OP-ED: Ferguson Is a Wake-Up Call for America and Oakland

Photo from News week

Photo from News week

In 2013, police killed 400 people in the United States. Most died with barely a blip on the world’s screen.

Michael Brown’s death was not unique. He was African American, young, male – and unarmed.

Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot him six times in broad daylight – apparently for running away when Officer Wilson tried to arrest him for jay walking.

The rage of a community sick and tired of poverty, unemployment, bad schools, bad housing and hopelessness exploded.

It happens all over. In Oakland, Alameda County sheriffs recently shot, and killed, apparently unarmed 23-year-old African-American Jacorey Calhoun. Calhoun was allegedly a suspect in a crime that had occurred almost a month earlier, but no one is explaining why he was killed.

Deputy Derek Thomas, who killed Mr. Calhoun, has a history of misconduct complaints.

The police play contradictory roles – people want them to safeguard our lives and property. Society employs them for social control.

Oakland’s police are not members of the community. The vast majority do not live in Oakland. And they do not solve the majority of violent crimes that afflict our neighborhoods.

Being a member of the Oakland community would mean a level of mutual accountability between officers and residents – with a zero tolerance for rogue officers who run roughshod over vulnerable community members.

Oakland is infamous for the police violence that led to 541 police abuse lawsuits from Jan. 1, 2000, to Aug. 21, 2012. According to the City Attorney, Oakland paid out $11,466,868 to resolve 20 of these cases.

This does not include the $10.9 million spent to settle the Riders case and millions more spent to monitor and continue to argue about OPD’s compliance with it. Or the $7 million spent to resolve the Occupy Oakland cases.

Oakland’s police, like those in Ferguson, were transformed by the military hardware that began to arrive with the “war on drugs” in 1980 – tanks, helicopters and assault rifles.

Like Ferguson, this equipment is used to suppress protests – as it did against the Oscar Grant movement in 2009-2010 and the Occupy movement in 2011

What about the social contract, the unwritten agreement between individuals and the government under which people accept the government’s authority over aspects of their lives in exchange for the security and other benefits the government is supposed to provide?

When tens of millions of people are excluded from the benefits provided to the privileged and the wealthy – social decay and disorder are inevitable.

In the U.S., the richest one percent control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. In Oakland, the top 20 percent of households receives 49 percent of the total income; the bottom 20 percent receives three percent. Unemployment in Alameda County is 11 percent; for African Americans the number is doubled.

Three-quarters of our Oakland students qualify for free-or-reduced lunches; 42 percent are Hispanic, 29 percent are African American. Only 50 percent of African-American and Latino students graduate from Oakland high schools within four years of starting.

The state average is 80 percent.

This situation is a recipe for disaster. The health of American society will depend upon its ability to close the income and privilege gaps that divide the rich and the poor, particularly people of color clutched in the devastating grip of poverty.

We can make the changes we need. We can re-focus the police department on serving our communities and protecting us from violent crime. We can return the military hardware to the federal government and adopt a zero tolerance policy for police misconduct.

We can improve our schools and insist on the right of every child to learn. We can raise the minimum wage to $15 and create good jobs for working people in our new hotels and restaurants, installing solar power, and providing other 21st Century services.

We can protect tenants’ rights against evictions and build affordable housing for working people with contributions from the developers who want to create high-end housing.

Changing the world is tough. But so are Oaklanders. Together, we can create an Oakland grounded in principles of social and economic justice. And we can start on Nov. 4.

Dan Siegel

Dan Siegel

Dan Siegel is a civil rights attorney in Oakland and a candidate for mayor.

 

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