our streets and prevent a future ‘Baby Hiram’ shooting from happening.


Health of the Hood: East Oakland’s Community Gardens

Food Fair at Tassaforanga Garden. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices.

By Howard Dyckoff

Food surrounds us in our daily lives. We share food at family and community events. But where do we get our food and how fresh is that food?

Deep East Oakland is a fresh food desert. There are very few large grocery stores South of High Street and fewer farmer’s markets to buy food direct from the farm.

Liquor stores dot the landscape and many carry some so-called fresh food, although the fruits and veggies are often wilted or worse.

More and more research shows the amazing health benefits of the phytochemicals in fresh fruit and veggies and getting the bulk of of one’s calories from fresh fruit and veggies reduces the occurrence of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and even cancer. But, in Deep East, fresh food is hard to find.

Now, many young Oaklanders are getting involved in community gardens and there are more of these projects every year. The ultra-fresh food grown in these projects feeds local families and low-income individuals. It brings people together in our communities.  It also helps educate school-age children about what food really is, how to grow it,  and how to be more self-sufficient.

Two of the more visible community gardens are recent projects near the Tassaforanga housing complex and the on-going gardening and nutrition workshops at the East Oakland Boxing Association (EOBA).  There is also a project starting to grow veggies on the roof of the Life Long clinic (at 106th Avenue) for their patients, but that is just starting up.

EOBA’s Garden and Nutrition Program

At EOBA, the gardening program is on-going, in spite of the wintery weather.  They sprout many of the veggies indoors and these plant starters are for sale to anyone beginning their own garden.  They also offer garden and nutrition workshops every other month in the EOBA classroom.

EOBA Garden Coordinator Cris Cruz talks about how deep to plant seeds. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices.

“Our garden program helps the East Oakland Community on many levels,” explained Sarah Chavez, EOBA’s director. “In the garden, daily opportunities exist to reinforce the science, math, and language curriculum from their elementary schools, as well as basic socializing skills. Over the last year, the garden served several struggling preteens. ”

“Our garden provides a quiet space for them re-focus their energies and spend time with older peer mentors who are dedicated to being positive role models.  Our youth also take their lessons in urban gardening home to their families.  Many parents have given positive feedback regarding their kids’ interest in gardening at home as well as general increase in helpfulness.”

Garden at Tassaforanga Park. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices

Tassafaronga Garden

The garden at Tassafaronga occupies a quarter acre at the corner of 83rd Ave and E Street. The program is run by a group called Acta Non Verb (ANV), which is a Latin expression meaning “actions not words.”

The project there focuses on youth of all ages, with kids planting, mulching, watering and harvesting real food.  The program invites children and parents to come by late afternoons on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Currently, about 20 families are involved.

When the garden is producing, the veggies go to the youth that work on ANV garden as well as sold at their farm fresh food stand.

“We have started our monthly ‘Family Dinners,’” said Kelly Carlisle, ANV’s Founder and  Executive Director, “that blend our work day (The first Saturday of each month) with the opportunity for community members to come together and eat together. Our first one was January 6th and it was amazing!”

Raised beds at the Tassafaronga garden. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices

Back in October, the Tassafaronga Garden helped host a Food Day celebration with food samples, cooking demos, tabling from groups like the Oakland Parks Coalition, and family-friendly entertainment. There were educational and informational displays and even a GMO car. Mayor Jean Quan came to this Deep East location and was pleased with the demo food.

Click here for photos of the October event.

“Food Day was great and we had representatives from all sectors: non-profit, private, home-based business, homesteaders, and artists,” said Carlisle.

This year, ANV and California Food and Justice Coalition (CFJC) will be teaming up to make Sunday, October 21 the next Food Day extravaganza at their mini farm in East Oakland, Noon to 4pm at Tassafaronga Park & Recreation Center. Be there and see the future of food in East Oakland!




Women Politicians Lead East Oakland Rally Against Social Security Cuts

Rosie Camancho of the Labor Council (center) spoke at an Oakland rally against social security cuts, along with Congresswoman Barbara Lee (left) and Mayor Jean Quan. Photo: Howard Dyckoff/HD Photography

By Howard Dyckoff

More than 50 rallied last week in East Oakland to oppose any cuts in Medicare and Social Security.

Protesters joined Congressional Rep. Barbara Lee, Assembly Member Nancy Skinner, and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan at Eastmont Mall’s Social Security office to oppose reductions in Oakland’s senior services.

Lee asked the audience to “stand firm” and to be vocal, adding that there was a resistance movement of progressive Congress members that would also resist major cuts. Mayor Quan, and Josie Camancho of the Alameda Labor Council also spoke on the issue of preventing cuts in services that older Americans depend on.

The mood was upbeat but all were concerned that some members of Congress would seek significant cuts in these services for seniors. Skinner said that the less fortunate among us should not have to bear a loss in essential services when the more fortunate have had major tax breaks for over a decade.

Retiree Liz Kimura, a former BART worker, explained how even small cuts to Medicare and Social Security would negatively impact her her limited standard of living.

A staff member at Eastmont’s Social Security office, Car-lette Hughey, explained that daily hours had been cut and now the office closes at 3 pm. She expressed concern that further cuts would lead to the office being open 4 hours or less a day, leaving many Oaklanders under served.

Although a male former machinist also spoke against any cuts to seniors, it was the women political officials who lead the rally and got the media attention.  That’s as it should be, since women live longer than men but usually have smaller savings for retirement.  They are often more dependent on Social Security and Medicare than male counter parts and will have more to loose if cuts come down from Washington. And such cuts will also fall most heavily on low-income seniors in East and West Oakland.

We should all speak out to protect the older members of our communities.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the lead speaker at the rally. Photo: Howard Dyckoff/HD Photography

Follow this link for the full photo album from the event.


Health of the Hood: Fencing Off a Sense of Community in Toler Heights

By Howard Dyckoff

“Indeed, good fences make good neighbors, but we also want good neighbors to build good (and sometimes shorter) fences,”  Berkeley City Council member Laurie Capitelli, from a 2008 web posting.

Tall, solid fence obscures view, hides occupants. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices, 2012

Since the great recession began and many homes were foreclosed on, a large number of new homeowners have moved into Deep East Oakland, including my neighborhood, Toler Heights.

Many of these new owners moved in before connecting with their neighbors and before they had a feel for their neighborhoods. Because some new owners thought all of East Oakland was dangerous, they erected fences that are 6 to 8 feet high.

Some of the new owners are investors who buy up several properties in short sales and then try to rent them all out. These non-resident owners tend to treat the properties the same and not pay attention to neighborhood differences.

This is actually in progress right now at Cherokee and Thermal, near 98th Ave. Three close houses are having 7 foot metal fences erected with screens, creating a fortress appearance in a residential area that has long had no fencing in front or only low and attractive fences. This is rapidly changing the character of the streets where this happens and brings down the appearance of the entire neighborhood.


Oakland, like most Bay Area cities, has set limits on the height of front yard fences, and allows high fences only in the backyard.  In 2007, following a housing study, the fence height limit was reaffirmed at 3-1/2 feet. Many other cities have set the limit at only 3 feet. Higher front fences require expensive permits. But its fully up to the  neighbors suffering the effects to request any type of city enforcement.

What my Toler Heights Neighbors Say

Nedra, with some of her art. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices, 2012.

Nedra has lived in her family’s house since the late 1950′s.  Before that, her family lived in North Oakland.

She’s an artist, working with collage, ceramics and painting.

“I like it simple and accessible,” she said of the fence in front of her home. “I want to  be able to lean on the fence to talk to my neighbors.”

“A fence Is not a way to keep someone out.” She said that a community-friendly fence should “define the boundaries of  the house and maybe to augment its design.”

She has seen the neighborhood rise in the ’60s and then begin a slow but steady decline since the mid-70′s. Nedra remembers a diverse and vibrant business community all along MacArthur Blvd. since that was the main thoroughfare to downtown Oakland and other cities like Berkeley.

But that changed with the arrival of the MacArthur Freeway. Less traffic meant less business, and the freeway also meant easier access to larger and more distant shopping districts and malls.

“The way the community looks now, requires us to address many issues, including noise and absentee landlords. But the Fencing is the most glaring. And we need to take our neighborhoods forward.”

Nedra said that when she grew up, “most fences were wooden and about knee high so I think the fence should not obstruct but enhance your house.”

Nedra thinks the large fences are being put up by owners who don’t know or care to know much about the surrounding community. “These are people who are buying property and are not local residents and don’t look at the situation as a neighbor. So now you are walking into places that look like prison yards. If  you are afraid to live in this neighborhood, then why are you buying a house here? I don’t like it.”

Rebecca in her verdant yard. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices, 2012.

I also spoke with Rebecca and Cora further up my street. Rebeca has a 2-foot stucco fence that also sets off a small area for plants. She does have high fences in the back yard, partly to keep her dogs in.

“A neighborhood with a lot of high fences looks like a dangerous place to be,” Rebecca said, explaining that she doesn’t want that for her street. “It suggests more crime and less community”

Rebecca said she likes knowing the people on her street. “One week I had a lot of plant waste and some neighbors offered me space in their green bins. And when I was really down and under the weather, some neighbors even brought me dinner. I don’t think  that happens everywhere in a big city like Oakland.”

Cora Sue Anthony – whom you may recognize from HGTV – is a decorator with projects all over the US. She made it clear that the front fence needed to be part of the house architecture.

“First, when I see a high fence I can’t see through, I get concerned about my security,” Cora said. “What if someone is hiding behind it and grabs me or is robbing me and no one could see it? And what if someone were trying to break in?  I’d want a neighbor to see it and report it.”

HGTV star, and my neighbor, Cora Sue Anthony. Photo: Cora Sue Anthony.

Cora felt that a fence has to show the house and add value to the design. “With me being a designer, I think the fence has to fit the house,” she said, “say for an arts and crafts house or bungalow. I would go with the same elements and  a Mediterranean style  house should I have a Mediterranean style fence. That would improve the property and increase its value.”

Then she added, “I’d think that having several of these massive fences will bring house values down in our neighborhood.”

Down on a connecting street, a man named Mr. T theorized that “a high fence probably means its a ‘grow’ house.” He should know.  The two houses across his street that had 7-foot solid fences were both involved in criminal activity and are now unoccupied.

Mr. T also told me that on some nights he sees flickering light inside and he is worried that it may be a drug pad or a squat. He is also worried that careless use of open flames may cause a house fire that may spread to other houses on the street.

With all the cuts to city services, he does have something to worry about.

Click here to read a 2007 web posting about an Oakland home owner wanting to erect a tall fence and needing a city permit.

Cease Fire Redux: Oakland Relaunches Crime Plan, This Time with Broad Coalition

Members of City Team participated in the Lifelines program at Allen Temple. They have since started their Friday Night Walks. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices 2012.

By Howard Dyckoff

Oaklanders are marching to demand an end to gun violence.  There have been youth rallies, peace marches and on-going night walks in the most violence-plagued areas of East Oakland. Many of these events are headed by church groups and community organizations banding together with the City to re-launch the Cease Fire program that Oakland first attempted 3 years ago.

Pastor Mike McBride is helping the city foster this new relationship with East Oakland neighborhoods. ”With so many young men being killed each year,” McBride said, ”we believe that as a community of faith, we have to take action and press for the full Cease Fire model.”

City leaders plan to kickoff the new program with its community partners before the end of this month. The Mayor’s Office and Oakland Police are working closely with several of these organizations to implement Cease Fire in several neighborhoods.

One of those is the national, faith-based  group Pacific Institute for Community Organizations (PICO). Even though Oakland has gone for the last 3 years without an official Cease Fire plan in place, Oakland’s PICO office has developed its own programs inspired by Boston’s successful Cease Fire strategy.

PICO’s Lifelines to Healing project aims to reduce gun violence in high-risk communities through a coalition of community groups, local clergy, and government agencies at all levels. Lifelines first brought together local church leaders – including Pastor McBride and Rev. Billy Dixon, Jr. - to head Friday Night Walks, during which marchers listen to the concerns of, and show solidarity with, residents in East Oakland’s more violent neighborhoods. ”We are planning on going out rain or shine,” Rev. Dixon said, “and eventually we will be moving to all the parts of Oakland that need this kind of attention.”

The group has also coordinated with the recent Peace March from both East and West Oakland to City Hall that was planned by Soldiers Against Violence Everywhere, a faith-based group in Oakland.

Oakland’s Lifelines is a new project. Mayor Jean Quan and activist Rev. J. Alfred Smith, Jr. announced the project last month at Allen Temple. But many residents who attended were hopeful for its success, including Marilyn Lawson. She works with youth in East Oakland and has been involved with the family of Hadari Askari – a 15-year old shot to death in Oakland in July.

Lawson said she hoped city officials and all of her neighbors would “come outside of their comfort zone and get out in the community.  I’m going to continue to work with people in my community, especially the youth, so that they can empower themselves in a positive manner, while continuing to work towards having a better dialog with the police.”

Police Chief Howard Jordan joined in announcing PICO’s Oakland Lifelines to Healing project at Allen Temple Baptist Church in mid-September.  Over 100 Oaklander’s attended the community meeting which outlined the Lifelines strategy and called for community members to participate.

Cease Fire Success & Failure 

Oakland first tried Cease Fire effort was incompletely modeled after a program created in Boston in the late 1990s. That city’s Cease Fire evolved into a long-term partnership between city administrators, the police department, and  black clergy who worked directly with gang members and offer alternatives to violence. Boston’s program put legal and social pressure on influential gang members.

In Boston, the program worked, according to the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC) – an organization that helps implement Cease Fire and other anti-violence programs across the country. Because federal and county law enforcement agencies were part of Boston’s Cease Fire enforcement coalition, agreements were struck with gang members, and violations and bad behavior were met with stronger legal penalties. Failure to avoid violence meant strong enforcement and maximum sentences, both for the targeted gang members and others in the gang.  That added peer pressure helped the agreements work

Other Cease Fire programs modeled on the Boston experience also take this carrot-and-hammer approach, making it clear that no further violent behavior will be tolerated.

Boston succeeded in reducing juvenile shootings to zero for several months and Cease Fire programs in cities like Stockton and Chicago have show reductions in homicide rates of 30 to 44%.

“When the [violence] intervention is well implemented,” explained David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, “there are significant results in  the target cities. And when these programs are reduced or stopped, the intervention that violence creeps back. ”

Cease Fire has worked, Kennedy explained, because it has focused on the small group of gang members most likely to engage in violence or to encourage others to engage in violence.  These individuals often cause over half the incidents of gun violence in a neighborhood.

“In some projects, only a few neighborhoods were targeted, so these can be compared with areas that were not targeted,” said Kennedy, who was involved in the original Boston Cease Fire program and has been a resource for Oakland’s latest effort. ”Some cities have compared reductions in gang violence by individuals and we see impact on the targeted individuals and not on others.”

Research on Cease Fire’s impact suggests that increased safety and order in a neighborhood encourages residents to follow legal and social norms and solve problems collectively.

Critics and city officials alike say Oakland’s Cease Fire failed in 2009 because there was no coordination between city administrators, neighborhood organizations, and sate and federal law enforcement agencies.

“[Oakland's first Cease Fire program] didn’t have full city support and no technical assistance or support from the powers that be,” Reygan Harmon, the mayor’s staff person focusing on public safety, acknowledged. ”Also, there were not enough [community] partnerships across the city.” Harmon also explained that, at the time, Oakland “was not under contract to provide services for Cease Fire, so it was not fully implemented.”

Another problem with the first effort was the lack of on-going support by community organizations to work closely with at-risk youth and returning offenders. For this latest effort, a broad coalition of clergy and Oakland churches is already active and taking to the streets.

Oakland Police Sgt. Christopher Bolton said the new Cease Fire will fix some of those mistakes by involving ”partnerships with the entire community.” Pastor McBride and Rev. Dixon are working closely with city officials to forge those relationships and get Oakland residents involved in Cease Fire-related programs. ”We don’t believe you can do Cease Fire without getting everyone on board,” explained McBride.

Bolton also called for collaborations between “criminal justice agencies, faith leaders, community organizers, youth and their advocates,” and other groups. Those alliances are critical in order “to span the often deep divisions among criminal justice agencies and the community,” Bolton explained.

To ensure Cease Fire’s success this time around, Bolton said that the Mayor’s Office is “enhancing” its partnerships with several city, county, and federal agencies, including Highland Hospital, State Parole, and the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Bolton said the city’s main partner is the NNSC, which is providing technical assistance and direction on implementing Cease Fire to the city through the California Partnership for Safe Communities.

A Federal Grant

Oakland will fund the new Cease Fire program with a $2.2 million grant it received two years ago from the Department of Justice as part of the federal Community-Based Violence Prevention Demonstration – designed to offer cities several ways to reduce violence, including outreach and education, job training, and employment.

With this money comes strong planning and administrative help from community non-violence advocacy groups, and from John Jay University. The federal grant calls for the City of Oakland and its partners to conduct call-ins – face-to-face meetings with 250 parolees and probationers with histories of gun violence.

In September and October, there were on-going meetings with all participants in the Cease Fire coalition to hammer out working agreements. This is all led to a formal announcement  in late October when the program  finally started.

Community Critics

While many people are happy to see Oakland launch a well-funded, more robust Cease Fire project, there are also reservations about how the community will be involved.

Few people want to see an end to youth violence more than Kazu Haga, who has worked with Oakland youth.  Haga, an Oakland-based Kingian Nonviolence trainer and co-founder of the Positive Peace Warrior Network supports any effort to reduce violence . But he feels that ending gun violence in Oakland requires deeper and longer term efforts.

He spent several days recently working with youth at Castlemont High School after the ethnic violence there. “Their sense is that if the city can’t keep their own police force from killing Oakland youth, why should they? ”

“Cease Fire is very different in each city it’s implemented,”  Haga explained.  ”Boston’s had a very short term impact, before violence shot up again. I think the short term success is partially because of how law enforcement heavy it is. Increases in law enforcement have, at best, a short-term impact but you’re not really changing the conditions that create crime.”
Haga said Chicago’s Cease Fire model worked because it “empowered community members to work in their own community,” and because that city’s local Cease Fire projects “were not controlled in any way by law enforcement.”
In contrast, Haga said, many of Oakland’s Cease Fire advocates are directly connected to law enforcement and neighborhood policing initiatives including Measure Y, which “has a rep on the streets as being too tied into the city and OPD, so there are a lot of people that don’t trust them.”


Citizens, Clergy Appeal for Peace During East Oakland Night Walk

Pastor Rev. Dr. Phillip A. Lewis (center) and a few of the volunteers from City Team. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices 2012

By Howard Dyckoff

Three East Oakland Night Walks have been organized so far by City Team and Lifelines, in support of Oakland’s recently announced Cease Fire program.

I was on the second walk, which began several Fridays ago at the Israelite Missionary Baptist Church at 21st Ave and 21st Street in the San Antonio area. People began arriving at 6:30 in the evening – all committed to making a difference on the violent streets of Oakland.

Pastor Phillip A. Lewis hosted the event at his church and is working with Rev. Ben McBride and Pastor Billy Dixon, Jr on the Night Walks and other activities to reduce gun violence.

Lewis wore a white City Team jacket and described the project goals and his commitment to the effort.   Night Walks by community members are a part of the Cease Fire and  Lifelines model and come from the original Boston experience that resulted in zero juvenile deaths from guns during the program.  More stories were shared by other members of the clergy and prayers were said.

Lewis explained that the walk were not missionary work in any shape or form. It was about serving the needs of the community and trying to encourage people to work together to make our streets safer. He said we should not act in a critical or judgmental  manner. We should try instead to engage people in conversation and find out what their needs were and what issues might be making the streets unsafe.  Some of the walkers were carrying information cards about a project to register people to vote and to use their votes to make change at the city, county and state levels, but we would only hand out cards if the people we spoke to were genuinely interested.

The women in the group were asked to be the only group members who would talk to women street walkers, while the men were instructed to be distant but protective. One minister said this would prevent misunderstandings and misconceptions on the street. He assured us the pimps would not be far away.

After this orientation, the group of about 30 said a prayer together, then stood up from the pews and slowly filed out onto 21st Ave.   Their City Team white nylon jackets practically glistened in the glare of the street lights.

The group split up into two teams, one on each side of the street, inching together past houses and storefronts like two coordinated centipedes.

It mostly worked.  When the team on one side of the street talked with residents passing by or on their porches, the team on the other side of the street would bunch up and wait.  Progress was slow but deliberate.

Many of the people who stopped to talk with the night walkers were Hispanic and talked with a Spanish-speaker volunteer.  They seemed appreciative of the effort and many of them took the cards describing the voter registration project.  On 23rd Avenue, a very young African American couple came up to ask want was happening and who the group was, seeing the vanguard of white jackets.   They may have been 18 or 19, but expressed their support and quickly moved on.

On International Blvd., men were lined up by two taco trucks.  It was about 8 at night and they warily watched as the white jackets approached.  Again, the team explained that this was an effort to reduce violence on the street.  Several people came forward to express support.  A mall guard, a mustached Hispanic man in a blue uniform, asked some questions and then, relieved, went around shaking hands with everyone.

But some of  the walkers wee questioned by an older couple drinking out of a liter beer can in a brown paper bag.  They weaved a little, then stabilized each other as they asked how the group could ever stop the violence.  The night walkers patiently explained that they would walk the most dangerous areas and try to recruit people from the neighborhoods so there would be a constant presence standing for peace and safety.  The couple approved and thanked everyone repeatedly before moving off into the night.

Did this Night Walk make a difference?  It will not be clear for a while.

Over 50 people were contacted during the 2 hours of the walk,  and all but one seemed supportive and appreciative of the team members efforts.

If 10-20 percent of those contacted are inspired to act for peace and greater safety in the troubled neighborhoods of East Oakland, then we can imagine that becoming a force for change.  Courage and caring can have that effect.

Rev Billy Dixon, Jr. said the Night Walks would continue into December, when their effectiveness would be reviewed.  “We are planning on going out rain or shine,” Dixon exclaimed. “And eventually we will be moving to all the parts of Oakland that need this kind of attention.”

Notes from an Oakland Peace March

Marchers from East and West Oakland gathered at City Hall and called for an end to gun violence. City officials and candidates for office were asked what they would do to achieve that goal.

By Howard Dyckoff

Two Peace Marches against gun violence snaked through through East and West Oakland one  Saturday several weeks ago, and culminated with a City Hall rally with hundreds of people asking City officials and candidates for City office to both help reduce violence in the streets and improve relations between the Oakland Police Department and communities of color.

The Saturday peace march was sponsored by Soldiers Against Violence Everywhere, and major churches in Oakland, such as Acts Full Gospel and Allen Temple.  It is one of several efforts now taking place throughout the city to reduce violence using the Boston Cease Fire model.  Several Oakland church groups, coordinating with the national Lifelines movement and local community organizations, are also organizing ‘Night Walks” in areas where gun violence frequently occurs.

Parents and children joined marchers along the route.


The East Oakland peace march  started at Youth Uprising, but most marchers gathered at the Cesar Chavez School at 29th and International and then marched downtown. City Councilwoman Patricia Kernighan, who represents District 2, joined the march.

Along the way, marchers chanted “Get your peace sign on”  and flashed Vs to residents and workers at establishments along the route.  At 24th Ave and International, the chanting changed to “Somebody died here, we need to care,” and the marchers paused at the location.   At a Michelin tire store further along the route, the workers stopped to watch the march and flashed V’s back to the marchers.

More parents joined with school-aged children who carried signs saying  ”Stop the Violence.” Two fathers pushing strollers with infants marched together, acting as a rear guard.

Near the County Courthouse, Rebecca Kaplan, the At-Large City Councilmember, rode her bike up to the march and continued to walk to the half mile to City Hall.

14th Street was blocked off at City Hall, with a stage spanning the street and  community groups manned nearby tables.   There were DJs and church-based musics groups providing entertainment and leading clergy spoke briefly to the energized crowd.

East Oakland marchers went up International Blvd. City Council member Pat Kernigan (l) walked the entire route.

The East Oakland marchers started with about 50 people and picked up more people along the way.  When the march reached the rally at 14th and Broadway, by City Hall, they were joined by about 100 marchers from West Oakland and another 200 participants who came to the rally.  About 400 people attended the rally at its peak.

In the middle of the event, the MC invited up city officials and all candidates for public office. They were asked to support a resolution that called on city officials and the police to support violent crime reduction, Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils, and increased community policing. The resolution also urged the city to boost the number of officers who are Oakland residents, and to hold sensitivity training for all OPD officers.

Mayor Quan told the assembly that she agreed with the resolution and had successfully obtained federal federal funds to train new officers with the first group of 25 graduating and assuming their duties over the next few weeks.

OPD Captain David Downing, who attended in place of the Chief Howard Jordan, expressed enthusiasm for the march and rally and encouraged many more such events. “If we could have a party like this every day, we would be very successful” in reducing violence in Oakland,  Downing said.

Click here to see a slideshow from the Peace March.