The Wire, Oakland Edition
by Charles Lemos, Thu Mar 26, 2009 at 05:50:53 PM EDT
The first season of 'The Wire' (2002) concentrated on the often-futile efforts of police to infiltrate a West Baltimore drug ring headed by Avon Barksdale and his lieutenant, Stringer Bell. In Seasons Two and Three, as the Barksdale investigation escalated, new storylines involving pressures on the working class and the city's political leadership were introduced. Season Four focused on the stories of several young boys in the public school system, struggling with problems at home and the lure of the corner - set against the rise of a new drug empire in West Baltimore and a new Mayor in City Hall.
The fifth and final season of 'The Wire' centers on the media's role in addressing - or failing to address - the fundamental political, economic and social realities depicted over the course of the series, while also resolving storylines of the numerous characters woven throughout the narrative arc of the show.
Explains series creator David Simon, "It made sense to finish 'The Wire' with this reflection on the state of the media, as all the other attendant problems of the American city depicted in the previous four seasons will not be solved until the depth and range of those problems is first acknowledged. And that won't happen without an intelligent, aggressive and well-funded press."
This season of 'The Wire' is based in large part on Simon's experiences in 13 years at The Baltimore Sun. Simon decries recent trends in the newspaper industry that have conspired to make high-end journalism vulnerable: out-of-town chain ownership, an economic climate in which the share price of media companies matters more to industry leaders than the product itself, and a newsroom culture in which prizes, personal ambition and the cult of the "impact" story has replaced consistent and detailed coverage of complex issues as the primary goal.
Until last night, I had never seen an episode. The Wire is an award-winning HBO show and it's probably the best show on television that no one has ever heard of though in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun last year, President Obama called it his favorite show. The show is at its core a frank depiction of the crisis all too prevalent in American cities. The brutal news is too many of our cities are failed cities surrounded by unsustainable suburbs. If we are to change America, we must reinvent our cities.
In late December 2008, HBO approached the city of Oakland about shooting a series similar to The Wire entitled Gentlemen of Leisure that would examine the world of prostitution. Mayor Ron Dellums was less than enthused about the project.
Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums says a proposed HBO television series that would examine the world of prostitution in Oakland "goes against our vision of Oakland as the Model City and does a disservice to our residents and visitors alike."
In a statement released by his office, Dellums said, "While I understand that there are certain benefits to having a major film done in our city, I am not willing to support this project at this time."
Dellums said, "The people of Oakland have come too far to have our city's name trampled upon in the name of entertainment. I am willing to further discuss this project with HBO when time permits."
Though that the HBO series might have enhanced the city's empty coffers, Mayor Dellums didn't want the city's name disparaged. It is hard to conceive at this point how a fictional show might top the painful drama that is being played out on a daily basis in a failed city.
In 2008, the streets of Oakland witnessed 124 homicides. That's three fewer than in 2007. But 25 more than just across the Bay in my fair city of San Francisco, a city which is twice as large as Oakland and which saw only 99 homicides (our highest since 1995) in 2008. Moreover it's a stunning 121 more than the city of Alameda, which saw three homicides in 2008 and is only separated from Oakland by a short underground tunnel and three causeways. In terms of the per capita homicide rate (pdf), Oakland ranks sixth in the nation and after adjusted for socio-economic factors it ranks fourth.
Oakland is also in a very dire financial predicament, one that Mayor Dellums predicts will only get worse over the next couple of years. The City's $42 million deficit in 2008 could balloon to $113 million by 2012. The impact on city schools has been devastating. According to Jennifer Grant, a local community activist over the past decade, Oakland public schools "have been using a gradual phase out to close under performing or low population schools, resulting in a negative impact on local communities and students." Charter schools are also undermining the financial stability of the city public schools. Just a week ago, the Oakland school board filed a suit against State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell for raiding the district's accounts and giving $450,000 to charter schools.
It is hard to say what Mayor Dellums vision of Oakland as a model city is but I am sure it doesn't include these three episodes from the city's recent past.
Your Black Muslim Bakery and the Murder of Chauncey Bailey
On August 2, 2007, Chauncey Bailey, editor of the Oakland Post and a former reporter for the Oakland Tribune, was slain by a masked gunman on a downtown Oakland street Thursday, police said. "He was very controversial," said Derrick Nesbitt, who worked with Bailey on a cable access channel called "Soul Beat" from 1997 to 2004. "He was tenacious and would not let people off the hook, whether he was reporting on corruption in city government, the entertainment business or among rappers. He ruffled a lot of feathers because of it."
Here's the latest on the case from the East Bay Express:
Your Black Muslim Bakery CEO Yusuf Bey IV bragged that he was protected from charges in the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey because he had provided girls for sexual favors to Oakland Police Detective Derwin Longmire, the lead investigator in the case. An unnamed informant also told police that Bey IV boasted of ordering the asassination of Bailey because the Oakland Post editor was going to expose the bakery's financial problems.
The allegations of sex for protection from prosecution provide for the first time a real motive for why Longmire screwed up the murder investigation so badly. Previously, both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chauncey Bailey Project reported that likely reason was that Longmire had a long friendship with Bey IV. But that explanation never seemed like it was enough for Longmire to allow Bey IV to get away with murder. But the allegation that Longmire got girls for sex from Bey IV, if true, is a different story. The bakery had a long history of forcing young girls to have sex with older men.
Bey IV is the likely mastermind behind Bailey's killing, but to date, only bakery handyman Devaunghndre Broussard has been charged in the case. Both the Chron and the Chauncey Bailey Project also report today that Bey IV bragged of convincing Broussard to recant his confession. Bey IV allegedly did it to sow seeds of doubt in the case against Broussard. Broussard has previously said that he is innocent but that Bey IV convinced him to confess after Longmire put him and Bey IV in the same room together shortly after they were arrested. Longmire failed to tape that conversation.
Who needs an HBO show on prostitution, when you've got Your Black Muslim Bakery writing a script that surpasses anything Hollywood can dream up.
The unarmed Oscar Grant was killed by a BART policeman in the early morning hours of New Year's Day. He was lying face down and shot in the back. The shooting led to riots, understandably so, on the streets of Oakland and shut down the BART transit system on a several occasions most recently in late February on what would have been Mr. Grant's 23rd birthday.
This past Sunday, I read a very moving and disturbing op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle by Jason Moore, a reporter for Youth Radio, a youth-driven production company based in Oakland. Mr. Moore writes:
But where is the outrage when black men kill black men?
I have had countless conversations with people from Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco in which they were almost bragging about who has the highest murder rate.
In a conversation with friends at the Obama inauguration, my friend from Richmond spoke proudly about how Richmond was the murder capital of America. He said it so many times that one of the Oakland natives with us said, "It's funny how people talk about their cities' murder rates like they just won the Super Bowl or something." His comment was funny, but true. The moment a member of the community is killed by someone other than another member of that community, there seems to be more of a sense of loss.
There were 127 homicides in the city of Oakland last year. Six of those were a result of "officer-involved shootings." It seems clear there are many more homicides committed by nonofficers than by officers.
I ask everyone this: Who was the last black youth who was killed in Oakland before Oscar Grant? If you don't know who the last victim of violence was, I can't blame you, because neither do I.
And where was the outrage when Jason Monroe, my cousin, was shot and killed in Oakland in 2006? If my cousin's death didn't inspire you to call upon change, I can't fault you, because in places like Oakland, killing has become so common that it's no longer an event, it's just another day.
Oscar Grant is a tragedy but Mr. Moore is correct that killing is now so commonplace that it is a non-event unless it is truly horrific. And the truly horrific is our third and most recent episode of The Wire, Oakland Edition.
The Definition of a Monster
This past Saturday, violence in Oakland surpassed historical records. In what began as a routine traffic stop turned into the deadliest police shooting in California history leaving four police officers and the assailant dead. According to the authorities, Lovelle Mixon, 26, used a semiautomatic pistol to shoot and kill Oakland Police Department Officer John Hege, 41, and Sgt. Mark Dunakin, 40, two motorcycle officers who pulled him over during a routine traffic stop. Two hours later, Mixon, who was holed up in his sister's nearby apartment, opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle, killing SWAT team sergeants Ervin Romans, 43, and Daniel Sakai, 35.
"He's not a monster," said his sister, 24-year-old Enjoli Mixon, who said her 4-year-old daughter's bedroom in a small apartment on 74th Avenue was the scene of much of the bloodshed. It was there, police said, where Mixon fired through a closet wall at a team of SWAT officers, who then shot and killed him. "I don't want people to think he's a monster. He's just not. He's just not."
Then we find out that DNA tests confirmed that Lovelle Mixon raped a 12 year old and that he was a suspect in a slaying in Alameda. I'm sure Ms. Mixon was unaware of her brother's nefarious activities, otherwise the definition of a monster would be hard to fathom. Still to some, Lovelle Mixon is seen a hero for "fighting back" against police brutality.
Organized by Oakland's Uhuru Movement For Economic Development, the group of about 40 people marched down MacArthur Boulevard past the two sites where Lovelle Mixon killed four Oakland police officers before police killed him.
"Lovelle is a hero! Lovelle is a hero!" shouted a woman in the rally.
Demonstrators say Mixon was fighting back against what they see as an oppressive police force.
"I don't condone what he did, but karma comes around. What goes around comes around," said a man speaking to the crowd.
There is clearly a problem. There is a crisis in civic culture. There is endemic poverty that fuels alienation that leads to a life of drugs and crime. I can't say that I agree with the Uhuru Movement's take on Lovelle Mixon but it's hard to argue with some of the conclusions of their statement:
The Uhuru Movement has always understood that our friends may disagree with some of our positions--positions which always uphold justice for the African working class community.
We understand and unite with your concerns that the tense situation in Oakland must be resolved.
It is unfortunate that it takes a situation like this to bring Oakland's real problems to the surface.
We have to take the March 21 events in the context of the long history that the Oakland police department has had with the Oakland African working class community.
It was the infamous brutality of the Oakland police that gave rise to the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in the 1960s.
There has been the exposure of the notorious Oakland "Riders," whose brazen violence, harassment, racism and dishonesty are well known.
There have been relentless police murders of African community members young and old, such as Casper Banjo, an elderly African man and well-known, respected artist who was blatantly shot by the police last year.
There are hundreds of African and Mexican working class people who have been murdered by police over the years, real human beings whose names fade from the collective memory so quickly. Many of these victims have been blatantly slandered in the media, doubling the pain of the grieving families.
The recent cold-blooded, point blank BART police murder of young Oscar Grant was only unusual because it was caught from many angles on video.
But it is much more than this. Oakland has a very clear publicly supported policy of police containment, implementing an incessant martial law with ever-present SWAT teams and police helicopters circling over neighborhoods daily.
California's prison population is the fourth largest in the entire world and the OPD does everything possible to feed young African men and women from Oakland into that system for their entire lives.
Discriminatory legislation such as Three Strikes locks up countless African people as young as 14 years old for things that white people get to go to rehab for.
It has long been documented in articles by journalist Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News, for example, that the US government is responsible for imposing the devastating crack cocaine plague in African communities, and it is well known that the police have and continue to facilitate this.
The Uhuru Movement does not support the loss of life of any person. But the loss of life at the hands of the police in the African community of Oakland has been going on for half a century.
The "tensions" in Oakland are caused by the police, not by an impoverished community struggling to survive.
Even the mainstream media sources such as the New York Times and National Public Radio have had to mention in most reports that many in the African community do not support the police's position in this case, and understand that Mixon's actions were the result of years of oppression of a whole community which has come to a boiling point.
Lovelle Mixon's life, like that of thousands of young African men in the impoverished neighborhoods of Oakland, was over long before he was killed by police. He faced a hopeless dead end of joblessness, poverty and criminalization by a society that would rather lock up young African men than make college or jobs available to them.
The police are not social workers; they are a military force with the assignment to carry out a violent containment policy against a whole community. The purpose of the police is to maintain power for the status quo and uphold the relations of poverty and wealth in the city.
If we want to move forward and "build bridges" as a city there is only one road to do so. We have to truly understand the calls of a community under siege and demand an immediate end to this completely failed public policy of police containment, this war without terms waged against the African community of Oakland.
We have to demand a policy of genuine economic development for the African community--development that truly benefits and uplifts the deeply impoverished African working class of this city, and is not just another cover for gentrification and dispersal of the oppressed.
Hopelessness needs to be addressed. Our cities need to be revitalized as engines of a civilizing process. The Wire may be a fictionalized television program but it portrays the drama of life in America's failing cities.