Wednesday, September 5, 2007


I read Steve Gilliard's "I'm a fighting liberal" and wept.

Gilly so nailed the heart of what I wished I could have said. My daughters ask me now why I am who I am, as do my friends.

Oakland. I am who I am because of Oakland.

East, Central and South Oakland are death zones. The 8th most deadly city in the US, 557 killings in five years, 148 last year alone. Nothing has changed since I worked there in the late 1980s as a paramedic.

People still shoot each other on the freeways. Literally just driving through town you can be killed. They shoot each other in West Oakland (the poorest section) over crack and hookers. You can still buy a blow job for twenty bucks, same as you could 20 years ago. That's an increased value for you Johns wanting to drive down to West Oakland. And the truly funny part is, there's always some fool who will.

Central Oakland has... You know, I still haven't figured out why the hell people kill each other in Central. They did and they still do. East Oakland is gang country. Bangers take automatic weapons and shoot each other if you look sideways at them. Or security guards in apartment buildings. Three dead at a time, blood so deep it slabs over. And flies. Flies everywhere.

What can be done? Nothing, doncha know. Surely you know nothing can be done.

The killing is all in one area. 880 to the west, Highway 13 to the east, Oakland city limits south and Berkeley to the north. One of my best friends lived in Oakland for years, up in the hills, safe as can be. Never went down in the dangerous part. The homes in the hills sell in the millions. Great schools and terrific food. Drop down three miles and get your head blown off.

Too many people in too small an area, no education, no teachers, no health care, no expectations, no societal contract, no one outside Oakland actually gives a damn. Just a bunch of welfare savages killing each other and what can you expect?

Except that isn't it you see. Well you don't; that's the problem.

We used to park our paramedic rig under the underpass on New Year's eve just before midnight to make sure the bullets raining down from the celebratory gunfire didn't hit us. Sometimes our jumpsuits were so blood-soaked we'd switch to scrubs at Highland which is a problem when you're out on the freeway sliding through broken glass upside down to get to a child trapped in a car seat. Scrubs are thin. They look good on television but they don't work well in the street.

"If it bleeds it leads." Why? Blood and drama sells newspapers, gets people to tune in their television, witness the SF Chronicle's series on how Oakland is screwed up because they've got so many homicides. It's great, wonderful, well written and amazing. They've got their facts right. You should read it and let yourself be moved. Really you should.

It's a big fat lie.

The Oakland I know is wonderful, filled with beautiful people trying to live their lives with joy and happiness. They're not dopers or hookers, criminals or gang bangers. Their homes are clean, their bills are paid. They have jobs, go to church, and make damn sure they know where their children are. So why the bad rap?

Because it's easier to write people off with dramatic newspaper stories and bloody television pictures than do the work necessary to find out what's wrong and fix it.

What does Oakland need?

Oakland needs what every big city inner city needs. Good schools. Money to pay great teachers to educate their students. Health care including preventative care, sex education, birth control and abortion. Child care for free or at reduced rates. Care for the elderly and infirm. Care for the mentally ill and disabled. Training for those out of high school including how to enter the work-force and the skills they will need. Jobs.

Oakland is in the middle of a high-tech corridor. Alameda and Berkeley bump it and Silicon Valley is just across the Bay as is San Francisco. Much of the high-end film, video, graphics and music work for the whole Bay Area already happens in Oakland. There is serious work there for talented people. What's missing is a system to train the people coming up so the good jobs go to people already in Oakland.

The problem is, it's Oakland. Have you ever spent time with these people? Probably not. Folks from Oakland are as smart and talented as anyone in other cities and towns. But living in Oakland people assume they're borderline homicidal lunatics (with concealed guns.) I'm not kidding. Mention Oakland in conversation and watch people draw back ever so slightly and check you for weapons. If you're in the Bay Area it's often not "slightly."

The people who live in Oakland need a University level education, the same opportunities you and I have. By virtue of a lousy school system and frequently being poor, they don't get it. If they manage to break out, tough -- being from Oakland or out and out prejudice against people of color screws them over anyway.

I fought to keep these people alive. Their blood has soaked through my skin.

All the stories about death and destruction there? Yeah... True. But it's surface stuff. Go hang out downtown. Grab some lunch. Take a walk by the lake. Get to know the people. Oakland is a fine place with people like anywhere else, maybe even a touch nicer. Some cities would just get pissed the world thinks they're crazy dangerous. Not Oakland. The people there like others and are genuinely happy to chat with someone interested in them.

What Oakland needs -- what all our inner cities need -- is a genuine commitment to taking care of people. Which people? The people who live there, the people who work there, who visit and who come in contact. All the people. Fixing surface symptoms is the simple political answer for the party of simple answers, and it simply doesn't work. It funnels money to the criminal justice system repeating the cycle of lack of education, alienation, desperation, and jail.

It is time to go deep, to take care of people.

I'm a liberal to make sure people are taken care of.

Because of Oakland.