Posted Jul 31 2007
I stumbled across this book in an old bin and to my surprise it was
about my current hometown of Oakland, CA. While enlightening, it's ultimately a depressing tale. The author investigates a drive-by shooting in Oakland, getting into the lives of both the victims and perpetrators, tracing their histories back to their grandparents. To a degree, it's another sad tale from the 'hood, yet Rivlin offers many
historical references to contextualize the forces that leads to the shooting. By the time it actually happens, it's almost a forgone conclusion. But this less about any specific incident, but rather the tale of ordinary people trying to overcome hardships as their city falls apart around them.
Rivlin begins his tale with the great migration of African Americans
to West Oakland during World War II as the defense industry had a
seemingly unquenchable need for workers. However, soon enough these plants closed down and poverty soon follows, including the scourge of crack cocaine. As Rivlin details, a key reason the drugs were able to take such a strong hold in the community was due to the lack of employment opportunities. For a number of reasons including safety and more affordable housing, many fled to East Oakland as racial and economic segregation kept most African Americans out of Oakland's more ritzy hills. Unfortunately, many of the problems of West Oakland soon followed to East Oakland. Furthermore, White flight led to continued feelings of isolation. As an example, Rivlin cites a statistic about the Elmhurst neighborhood that was 80% White in 1960, 33% White in 1970, and 10% White by 1980. Interestingly enough, in 2007, many predominately Black neighborhoods in Oakland have changed drastically due to a large influx of Whites and Latino immigrants. Throughout the book, Rivlin paints a grim picture, describing the operations of the notorious heroine dealer Felix Mitchell, who sounds like the inspiration for New Jack City's Nino Brown, and describing East Fourteenth Street, one of Oakland's most important streets as "a river of addicts, prostitutes, and down-and-outers drifting by the good people of the community who called the area home."*
Of course, he also tells the personal stories of people trying to navigate themselves through this environment including women who
struggle to escape abusive relationships, with their only options for
affordable housing being violence-filled drug havens that law enforcement can't, or won't, control. Regarding the teenagers involved with the shooting itself, Rivlin seeks to understand how seemingly good kids found themselves on the wrong path, gradually turning into low-level, yet smug, drug peddlers, then reverting back to scared kids facing murder charges. Even the victim's mother acknowledges that she partly understands the teen's choices, considering their environment. The boys bounce around schools, constantly find themselves fighting for their own protection or the protection of friends, and stealing or hustling as not to put a burden on their cash-strapped families. Police harassment is a constant issue, even for teens who are doing nothing wrong, which leads one parent to say that it makes sense why some police get shot. Residents are treated as if they're all criminals.
In his effort to understand, Rivlin interviews as many parties involved as possible, including the shooter himself and the victim's family. He tries to not pass judgment as he finds himself developing ties with various interviewees, and allows them to speak for themselves. Annette, the mother of the victim, seeks understanding of what happened, yet understandably is angry, wondering why the parents of her son's killers, nor the guilty teens themselves have expressed their condolences. Still, she acknowledges their pain as well, highlighting a key point of this book, that people are hurting. Whether they address this pain through alcohol, drugs, violence, or
other self-destructive behaviors, ultimately the root is the same.
For those from Oakland, there are local references ranging from Castlemont High School to Frick Middle School to neighborhoods such as the Nineties. It's a good, quick read to see how things have changed over the years while others have stayed the same. I do have to say that as tough as Oakland can be at times, my perspective as someone who knows several teens in East Oakland is a bit more optimistic than the experiences touted here.
Check out the author's site