When he was 78 years old, Don Link’s father, Richard, crashed the homebuilt plane he was flying over Hollister, California. The aircraft was demolished in the accident, and Richard walked away with a black eye and a few bruises. With tears in his eyes, Link’s father later told him that the plane had destroyed itself to save his life. “He was one of those people who, if you told him something couldn’t be done, he was more determined to do it,” Link recalls. “I suppose he instilled some of that in me.”
Dressed in a navy blue blazer adorned with a silver oak tree pin, Link emerges from an empty wooden house in the Bushrod neighborhood of Oakland. A box of leaflets that read “Elect Don Link District 1 City Council” sit on a fold-out desk inside the house- a small rental property that Link owns- that doubles as his campaign headquarters. The leaflets are emblazoned with the campaign slogan: Progress, Trust, Community.
Link, who works as an energy efficiency contractor, describes himself as a “busybody who’s been sticking his nose into community issues for 22 years.” He currently serves on three separate local councils; The North Oakland Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, the Oakland Community Development Board, and Area 1 Leadership Council. Floyd Huen, Oakland mayor Jean Quan’s husband, describes him as the “father of community policing in Oakland.”
Mention this to Link, and he smiles and look down, as the leaves from the locust trees he planted two decades years ago fall to the sidewalk. At 67, Link is a composed, slender, and silver-haired man. Neighbors, bustling about their daily activities, wave to him as they walk past the empty house. A crimson bougainvillea flutters in the breeze behind him, and Link sits on a bench in the front yard, taking in the tranquil scene before him.
“It didn’t always used to be this way,” he says.
When Link was living in the Temescal area in the early nineties, the neighborhood was suffering economically. Crime was rampant, due in part to the national crack- cocaine epidemic. Link remembers walking down the sidewalk and seeing little piles of twinkling glass everywhere. Muggings were common. So were shootings. In 1991, a stray bullet whizzed passed Link at 66th and Shattuck, several blocks from his home. “We had ten to twelve car burglaries a night,” he says. “It wasn’t uncommon to go sleep every night to gunfire.”
For a number of decades, law enforcement agencies have gown increasingly aware that such neglect and decay, particularly in urban areas, is an attraction for crime simply for what it represents: deterioration and disorder which can escalate into something societally more harmful. The idea influenced many law enforcement agencies to focus their attention on minor crimes, such as vandalism and drugs, in an effort to stave off larger, more violent crime. It also promoted the idea of using citizens to deter crime.
Leading by example, Link and his neighbors formed a neighborhood watch, in response to the violence in Temescal, and encouraged people to keep their porch lights on. It was a small gesture, but it paid off. Two car thieves were apprehended and slowly the burglaries began to wane. But, he recalls, crime was still rampant in the surrounding areas of South Berkeley.
Across Shattuck Avenue, other neighborhood groups had formed—two or three streets working together to curb local crime. Link made some inquiries and started to amalgamate the groups. In 1993, he and a few neighbors created the Shattuck Neighborhood Action Coalition, an organization focused not only on crime, but also community improvement, traffic measures, and neighborhood beautification. Neighbors broke up the sidewalk concrete for new trees to be planted along the roadside, and the little piles of glass were swept away.
The concept of community policing is that law enforcement depends, partly, on citizens getting together to create neighborhood crime prevention councils, or NCPCs. Oakland adopted this idea with the Community Policing Task Force in the early nineties. Link was appointed to Task Force 2, which in 1994, help established the first NCPC in Oakland. The group met with OPD “problem solving officers,” as certain specially designated beat police are called, and both the police department and the councils identified issues that need attention in local neighborhoods.
“Our neighborhood council was deliberately set up to mimic the United States government, in that we don’t just have one council,” Link says. “The council is divided into seven areas- about ten blocks each – and representatives are elected each year. It works very well.”
“We always had to go hat in hand to get the city council to agree on certain issues,” Link said one afternoon last week, as he climbed into his pickup truck and headed out to canvass the neighborhood. He mentioned street trees, liquor variances, potholes, speed bumps. “The times I’ve suggested changes, I’ve found it’s really at the whim on the council to grant what I’ve asked for,” he said.
Two “Don Link for City Council” pins affixed to the dashboard jiggled as the truck made a turn on Telegraph Avenue, his sinewy arms grasping the steering wheel. He was meeting a local friend, Marianne Smith, to introduce himself to her neighbors. “I want to be on City Council to continue the work I’ve been doing for twenty years,” he said.
Link parked and pulled a dozen lime green lawn signs from the back of his truck. Smith stepped outside to join him, and the two of them marched from house to house, ringing doorbells and placing leaflets in doorframes. It was 5pm, not quite home-from-work time, and although a few people opened their doors for short conversation, many of the knocks and doorbell rings went unanswered.
From her porch, a woman was watching the sun set over 62nd street as Link crossed the street to introduce himself. As he handed her a flyer, the woman told Link that she’d been a resident in Bushrod for sixteen years, and that he was the first candidate to ever stop by. “As long as I’ve lived here, crime has been a problem,” she said. “Just the other day, someone slashed six tires on the block.”
This is the kind of conversation Link warms to at once. He stepped back on the porch to meet the woman at eye level, and told her about the Shattuck NCPC and the neighborhood beautification projects he’s worked on. The woman nodded silently, pausing, as she looked down at the flyer Link had handed her.
Earlier in the walk, Link had abruptly stopped at an abandoned house mid-block, examining its deteriorating wooden siding, and scribbling notes on his clipboard. He kneeled down and peered into its dark interior, looking for squatters. Smith had pointed at the sunburned lawn and said, “The neighbors cut the grass to try and beautify the house, but after a while they begin to wonder, ‘Does it make any difference?’” Link slowly stood up. “It does,” he said. “It matters to them.”
The two moved on to the next house on the block. “City work and community work-it’s the same thing,” he said to Smith, tucking a leaflet in another doorframe. He smiled and clasped his hands together as he walked down the steps. Then he repeated a line that has become a staple of his campaign “You need to go in with the attitude that you’re going to work until you can find a way to the solution. I’ll walk hand in hand with Adolf Hitler and Jesus, as long as we accomplish the goals we set out to do.”
When he first came to graduate school from San Jose, studying American intellectual history at UC Berkeley in the mid-1960s, Link was living in Temescal, trying to survive. Then he ran out of money. By chance, he received a call from a friend who needed part-time help at his restaurant, Narsai. That friend was Narsai David, who became a well-known Bay Area radio voice and food personality, and eventually Link was made general manager of the restaurant. “It taught me business,” Link says. “I would sign 100 checks a week, minimum, so cost controls were very important.”
When Narsai closed in 1985, Link went to work for a vendor who had helped him with energy efficiency measures in the restaurant. Eventually he opened his own business as an energy efficiency contractor, identifying cost-effective energy solutions for public and private businesses around the Bay Area.
Jules Langer, a neighbor and Link supporter, says Link has been essential in solving a lot of neighborhood problems. “He’s always taken a lot of initiative,” Langer says. “His work with the North Oakland/South Berkeley neighborhood association has helped reduce crime and neighborhood issues that arise from potholes, to litter, to graffiti.”
Floyd Huen describes Link as ultimate grassroots candidate. “Of all the candidates running in District 1, Don walks the walk,” Huen said over a phone interview. “He is a man of action and moreover, a man of compassion.”
Huen cited a specific moment, when, just before the police cleared Frank Ogawa Plaza during the Occupy encampment last fall, Link personally drove homeless people staying there to shelters around the city. “This act particularly impressed me and speaks to his character,” Huen said. “There are no frills, no rhetoric.”
Link remains a proponent of extending Measure Y, Oakland’s $19 million-a-year violence prevention program. He sees it as vital to the NCPCs around Oakland. “Without it, we wouldn’t be able to have community policing officers work with the neighborhood councils,” Link says. “When we threw up posters or passed out flyers after a crime, we saw a change in the frequency of shootings. I know that citizen activism works.”
This strong belief in a close relationship between law enforcement and local NCPCs has led Link to back the city’s newly restarted Operation Ceasefire program, which targets high profile violent offenders and offers them the option of either jobs and education, or harsh law enforcement measures including longer jail sentences. Reducing violent crime is one of the keys to rejuvenating the city, Link says; like most of his fellow candidates, he describes this as one of the major challenges Oakland faces in this next election.
After reading David Kennedy’s book “Don’t Shoot,” about the Ceasefire Initiative first piloted in Boston, Link was so moved (he says he “saw Oakland in the description of nearly every city profiled”) that he personally bought and handed out the book to OPD’s top brass, including police chief Howard Jordan. Kennedy’s emphasis—on focusing law enforcement on few individuals perpetrating crime while offering others around them a way out—reflects Link’s belief in a humane approach to cleaning up crime in Oakland. “We have just one message,” he says. “Stop the shooting.”
He cites the death of 23-month old Hiram Lawrence Jr., who was shot in his father’s arms in late 2011. “The tipping point came when we had small children being shot,” Link says. “Operation Ceasefire doesn’t aim to solve the underlying issue of people choosing a criminal way of life, but it addresses the issue of people pulling out guns to settle things.”
Link has also been a strong advocate of the controversial North Oakland and Fruitvale gang injunctions, which he argues, form a starting point for reducing the murder rate in Oakland. Presently, the injunction allows police to arrest any individuals indentified as affiliating with gang activity. In a 2011 Oakland Tribune Op-Ed article, former city attorney John Russo described the injunctions as “narrowly tailored restraining orders against specific adults.” Link agrees with this assessment. “It lists a limited number of offenses specifically proscribed by the injunction,” he says. “Enjoined individuals are still free to live their law-abiding lives inside the injunction zone.”
Critics argue that gang injunctions and youth curfews promote racial profiling and push gang- related activities to outlying neighborhoods. Over a phone interview, Pamela Drake, an Oakland activist and member of Oakland’s first community policing task force, characterizes gang injunctions as “harassment tools” that were never narrowly defined. “A high percentage of OPD officers don’t live in Oakland and aren’t invested in the community,” she says. “Putting money and energy into the assumption that someone’s going to commit another crime before they do it,” she argued, “layers more work on officers focused on simply arresting people.”
Drake does laud Link’s push for a civilian police commission, which would provide civilian oversight and transparency to the OPD. “Don is someone I support, because he’s flexible and open to change,” she says. “I just think people pigeonhole him on the issue of public safety, and don’t see him as having a broad platform.”
Link remembers the four years he spent tutoring a young foster child at Malcom X Elementary, and the profound affect it had on him. “The child introduced himself by saying, ‘My name is Julian, and I have a puny brain’,” Link recalls, watching a woman pass by holding the hands to two children. “ I told him, ‘You have the same brain that I do. A brain is a muscle and if you don’t exercise it, it won’t grow.’”
One of the tenets of Link’s campaign is the prevention of crime by deterring absenteeism and truancy. He envisions citywide tutoring and mentoring programs based on both volunteer participation and incentives for private companies to allow their employees to tutor in local schools. Link sees this as directly connected to Operation Ceasefire, which is intended in part to interrupt the pattern of young people choosing crime instead of staying in school. “Kids drop out of school when they’re no longer performing,” he says. “Someone reading at a third-grade level who has to read in front of a seventh grade class is not likely to stay.”
Link gets up and begins to prepare the empty house for a campaign move-in party the next day. He pulls out a toolbox and begins to fix a door that’s fallen off its hinges in the back room. He looks up and says,” My father had a phrase, ‘from the present forward’”. He felt that it was the job of the present generation to provide for the next.” He stands and looks out at the neighborhood he’s tried so hard over the years to improve. “I figure either way, I’ll win in this election,” he says with a confident smile. “I’ll still be working with the community leaving things better than I found them.”