During a tense meeting near Oakland’s downtown last week, residents of the 23rd Street and Telegraph area voiced their concerns over recent violence at the nearby Para Diso Lounge. On the community meeting agenda was a shooting on Saturday, August 27, which left neighbors shaken and two cars riddled with bullets. But previous incidents related to the club added to residents’ concerns over the Para Diso’s place in their neighborhood.
This shooting was the third report of violence in the immediate surroundings of the two-year-old Para Diso, which has been temporarily closed since August 27. According to Mesfin Semere, an Eritrean immigrant who is one of the club’s co-owners, a shot was fired in the 23rd Street parking lot behind the club shortly after the Para Diso opened in December 2009. No injuries were reported in that incident.
More recently, on August 11, 2011, a popular local musician, Justin “Brontez” Purnell, and his bandmate Adel Castellon were assaulted, leaving Castellon’s face broken in five places, as they tried to get on their bikes outside the club. That case is still under investigation by Oakland police.
Then the August 27 shooting followed a fight outside the club, involving dozens of people, and leaving area residents concerned about the Para Diso itself. “It’s not unusual for the area,” Billy Agan, a neighborhood resident who saw the August 27 shooting, said shortly after that incident, referring to violent disturbances and crime. “But it is unusual for one place to be the center of it.”
Oakland Police spokeswoman Sergeant Holly Joshi told Oakland North reporters that even before the shooting, police had received repeated complaints about the club, which Semere has voluntarily kept closed since the shooting incident.
“Every Friday night it’s pandemonium,” said one resident at Thursday’s meeting. “I’m up until two AM. It’s crazy out there.”
Exactly what happened on the morning of August 27 continues to be disputed by neighborhood residents.
According to Joshi’s information about the still-unreleased police report, at around 1:30 AM, while trying to disperse a crowd of departing club-goers, security guards contracted by the Para Diso heard shots from the 23rd Street private parking lot directly behind the building, which is often used by the club’s patrons. The guards rushed to the lot, the police report indicated, but the shooter raised his gun, and he and the guards exchanged fire. Shortly afterward, according to the report, the gunman, described as a black man in his 20s, fled the scene in a dark Chrysler.
The origins of the incident are still a matter of confusion among residents. Despite rumors to the contrary, Vince Mackey, the head of VMA Security, the club’s hired security company, said he did not believe the shooters were connected to anything that occurred that night inside the Para Diso.
“There was not a fight inside the club,” Mackey said. “We have no proof these people came from the Para Diso.” Mackey noted that violent crime is common in the area.
Sergeant Jennifer Sena, a police investigator for West Oakland, said OPD will not release the report to the public until the investigation closes.
However, John Mervin, who owns an apartment building on 23rd and Telegraph, argued that police had not made enough effort to contact witnesses. “I really don’t see why they didn’t make more of an effort to talk to more witnesses,” he said.
Seven people who witnessed the incident from different apartments on both 23rd Street and Telegraph offered their accounts to Oakland North separately. All seven said that a brawl took place in front of the Para Diso, beginning 15-20 minutes before the shooting, but none had a clear view of the gunman himself.
Bill Reed, who saw the incident from his home office on Telegraph, said the brawl began on the sidewalk as patrons left the club en masse, and that it appeared to involve dozens of people.
“One minute, the street was calm with the normal sounds of traffic, and then an explosion of screaming,” Reed wrote in an email. He said he heard the first gunshot a few minutes later.
Reed’s view did not extend to the parking lot behind the Para Diso, but two witnesses who declined to be named in this story told Oakland North that they saw the incident from a third floor apartment on 23rd Street. Both said they could see a number of people loitering in the parking lot before the Telegraph brawl. Some were yelling at each other, “though not very angrily,” according to one, in a manner typical of “any weekend night.” As the brawl on Telegraph began, they said, they saw numerous club-goers walking from the fight towards the lot along 23rd Street. Minutes later, they saw the flash of the first gunshot of the night in the parking lot.
At Thursday’s meeting, Mackey said it was wrong to blame the recent spate of violence on the Para Diso itself. “There is a feeling of apathy and anger among young people,” he said. “It has nothing to do with a nightclub. It has to do with economics, opportunity and education.”
Both the Para Diso and his company provide jobs in Oakland, Mackey said. And just a week before the incident, he said, he helped police with the apprehension of a group of armed robbers in the area. “This idea that crooks, gun-carriers, the evildoers are coming to Para Diso and 23rd and Telegraph as a destination to commit crime, to disturb people, in my opinion, is not rational,” he said. “I am telling you, I am doing everything in my power to make sure Mesfin’s club is right.”
At the meeting, several residents suggested that the club’s liquor license be revoked, or that it be closed permanently. “I really don’t see how, given what’s happened, the place can re-open,” said Jonathan Mindes, a neighborhood resident.
Casey Tinloy, an investigator with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, would not comment on the status of ABC’s investigation into the Para Diso, but outlined the protocol for liquor license revocation. If any club is determined to be a public nuisance, Tinloy said, its license may be suspended or, in a severe case, revoked entirely.
Sena and Mackey said other safety measures should be considered, such as adding more security, installing more lighting in the parking lot where the shooting took place, or asking the owner of the lot to fence it off entirely.
The parking lot used by club patrons is owned by Douglas Parking, which was not represented at the meeting. In the past, and in violation of the Para Diso’s cabaret license, patrons used the back door of the Para Diso to pass between the club and the lot. At the meeting, Semere said the door has been sealed since the shooting and will not be used by patrons again.
At the meeting Semere himself said that he was willing to consider closing permanently, “if that’s what the community wants.” Mervin suggested that the club’s owners should consider closing.
“If I may, John,” retorted Mackey, “I came to this meeting willing to take ten steps toward you to get this right. Everything I’m hearing from you says you have your mind made up. You want the place to close.”
Semere said if and when he re-opened, he would do so without club promoters or a live DJ– features that he said attracted a crowd more prone to fighting.
Repeating her call for increased lighting and other measures to prevent future incidents, Sena said Para Diso security could not be held responsible for controlling people outside the club, but that residents could call the OPD non-emergency line, 510-777-3333, if they saw any sort of disturbance.
But not everyone left the meeting satisfied that the police and security guards were taking the residents’ complaints seriously enough.
“I don’t want to rest until we’ve got this under control,” said Mervin. Speaking of the club owners, he said, “I want to pressure these people into doing their jobs.”
Amina Waheed contributed reporting to this story. Special thanks to Richmond Confidential reporter Wendi Jonassen for her tip.