Long-time Oakland residents on the uptick in violence: ‘We need to face it and figure it out’

<span>Caheri Gutierrez in Oakland in April 2020.</span><span>Photograph: Brandon Tauszik/The Guardian</span>
Caheri Gutierrez in Oakland in April 2020.Photograph: Brandon Tauszik/The Guardian

On the other side of the San Francisco Bay sits Oakland, a city that has been known as many things: a nerve center for civil rights and Black power, one of the murder capitals of the US, a sports and cultural destination, a face of gentrification and a symbol of community-led resilience.

Recently, the city has been in the national spotlight again amid stubbornly high gun violence numbers and recurring reports of robberies and property crimes. Viral videos have shown lines of cars with busted windows and people going into stores and leaving with armfuls of stolen merchandise. Dominating headlines are the ever-increasing numbers of homicides – which, beginning in 2020, have increased to numbers not seen in more than a decade.

Related: ‘The city made a mistake’: why a marquee Oakland violence prevention program broke down

Gun violence in the port city of 440,000 people has ebbed and flowed over the past few decades. Annual homicides reached an all-time high of 175 in 1992. In both 2006 and 2012, more than 125 people were killed. Starting in the late 2000s, the number of homicides dramatically declined, reaching a low of 67 in 2018. Gun violence prevention programs like the community organization Youth Alive! and the Oakland police department’s Operation Ceasefire became national models for how cities can affect gun violence with and without police involvement.

But, along with the rest of the US, Oakland saw homicides, mostly with guns, spike upward during the pandemic. They have yet to come down. Gun violence has remained concentrated in the city’s lower-income Black and Latino neighborhoods. This most recent uptick in violence, combined with more visible crimes in commercial centers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, is leading to heated debates about why crime is happening and who is to blame.

The Guardian spoke with three longtime Oaklanders, all of whom have been directly affected by gun violence and have seen the city through many changes, to understand how they’re navigating the current moment. They say they’re addressing urgent needs in their communities, from housing shortages to trauma recovery, as they’re seeing worrying levels of violence fueled by evolving dynamics in the streets, economic needs and the collapse of social networks following the pandemic. It’s often hard to know who’s behind the most visible and serious violence, they say, which makes it hard to intervene as a community and push lawmakers toward targeted solutions.

“This moment is requiring all of us to work together, put our heads together and figure out the best way to combat this shit. To face it and figure it out,” said Caheri Gutierrez, a longtime community organizer.

The conversations have been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Caheri Gutierrez, 34, native Oaklander, community organizer, gunshot wound survivor

The pandemic definitely took a toll on our communities. The communities that were already marginalized became further marginalized and less resourced. And we’re still trying to recover. So you see all of these areas that are impacted, all of these young people resorting to crime, organized crime and violence just to get ahead, get some money in their pockets, feed their families. It’s all connected.

We’ve been seeing types of violence that we didn’t experience in the early 2000s, when homicides were through the roof. We’ve seen an acute rise in auto theft, vehicle crime, retail crime. Small businesses have been experiencing break-ins.

Having housing, access to food, jobs with livable wages, no more food deserts would bring forth a city that’s in harmony

Caheri Gutierrez

Right now, there’s just so many people who lack basic needs. Having housing, access to food, jobs with livable wages, no more food deserts would bring forth a city that’s in harmony.

I feel a lot of pride and ownership over my city, and how beautiful, vibrant, powerful and historic it is. So when I hear narratives like “everybody has a gun in Oakland”, “this is Gotham City”, “Keith Lee [a popular food internet personality who recently visited the Bay Area] has to leave”, I’m disappointed that those are the narratives that the national media wants to pick up. There are so many other stories of positivity, optimism and hope that really need to be lifted.

Take the neighborhood of Fruitvale, which has a huge [Latino-owned] small-business corridor. In response to the violence and the crime in the city, Fruitvale opened up its own department of violence prevention satellite office. But again, that’s not the headline.

I was raised to be a radical organizer: fuck the police, our community can handle this and we can figure it all out ourselves. And as I have grown more into the field of violence prevention, public safety and community engagement - plus the pandemic, plus our social situation – I understand that the police can’t do it on their own. Our community-based organizations, our aunties and uncles and youth can’t do it on their own. Our local officials definitely cannot do it on their own.

This moment is requiring all of us to work together, put our heads together and figure out the best way to combat this shit. To face it and figure it out.

Joseph Truehill, 39, native Oaklander, violence interrupter and community advocate

I’ve been in Oakland my whole life. I’ve been through every motion: I used to sell drugs and do a lot of bad things. But I’ve never shot a gun at anyone. My oldest brother was murdered in 2002, my younger brother in 2006 and my father was murdered two weeks after his birthday in 2022.

Growing up, even when crime and violence were bad, there were always people in the streets who would say: “Bro, you’re too young to be out here, take your butt to school.”

But these dudes doing the shooting today are different.

Nowadays – and I hate to say this – I feel different about walking outside. I know I can go anywhere I want, but I feel I have to watch my surroundings very closely because some of these youngsters don’t have any value for life or understand what being from Oakland means. They’re shooting blindly into cars, hitting kids and innocent women, robbing elderly people that are walking with babies.

The generation before us thought we were wild, too, because we were nothing like them. But I feel we dropped the ball on this generation. I can’t blame anybody but me, and people who are older than me. Lots of people in my generation are either dead or in jail. So they couldn’t bring that leadership factor to the next generation.

In 2006, we were having turf wars, there were small groups inside of Oakland doing stupid shit, it was an Oakland problem, and we started to fix it as Oakland. Now, we can’t even identify what’s going on because we don’t even know who the shooters are. They could be from [neighboring cities like] Vallejo, or even Sacramento and Las Vegas, but Oakland is getting the black eye.

It starts with the community, with the parents, cousins, brothers and sisters

Joseph Truehill

Every time I pick up my phone or go to Instagram, I see viral videos and comments from people who are just sitting on their couches and don’t know what’s going on on the ground. The question they should be asking is: why are people so comfortable doing that in Oakland? Why isn’t there anything being put in place for this to stop?

I don’t believe we can come with a definite stop to these things, but I think we can start educating each other on what’s possible and what should be happening. It starts with the community, with the parents, cousins, brothers and sisters of these people who are doing this shit. Everybody has a situation in life where they have to make a choice, but if we can put people in the right situations, that positive choice will become easier for them to make.

Lynette Gibson McElhaney, 55, former Oakland city councilmember, lost her son to gun violence in 2019

When I came into office in 2013, one of the things that I looked at was: how do we fundamentally shift how we think about homicide, and how can we cure it from a public health perspective?

I’m not one to use year-over-year homicide numbers politically. It has benefited people to say: “Oh, we are at 80 and not 115.” All of it is poppycock. When you look at our 20-year trends, Oakland’s violence interruption has largely been ineffective. Ceasefire [the police-led violence prevention program] has been ineffective. In the years that we were boasting a decrease in gun violence due to Ceasefire, the state overall saw a drop in gun violence, too, without those additional interventions.

In many ways, we’ve been in a constant state of experimentation instead of triaging and remedying things that are happening now, or looking at how to shift the culture on use of firearms as it relates to human life.

We’ve been in a state of denial. Very few people in our community are addressing the issue that there are broken men with guns perpetrating lots of violence, harming themselves and others.

Younger millennials and gen-Zers are rejecting hierarchy and institution, and that’s true in gang life, too

Lynette Gibson McElhaney

In the 2010s, you would largely see this as group-related violence, as territorial. Right now, it’s random. I think younger millennials and gen-Zers are rejecting hierarchy and institution, and that’s true in gang life, too. OGs don’t have the same level of respect. There are no shot-callers that keep violence organized.

And with more firearms in the hands of people who are independent or individual, violence is more random, petty and unpredictable. We’re getting to the place where there is no social contract.

One of the impacts of Covid was not having police on the streets in east Oakland, which means there’s a significant number of people who do not obey traffic laws. They don’t recognize red lights. They don’t stop at stop signs. They will literally ride a motorcycle on the sidewalk. So babies and elders are dying. And because there’s this lawlessness, the criminal element is emboldened.

It’s true that urban communities like Oakland are both overpoliced and underserved by police. Lots of crime gets perpetrated in these communities that goes without arrest and resolution. It’s a painful dynamic as we seek to navigate what it looks like to live in a just society that is a safe society. It is my daily prayer – without exaggeration – that we are moving towards a more just, inclusive, enlightened society, one that will bring people into accountability so that there can be restoration.

But we cannot speak restorative justice until there is accountability and apology. There’s a man who’s been in jail for five years for my son’s death, and he has yet to be tried for this crime, and we have yet to have any point of reconciliation. The fact that he’s not been brought into accountability is also a disservice of justice for himself, for his family.