Why Would Anyone Cheer OPD Killings?

Oakland cops, citizens have long history of tension

By Jackson West
|  Wednesday, Mar 25, 2009  |  Updated 6:42 AM PDT
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In the wake of the weekend  shooting incident in Oakland, in which four police officers were killed, tough questions are being asked about the relationship between the community and the police department.

The history of antipathy between many Oaklanders and law enforcement authorities is a long one, and currently tensions are once again high.

About 20 bystanders taunted police at the scene of the first shooting that left two motorcycle officers dead Saturday, and Craig's List  had postings asking people to celebrate in the streets if indeed it was announced that the officers had died.

People on cell phones jumped behind a reporter doing  a live report at 5 p.m. Saturday night yelling "F--k the police!"

Then, two women attempted to walk under the police line Saturday night at the hospital where all of the officers were taken and where a large crowd of uniformed police and family had gathered. Their chant?

"This is pay back for [BART shooting victim] Oscar Grant."  Police quickly moved them back.

Now, many across the country are scratching their heads.  But many current and former Oakland residents can understand the sentiment, even if they don't approve.

The Black Panther Party was formed back in 1966 specifically to stem violence against the African-American population by the Oakland Police Department.

Unfortunately, many of the demographic and cultural trends that sparked that movement have persisted.

For instance, none of the four officers shot actually lived in Oakland, with starting pay among the highest in California starting at more than $70,000 a year.

They patrol a wildly diverse city that is also beset by rampant poverty, with nearly 20 percent under the federal poverty line.

It lends the impression to many that their neighborhoods are patrolled by authorities with no investment in the community beyond crime and punishment.

Of the 45 officer-involved shootings from 2004 to 2008, 44 were African-American or Hispanic. However, African-Americans and Hispanics account for only 56 percent of the city's population according to the 2000 census.

More troubling is that in only 60 percent of the police shootings was a weapon found on the suspect.

And in none of those shootings were any officers reprimanded.

That the incident started with a routine traffic stop may point to another trend that fuels resentment.

In an effort to reduce violent crime, the OPD began going after minor traffic infractions in 2003 in the hope of turning up outstanding warrants, drugs, guns or other more serious crimes.

But neighborhood residents saw it as a way to harass and intimidate a largely black and latino community, arresting many for mostly minor offenses and seizing hundreds of automobiles used to get to work and care for families.

It all adds up to the sense that parts of Oakland have become a permanent war zone pitting the cops against the citizens, regardless of the fact that it pits working people against each other in the struggle to make sense out of senseless violence.

Jackson West lived in Oakland for three years, and still loves to visit.

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