On Thursday afternoon, the announcement that court hearings regarding the proposed Fruitvale gang injunction would be delayed did not stop approximately 30 demonstrators outside the office of the Alameda County Administrator from demanding an alternative measure to reduce gang violence in their neighborhoods. A hearing at which city lawyers will try to prove the gang ties of those named in the injunction petition was pushed back until mid-December, and the hearing over whether to designate the injunction a “complex case” was postponed until next week.
In October, Oakland’s City Attorney’s Office filed a petition for a gang injunction that, if approved by the court, would cover approximately 400 blocks of the Fruitvale neighborhood. The proposed injunction would be the city’s second. Similar to the North Oakland gang injunction that was approved in June, 2010, the 40 alleged gang members named in the lawsuit would not be allowed to congregate in groups, wear certain colors and would be subject to a curfew within a “safety zone.” In Fruitvale, this zone includes the area between 21st Avenue and High Street. City officials say that restrictions imposed by injunctions make it more difficult for gang members to commit criminal acts, while making it easier for the police to monitor gang activity.
In filing the October petition, City Attorney John Russo identified 40 people who are allegedly members of the Norteno street gang, a group the Oakland Police Department holds responsible for much of the criminal violence in the Fruitvale neighborhood. A judge had initially requested the named individuals to appear in court on December 17, at which point city lawyers will attempt to prove that each individual has a record of criminal behavior in the neighborhood, and has clear, demonstrable ties to the gang.
Because the injunction is a civil complaint rather than a criminal charge, the 40 accused people are not legally entitled to public defenders, and must pay out of pocket if they choose to have a privately-hired attorney counsel them at the hearings. At least fifteen of the individuals named in the Fruitvale injunction have sought pro bono legal representation from the well-known law firm Siegel & Yee. But a letter from the City Attorney’s Office on November 16, to Siegel & Yee cites sections of California code that would make the law firm unable to file a suit against the city because of a conflict of interest: City Council President Jane Brunner is a partner in the firm.
“She has duty to the city as judiciary official and a duty to her law firm as an attorney,” said Alex Katz, communications director for the City Attorney’s Office. “So there’s no question, that she is conflicted and could not bring a lawsuit.” Katz added that there are many firms in Oakland that do pro bono civil rights work that could potentially provide services to those named in the injunction.
The 40 accused people also face approximately $900 in court fees, Katz said, but can apply to the court to have the fees waived.
Gang members named in the injunction petition can also elect to take part in an “opt-out” program based on one used in San Francisco. The program allows gang members to be removed from the injunction if they can prove they have left the gang and are working to better their lives through education, mentorship programs or employment.
On Thursday, the City Attorney’s Office announced the December 17 court date is likely to be postponed until at least January. “We want to have time to serve all of the defendants with the complaint and notice of the hearing so that they have plenty of time to come to the hearing to oppose it if they choose to do so,” said Katz.
On Thursday, the court also postponed a planned hearing on whether to designate the Fruitvale injunction as a “complex case,” a common procedure to avoid placing unnecessary burdens on the court and promote effective decision-making by the court and counsel. Thursday’s canceled hearing meant that the entire court process has been pushed back into the new year, Katz said.
Both the Fruitvale and North Oakland gang injunctions have faced a great deal of opposition from activists in those neighborhoods. Anti-injunction activists argue that gang injunctions use policing as a way to address social problems instead of investing in education, jobs that pay living wages, and affordable housing.
Isaac Ontiveros the Communications Director for Critical Resistance, an organization seeking alternatives to the prison system, demonstrated in front of the courthouse Thursday afternoon. “Russo and OPD are rolling out this injunction without having any semblance of democracy,” he said, “so the idea is that ‘Wait a minute, you didn’t ask the community.’ If elected officials say they’re going to represent these communities, they need to start being accountable.”
Aurora Castellano, a junior at UC Berkeley who was also attending the demonstration, said, “This is really concerning. They could be passing something that is actually legalizing people getting harassed by the police.”
Katz believes that much of the opposition in Oakland is fueled by how injunctions have been enforced in other cities, as well as concerns about racial profiling. “The injunctions that we are doing are completely different from the injunctions that other cities have done,” Katz said. “We want there to be due process for these guys,” Katz said, and to ensure that accused gang members are held accountable for their past convictions, but that community members are not racially profiled.
The City Attorney’s Office agrees with injunction opponents that the measure is not a complete solution for addressing violence in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. But Katz said that injunctions are still useful for reducing violence even though their impact can be difficult to quantify. “Injunctions are supposed to be preventative,” Katz said. “They’re very hard to measure. You never know how many people are not getting shot because an injunction is in place.”
Hearings will resume at the Alameda County Court House next Wednesday, December 7, at which time the civil rights law firm Siegel & Yee plans to ask the judge to both waive the defendants’ filing fees and ask the state to provide attorneys free of charge for some of the people named in the injunction.
The City Council’s Public Safety Committee will also discuss the injunction at a hearing on Tuesday, December 14th at 5:30 PM.