Violence in Oakland: ‘We Can Fix This’

A lake with a sign in it that says "don't give up hope."
Photo at Lake Merritt by Debora Gordon.

There is a maxim in journalism, “If it bleeds, it leads,” and there have been seemingly endless stories of violence both far and near. Here in Oakland, there is a seeming daily litany of violence from freeway shootings to random attacks, to squads of people rushing into stores and scooping up armfuls of merchandise; to car break-ins, and catalytic converter thefts. These stories are played out often over days and weeks, such as one oft-repeated video of a man on a bicycle riding into a Walgreen’s store, and in plain sight of others including a security officer, scooping up shelves of merchandise into a plastic bag, and riding off, seemingly unconcerned. 

As I go about the usual course of events in my day, I have incorporated many precautions into my ventures beyond the front door (which is always double-locked).  I carry no money on my daily walk at the lake, though I do have my phone, which I worry may be a target.  On other forays, I carry valuables in a cross-body bag, usually under my sweater.  I used to leave my laptop computer in the car if I was running errands before going to a café to write.  But due to snatch-and-grabs in too many cafes, I only write at home now.  

I often wonder what goes through the minds of those who commit violence.  I wonder what the person who shot into a car on the freeway and killed a two-year old boy a few weeks ago might have thought before, during and especially after.  Was it a moment of rage or what else might motivate someone to engage in such reckless behavior, with such total and absolute disregard for life, for safety, for anyone’s peace of mind?  And I wonder how the shooter feels having murdered a child? 

Teaching for 35 years, I often encountered reckless behavior in students, from screaming profanity to throwing furniture to vandalizing the building and teachers’ cars, to beating up other students.  Too often the “solution” was punishment, suspension most often, which rarely, if ever, caused any change in the student’s heart or soul. More recently, the school district has moved toward Restorative Justice, which is a step in the right direction, in terms of having hope that people can change, given enough support.

In order not to completely succumb to news-induced fear, I remind myself that there are upwards of 7.8 billion people in the world, and the vast majority would do no harm; and a substantial number are the helpers, the lovers, the caring folks who make our lives possible.  

The question of how to prevent crime, from my point of view, is to be sure that every single person on Earth is cared for; has access to a home, to food, to education, to health care, and a chance to pursue their interests and have the opportunity to make a positive contribution, through the teaching, mentoring, love, inspiration and support of those around them.   And, until that happens, we need to offer every assistance to those who do not have these supports; and when they do stumble, there must be consequences, but also teaching.  That, to me, is what is missing far too often.

Less well-distributed stories suggest that there is less violence in the world in general.  While, as a teacher (and student) of history, I know that violence, from genocides to wars to hate crimes has seemingly been with us since the beginning of human existence. The Bible cites the first murder in the second generation of humanity, when Cain killed his own brother.  

Yet, in Oakland, there has been  an escalation in violence in 2021, just looking at our numbers for homicides. We must examine what we, as a society, are doing, that creates the conditions for this violence; look for the causes, and address them. Everyone potentially has something to offer.  

But so many do not see their possibilities. We can fix this. And we will see less violence. 

Author Profile

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.”

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