The following is a personal perspective from Patrice O’Neill, executive producer of The Working Group.
This week, just outside our office doors, hundreds of young people ran through the streets of downtown Oakland smashing windows and stomping on cars. The so-called “riot” was prompted by the killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African American man who was shot to death by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit system police officer. Several witnesses captured the killing on their cell phone cameras. They show Oscar Grant face down on the ground, surrounded by police officers. Officer Johannes Mehserle appears to pull out his gun and shoot Oscar Grant in the back.
If you were a young African American man, imagine how you would feel if you saw this video or witnessed this killing?
It’s shocking to watch our community go through so much trouble. Like many who’ve had news-grabbing violence committed in their town, I feel like screaming, “This isn’t us!”
None of us were in the office during Wednesday night’s disturbance, but the next day we saw YouTube videos of our streets on fire. Our shop keeper neighbors – struggling to make a living in the recession – were hit hardest. The braid store and the hoagie shop on the corner have their windows boarded up, but they are still open.
I’m angry at the people from San Francisco who sniff in the local gossip column with quips like, “It’s Oakland – and we just don’t go over there.” I bristle when people stereotype our town and at those who worry about their “safety.” But some cold realities are smacking us in the face. Although many of us who live happily and proudly in this most diverse of all American cities, we worry about the recent spate of robberies and restaurant hold ups in our neighborhood shopping districts. But that’s not the big problem here. Everybody in our community needs to feel safe.
Those facing the deepest danger in this town are the young people who were in the streets on Wednesday night. The murder rate for young people in Oakland is staggering. Our kids are killing each other – probably because no one is telling them loudly enough or showing them clearly that they are valuable. Those of us who proudly live in Oakland need to take a hard look at our “community values,” and show our young people what they mean to us.
I don’t think any of us have a road map for change here, but we have learned some things from the Not In Our Town movement that might be useful.
Silence is Acceptance. We can’t stay quiet about a police killing, or more pervasively about the out of control killings of our youth.
In the absence of leadership, ordinary citizens need to take nonviolent action. Maybe our elected officials and other self appointed leaders will do something if the rest of us start getting creative.
Obama can’t fix this, we have to do it. The best ideas emerge from local action. We live in one of the most creative, wealthy, generous, and diverse areas in the world. If we tried, we could be a model for the country.
For those of you facing similar challenges, we would appreciate your advice and your thoughts about our troubles.