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City officials and public weigh in on proposed gang injunction

on February 23, 2011

On Tuesday night, Oakland City Council’s public safety committee heard a report from the City Attorney’s Office about the effectiveness and cost of gang injunctions, but despite nearly three hours of heated public commentary, the committee decided not to take actions regarding the report on the proposed Fruitvale gang injunction.

Patricia Kernighan, chair of the pubic safety committee, began the meeting with a request for decorum from the hundreds of citizens who filled the chambers to capacity, holding signs, dangling banners and wearing badges. A ten-foot banner displayed from the balcony read, “Oakland teachers say no police violence,” and audience held sheets of standard sized white paper toward the council proclaiming, “Russo doesn’t speak for me,” and “Stop the injunction.”  Supporters of the injunctions held neon pink sheets of paper with the word “Yes!” in large letters.

“Everybody is aware the subject of gang injunctions evokes very strong feelings, both for and against,” Kernighan said. “In this meeting we are going to have a calm and reasoned discussion. The reason we scheduled this item is to have an examination of the issues and facts, and hear from both sides on how people feel about it.”

Staff from the City Attorney’s Office presented their report first, which sought to clarify certain aspects of the injunction and debunk what they called “common myths or misunderstandings.”  The report asserted that gang injunctions are not intended to be a vehicle for racial profiling, that the city does not receive federal money for them, and that the Oakland Police Department cannot arbitrarily include anyone in the injunction, but must go through the courts in order to do so.

According to the report from City Attorney’s Office, the Oakland Police Department has spent roughly $133,089 and $73,184 on enforcement and investigation for the North Oakland and Fruitvale injunctions, respectively.  The City Attorney’s office has spent $290,747 and $253,320 on legal fees and employee hours for the North Oakland and Fruitvale injunctions, respectively, according to the report.

The report was largely informational, explaining the history of gang injunctions in Oakland and clarifying points such as who can be included in the injunction and for what reasons, but the staff member who presented the report conveyed the City Attorney’s support for the proposed Fruitvale injunction, and presented information showing that her office believes the existing North Oakland injunction is successful.

“There is no constitutional right for gang members to gather together and commit crimes.I think it’s important for all of us—those that are for and those that are against—to be truthful about what these injunctions are and what they are not,” she said.

While presenting a separate report from the Oakland Police Department, which also expressed support for the injunctions, OPD Assistant Chief Howard Jordan listed several of the department’s community outreach programs currently aimed at deterring youth involvement in gangs.  He said that while opponents of the injunctions have pointed to better education and after-school programs as more diplomatic ways of dealing with Oakland’s gang problem, the OPD already has several effective programs in place, including G.R.E.A.T. (Gang Resistance, Education and Training) which reaches out to middle and elementary school children.  These programs are not enough to combat increasing criminal activity in Oakland, said Jordan—murders are up by 129 percent, attempted murder by 500 percent and shootings by 46 percent compared to this time last year.

“It is our responsibility to provide solutions,” Jordan said. “We need to send the message to these guys that we are watching, we know who you are and what you have done. We are here to provide support and to hold you accountable.”

The OPD report also included a history of the North Side Oakland and Norteno gangs, photographs of gang-related graffiti and a list of crimes allegedly committed by the forty people named in the Fruitvale injunction over the last ten years.

Following the reports Kernighan opened the floor for public commentary, beginning with a string of five speakers from the Stop the Injunction Coalition.  Each spoke for five minutes—three and a half minutes longer than what is typically allotted to public comments—because other citizens opted to cede them their time.

Among the speakers was Michael Siegel, one of the attorneys representing those named in the Fruitvale injunction, who pointed out that the police only need to satisfy two of nine possible criteria as established by the courts in order to classify someone as gang-affiliated, thereby making them eligible for the injunction.

“At this point we have Oakland police experts saying that even a speck of red clothing, and walking down Fruitvale Avenue means you can be classified as a gang member,” Siegel said.  He continued by saying that he has walked down Fruitvale Avenue a number of times wearing red but that the police would never serve him with an injunction because he is white and wears suits.

Oakland City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, who lives in Fruitvale and is not part of the public safety committee, addressed the committee as a private citizen and spoke passionately in favor of the injunction.  “We have gone deep into our pockets to invest in youth programs, prevention and education. We spend million of dollars every year on after school programs. What we are doing here tonight is recognizing that we are committed to prevention and education programs but that we need to use other tools to prevent young people from dying,” De La Fuente said.

The public comment period was often heated, as people spoke passionately at the microphone or shouted comments from the audience, and many of the comments were racially charged. Those speaking against the injunction were largely young and members of ethnic minorities, while pro-injunction speakers were mainly older Caucasians, although there were exceptions on both sides.  One African-American man approached the microphone to begin his comment with a Caucasian lady at his side. “I just wanted to point out to the council that I brought me a white person,” he said, followed by laughter from the audience.

Kernighan had to remind the audience several times during the three hours that, while applause was acceptable, booing, hissing or jeers of any kind were inappropriate.  That did not prevent several shouts from the crowd during the pro-injunction speeches and a few sarcastic chuckles when speakers suggested that the injunctions were not racially motivated.  At least a dozen anti-injunction speakers pointed out that only “black and brown” people were named in the injunctions and most of them expressed a general distrust of the Oakland Police Department.

When one speaker in favor of the injunction, a British expatriate now living in Fruitvale, said that if Oakland wanted more companies to move in and create more jobs, the city would have to present a better image to the world than the one it is currently projecting, another audience member shouted, “If you don’t like it here, then leave!”

Caesar Cruz, an Oakland resident and youth worker who spoke against the injunction, was close to shouting into the microphone during his commentary.  “How come my students can get cocaine and guns on the streets of Oakland, but can’t find a Chicano Studies textbook to save their lives?” he said.

A recurring theme in the comments by those speaking against the injunction was the reference to the Oakland Police Department as “the largest gang in this city.”  One Fruitvale resident who expressed concerns about safety issues in the city said she would “not support the OPD doing anything until they clean up their own act.”

Sagnitcthe Salazar of Youth Together and the Xicana Moratorium Coalition said, “We need to invest in education that empowers.  OPD is implementing things that are progressive and helpful, but every time you implement something like gang injunctions you are continuing to foster distrust in our community.”

Supporters of the injunction told stories of having been robbed and beaten at gunpoint, and or of children killed by gang violence in their neighborhood. “We say, enough! Stop the killing. Our children are dying,” said one speaker, who supported the injunction in memory of Ricardo Herdez, Jr., a 14-year-old boy mistakenly killed during a drive-by shooting.

Others offered testimony about the effectiveness of the North Oakland injunction, which went into effect last year. “The North Side Oakland injunction has worked,” John Lang, chair of the Shattuck Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council. “Crime is down dramatically.  It disrupted gang business as usual, and has thrown them off guard. The difference on the streets has been unmistakable.”

When the last of the audience members had spoken, and many of the hands holding up signs and banners had long since fallen back into their respective laps, the council had a short discussion about the concerns raised.

Council member Rebecca Kaplan expressed her concern that since the injunctions are against specific individuals with specific criminal histories, perhaps it should be called something other than a “gang injunction.”

“I think after tonight we are left with a fair number of questions, and we won’t be able to answer all of them tonight,” she said.

A motion was put forth to vote on whether the committee would support the injunction but did not pass. The meeting adjourned with no actions taken by the committee.

A continuation of last week’s hearing regarding the proposed Fruitvale gang injunction will resume today at 2 pm at the Alameda County Superior Courthouse in Oakland.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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