One night this fall, in an East Oakland neighborhood near Highland Hospital, friends and neighbors gathered in a white two-story house to eat homemade tacos and watch the Discovery Channel show “Gang Wars: Oakland.”
Their host was Andrew Park, a pastor, basketball coach and organizer of neighborhood events. “I’m not quite sure why we are doing this,” Park said by way of introduction as people settled in around the TV. “One thing I do know is it’s a reflection.”
He picked up the remote and hit play.
“Oakland, California,” intoned the narrator as the images flickered across the screen. “Nearly 10,000 gang members fight for control of these streets. The result: A war zone with a murder every three days.”
The program was the second installment of a two-part documentary that aired in September. The first part had focused on African-American gangs in Oakland; this one explored Latino gangs and their territories by following the Oakland Police Department’s gang unit and the 9400 Boys, a small group in East Oakland. The conclusion of the show was the revelation that one of the 9400 Boys had been murdered; their leader, Javier, made a decision to kill whoever was responsible.
“The cycle of violence continues,” the narrator said. “In Oakland, revenge is a promise all the time.” The credits rolled.
Park turned off the TV and looked up at the 15 guests seated in a cozy circle of chairs and couches: There was the man who lived downstairs, the older woman who moved from Atlanta last year, the baby-faced ex-gang member who grew up in Oakland, and the middle-aged mom who had raised her family here. Earlier, during the introductions, this mom had told the group, “Sometimes I love and hate Oakland at the same time,” and in the silence that came over the room after the TV went off, this contradiction seem to hang in the air.
“As I drive around, I don’t feel the sense that I get from this documentary,” said Damond Moodie, who owns the preschool Park’s daughter attends. “I just feel that it has to be said that Oakland is not the seedy underbelly with 10,000 gang members that they make it out to be.”
“That’s true, but it’s getting worse,” said a young man named Ambrose. “Kids are getting crazier.”
“I think it’s the United States is going though a recession and there’s all kinds of intangibles,” Moodie replied.
Gangs are a complicated reality in Oakland, a city haunted by violence and the negative reputation that comes with it. But this fall, the nationwide broadcast of “Gang Wars: Oakland” added a new layer of complexity to many viewers’ already complicated feelings about what that violence means and how outsiders perceive it.
The shows have prompted discussion on message boards and analysis by Chip Johnson in the Chronicle. There is even an after-school group of East Oakland high school students called the Raza History Through Film Club who watched the programs together and are working on their own student documentary to set the record straight.
Back in Andrew Park’s living room, no one debated the seriousness of gang violence in Oakland, but the tone of the programs—particularly narration that called Oakland a “war zone” and compared the city to Iraq—struck many as sensational. Some felt the program made it look like violence was everywhere and could strike any part of the city at any time. Others questioned the assertion that the city had “10,000 gang members,” a number the Oakland police department estimates at closer to a few thousand. The Discovery Channel has since changed its figures, re-broadcasting the program with an updated number of 2,000.
The small group of people who were interviewed for this article all watched “Gang Wars: Oakland” with the kind of curiosity one would expect them to have about a show that purports to hold up a mirror to their city. But these viewers—all of whom had some personal or professional connection to the show—felt different layers of emotion: disappointment, cynicism, sadness or recognition. If “Gang Wars: Oakland” held up a mirror, then it was a mirror with cracks and missing pieces. But looking in to it, they could still see fragments of their own experiences reflecting back at them.
Three weeks before Andrew Park’s screening, a teacher named Paul Callis watched the first part of “Gang Wars: Oakland” on TV. One of the things he recognized in it was his car. The program showed a drug bust near the high school where Callis teaches, and faculty vehicles became the backdrop for a scene in which the Oakland Police Department’s gang unit arrested a dealer who was trying to swallow the marijuana he was carrying.
This was one of many drug trade scenes in “Gang Wars: Oakland I,” which focuses on African-American gangs. The episode follows a drug dealer and “OG” named Filthy Rich, who is trying to decide whether he will to avenge the murder of his cousin. The show also shadows the gang unit as members search for the killer of Ronnie Grier, a 16-year-old murdered for being friends with a group called The Squad Boys.
The section about Ronnie was especially real for Callis: Ronnie was one of his students. Callis remembered him as a young man who was “savvy and smart and wanted to learn,” but was “dealing with adult things he shouldn’t have had to be dealing with.”
As a special education teacher at Rudsdale Academy, a public continuation high school in East Oakland, Callis has students who are often in and out of class or arrive midway though the semester. This was the way Ronnie joined Callis’ group. The boy was there for just two weeks.
“I really liked him,” said Callis. “I was just starting to make a connection.”
He saw him in class one day, and then the next day Ronnie was gone. His body was found near a freeway onramp.
Grier’s killing was Oakland murder number 112 last year. An analysis of these homicides by Oakland research firm Urban Strategies found that deadly violence was concentrated in City Council districts 3 in West Oakland, and 6 and 7 in East Oakland. More than half the murders occurred in four clusters, one in the West and three in the East of the city.
Nine times out of 10, the victims were men. Close to 80 percent were African-American and fifteen percent were Latino. Two-thirds were under the age of 30.
These crimes are not necessarily gang-related, but they show that some people in Oakland—particularly young African-American men in parts of West and East Oakland—live with a much greater risk of being murdered.
This summer, the Oakland Department of Human Services released the city’s first Gang Prevention Plan. The report noted a link between truancy and violence, concluding that a majority of both suspects and victims in juvenile homicide cases were reported truant by the school district. The report also mentioned another factor: “intergenerational gang involvement,” or the phenomenon of older relatives bringing younger family members into gang life.
So far, in 2009, reports of serious crime in Oakland are down. The Oakland Tribune reported that as of November 11, serious crime had decreased 13 percent compared with the same time last year, and homicides had dropped 17 percent. But Oakland was nonetheless named the third most crime-ridden city in the nation in a highly publicized report by CQ Press that ranks cities using statistics from the previous year.
“It’s a real crazy reality that these teenagers face,” said Callis, who was a first-year teacher at the time of Ronnie Grier’s death. For him, the loss of a student was a new and devastating experience. In the first few days after Ronnie’s body was found, there were grief counselors on hand, and students were very upset. But as time passed, Callis said, he saw the kids gather themselves and continue.
“So many students aren’t involved with gangs but they have to live with the violence,” said Callis. “They lose friends and loved ones and they survive—and they are very resilient.”
Callis thinks it is important to call attention to gangs, which he describes as “young kids with guns making adult decisions, awful decisions, that they shouldn’t have to make and they don’t have the reasoning skills to make.”
But in his mind, “Gang Wars: Oakland I” did not really show the whole picture.
“It’s important to shed light on gang activity,” he said, “but also acknowledge that [Oakland] is a place like anywhere else, where kids are trying to go to school, live lives and succeed.”
Some of the most dramatic moments in “Gang Wars Oakland” revolve around a simple act of show and tell: People reveal their guns for the camera and describe what they do with them. One such scene features an adolescent-looking boy with his shirt pulled over his face brandishing a pistol. The narrator says he is 14 years old.
“Don’t be disrespecting nobody out there on the block,” the boy tells the camera. “I’ll pop your ass if you do that to me.”
As Amy Bhattacharya watched images of young men with guns in the second half of “Gang Wars: Oakland,” the East Oakland middle school teacher texted back and forth with other teachers she knew were also watching. In the messages, they asked each other: “Can you believe they’re showing this? Can you believe what the kids are saying? Can you believe what the kids are doing?”
Bhattacharya was saddened but not shocked to see a former student on screen. It was upsetting for her to know that people watching TV in Oakland and around the country would see him this way. But what was worse, she said, was that this young man might watch the program himself, see his own actions, and feel validated—that he would think that this was the right way to see himself, too.
“Isn’t it dangerous to be on TV saying you’re in a gang?” Bhattacharya wondered. “My main thought the whole time was, ‘why is somebody allowing him to do this?’”
When asked to respond to local reaction to “Gang Wars: Oakland,” the producers—who are part of a New York-based production company called Part2 pictures that has created programs for PBS and National Geographic—said they would need permission from the Discovery Channel. But spokespersons for the channel did not respond to repeated requests for permission to conduct an interview.
Some of the complaints about “Gang Wars: Oakland” are those that often come up regarding reportage or documentary films about controversial topics—that they’re too simplistic, too selective or too sensational.
“If you get a group of individuals in front of a camera and the only way that they can get on TV is if they pull out a gun and say controversial things, they’re going to do it,” said Jeff Thomason, the public information officer for the Oakland Police Department.
Both episodes of “Gang Wars: Oakland” spend a great deal of time on the activities of the OPD gang unit—riding along on patrols, watching the officers planning their investigations, observing training and arrests.
“When the Discovery Channel came to OPD, it was our understanding that it was in our best interest to show what we were doing,” Thomason said. “Looking back on it, if we didn’t participate, it would have been a lot worse.”
Since the program was filmed, the OPD gang unit featured in the program has been “decentralized,” says Thomason—the officers are still doing gang work, but they have been assigned to different units in areas around the city. A total of 14 officers are currently investigating gang activity.
Some who have experience working in the field of documentary television say that in crime stories, there is industry pressure to focus on the most sensational aspects of a story.
“There is a market for fear,” said Gary Mercer, a cameraman who has lived and worked in Oakland for many years. “You fear the other, the gang member.”
Last year, he got a call about a job that the producers described as a real life version of the HBO series “The Wire.”
He ended up working for one day on “Gang Wars: Oakland,” filming the gang unit when they made a break in their case. He spent a day on a stakeout with them, and filmed the arrest of a gang member.
Mercer hasn’t seen the documentary because he didn’t want to watch it.
Another common complaint is not about what made it into the film, but about what got left out.
Danyelle Marshall is the program manager of Project Re-Connect, an organization that works with kids in the juvenile justice system and their families. Her line of work has made her familiar with Oakland gangs.
Marshall said the way that both halves of “Gang Wars: Oakland” portrayed the drug trade and turf battles was “pretty much right on point.”
She met the film crew last year, when they toured Project Re-Connect with the executive director and spent fifteen to thirty minutes filming a parenting group she runs for families of gang-involved youth. The program is funded by Measure Y, a city-wide ballot initiative passed in 2004 that allocates money to neighborhood law enforcement and violence prevention programs.
Marshall didn’t remember what was happening in the group on the day of the filming. But asked what she thought people might take away from watching a session, Marshall said she thought they could learn a lot. “Even though parents are in denial about what their children are doing away from their houses, they really do want safe environments,” she said. “They do want change, they do want to have the healthy relationships.”
One thing that Marshall did remember from the day of the filming was the conversation she had with one of the producers afterwards. “The gentleman was saying, ‘Wow, I’m very impressed, this is very good work you are doing,’” she said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I know. We’ve been doing it for a couple years.’”
The scene did not make it into the final program.
One Measure Y program, the street outreach team, a group that walks the streets at night, was shown in the documentary, but Marshall said she wished more footage of Measure Y programs had made the final cut.
“There was so much other stuff that they could have done that they did not do,” Marshall said. “I only saw parents who lost children being interviewed in the documentary. I didn’t see parents who were trying to change their neighborhood. I didn’t see people who were volunteering to work with young people to get them off the streets.”
Marshall is not alone in her disappointment. Two open letters to Discovery were forwarded to Oakland North. In one of them, a recent college graduate named Shoshone Johnson took issue with an assertion in “Gang Wars: Oakland II,” when the narrator said the city’s “only hope” is the gang unit.
“This image conjures any number of popular action and war movies, from Rambo to Kill Bill, and is very much a part of the American popular imagination,” Johnson wrote. “But, speaking as a person who has seen the intimate relationship between social policies, which destroy communities by starving them of the most basic resources like education, and homicide, I do not appreciate the metaphor of Oakland as an action movie. In order to do justice to Oakland, or any other city whose plight is similar, one would need to show that the people dying are real people, not extras with squibs, and that their families and communities are torn asunder by their premature deaths.”
For Amy Bhattacharya, the middle school teacher who saw her former student on TV, it was disappointing not to see in the program schools or teachers and their work with kids. “I felt like this show, their point was to show gangs in Oakland, so they identified these kids as being gang members,” she said. “Some of the kids are part of gangs, and yes, that is their reality. But that’s a portion of Oakland and a portion of reality.”
For Paul Callis, who has been asked if wears a bullet proof vest to teach in East Oakland, it was disappointing that the show re-enforced negative stereotypes. “Oakland is an culturally rich and beautiful place,” he said, “which is why it is worthwhile to be here.”
For Andrew Park, who hosted the screening at his home, it was unfortunate that the program didn’t show the city he loves. “What happened with ‘Gang Wars: Oakland’ is that Oakland got taken completely out of context, and gangs became front and center,” said Park. “It saddens me and I think it’s irresponsible.”