Is Oakland Ferguson Waiting to Happen?


Could East Oakland be the site of the “next” Ferguson, MO? This question was on the minds of many East Oaklanders as the tragic events leading to the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a city police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th continued to create heated controversy in that town and across the country. Brown, an 18 year-old African-American youth, was shot six times, according to a coroner’s report, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer who had summoned Brown and a friend with whom we was walking in the middle of the street.
Conflicting reports alternatively blame Brown or the policeman for the confrontation which followed after Officer Wilson directed Brown and his friend to get out of the middle of the street. The confrontation became the context for Brown’s death. In the weeks since Brown’s death, demonstrations both peaceful and hostile have occurred in Ferguson, waxing and waning. The protests have seen heavily armed presence of law enforcement officials of varying stripes, changes in police leadership, insurgent demonstrators who have come to Ferguson to protest, the presence of religious leaders as well as President Obama calling for calm and the arrival of Secretary of Justice Eric Holder in Ferguson.
But the events in Ferguson beg the question: Could such events take place in Oakland? Based on interviews with a number of East Oakland residents, the answer surprisingly is – well, maybe.
Pastor Ben McBride, Director of City Team Ministries,  issued a summons for an evening of “Prayer, Lament and Solidarity with Ferguson” Wednesday evening August 20th at Oakland City Church. More than 150 people responded to his call, including Dr. George Cummings from Imani Community Church, Josh McPaul and Larry Austin, both pastors of Oakland City Church, and Mary Ellen Azada of First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.
According to McBride, the pastors and congregants not only believe a crisis like Ferguson could break out in Oakland, they argue “It has happened and will happen again if we don’t do the hard work necessary to heal racial division and ensure that we eliminate every expression of police brutality particularly in communities of color,” McBride said.

I interviewed several other people as they participated in a weekly food distribution at the Oakland Catholic Worker on International @ 50th Avenues. Bigelow, a native of East Oakland, echoed McBride’s sentiments. “I worry each time I leave my apartment each day to take a walk about what may happen to me,”’ he said. He recalled numerous incidents where he had been harassed and even ticketed by police for simply standing on the street talking to friends. He also cited an unreported incident where two boys were shot on Bancroft and 87th Avenue as examples of how incidents like Ferguson have taken place in East Oakland.

Ken Clemons also responded in the affirmative to this question. He cited “greed, foolishness and anger” as factors which can contribute to a conflagration in Oakland like that which transpired in Ferguson. East Oakland resident Denise Charles concurred. She felt “things are going pretty bad” at the moment.

Others interviewed were more sanguine. Some had been stopped by police but claimed it was for a good reason. Others claimed they had never experienced harassment.

While there appeared to be a general consensus among those interviewed about the real possibility of an occurrence like that in Ferguson breaking out in Oakland, the question of how such an ordeal might be averted proved more complicated.

McBride suggested “more listening campaigns”  between the community, especially communities of color, and the police department. While he felt some progress had been made under the leadership of Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa, he thinks more needs to happen. McBride cited the still young and burgeoning relationship between the African-American churches and police as creating a new narrative within the city as one example. He also recommended that more African-Americans need to be on police forces as well as greater civic engagement by other institutions like the Fire Department in communities of color. Finally, he saw a pressing need for Anglo people of faith and community leaders to offer affirming voices and presence to young African-American men. He particularly cited the need for the Catholic Church and other African-American churches to learn and plan together using worship services as vehicles to “humanize young men”.
Clemons, a Buddhist, saw the need for personal transformation leading to societal transformation as the key. A practitioner of Nammyehodengkyo Buddhism he offered that “…people need to overcome that part of themselves they deny them real happiness”. He offered that growth in wisdom, true happiness and compassion come as a consequence of inner searching.
Rev. Dameta Davis-Howard thinks change might come if efforts are made to model “procedural justice”. She pointed to a model in Chicago which encouraged dialogue, understanding and mutual respect between the police and citizens as offering hope. To achieve this end, she feels police need to be aware of historical and cultural perspectives when working in communities of color. She also said police need to be aware of the assumptions they carry with
them when working in communities of color; this sensitivity might go a long way in dissipating years of accumulated grievances and mistreatment.
Denise Charles seemed to echo the comments made by McBride, Clemons and Davis-Howard. She feels there is a real need for neighborhood meetings to discuss issues and matters of concern.
It’s clear the tragic events in Ferguson have not gone unnoticed by East Oakland residents. What may be learned from Ferguson and how those of us who call East Oakland home can moved forward remains to be seen.



Author Profile

Tom Webb was born and raised in Santa Rosa, CA. Since 1980 I have pursued graduate studies at the University of San Francisco (Theology, 1982), Duquesne University (Formative Spirituality 1994) and Catholic Theological Union (Pastoral Studies 2003). I have spent nearly 20 years living and working in the San Francisco Bay area as a Catholic high school teacher, lay pastoral associate and non-profit administrator. Additionally I have been involved in faith-based justice and peace and reconciliation efforts, including serving on the national council of Pax Christi USA. After spending nearly 13 years outside the Bay Area, I have now returned and serve on the staff of the Oakland Catholic Worker.

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