The annual violence in Oakland has been cited as the fifth worst in the United States. Whenever I’m traveling and people ask me where I’m from and I say, “Oakland, CA” they do a double-take, like “let me wring out my ears, I swear, I thought you said Oakland.” “Ahh, yeah, I did.” Then there’s a short embarrassing moment of silence and that perplexed look like, “You poor thing; I’m so sorry.”
So it was a wonder that the New York Times, in their Travel section, put an enticing look to Oakland’s image in an article entitled, “36 Hours In Oakland, CA” on May 3, 2009 (yes, I thought I’d put the year in just so you knew I was talking about the present day.) http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/travel/03hours.html
There truly is at least two Oaklands. One is the vibrant multi-cultural, multi-racial city featured in The New York Times of beautiful homes, diverse neighborhoods, breathtaking natural sceneries, and year-round activities enhanced by some of the best weather in the world. The other Oakland is the one that gets all the other coverage; the one that everyone in the country fears. It would be great if the first Oakland was so generous that it could eliminate the second one through its goodness to be inclusive. “He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.” But they’re like opposite poles; never talking until something bad happens. Then the first brother either hides or demands protection. The second brother feels left out, hurt and powerless. He cries out, screams for attention to resolve the impasse but no one listens. It’s as if the Berlin Wall had been erected across the center of the city. In fact, there was so much animosity back in the early 1990s that some residents of the Oakland Hills were calling for secession and renaming their community, “Tuscany.”
The Aftermath of the Killings
I began this blog about the death of four Oakland police officers on March 21 of this year and the clear dividing line between those who idolized the alleged killer and those who were shocked by this idolization. It made me think that unless we change the way we treat each other, the fundamental course – no matter what new social program we put up – will change nothing to improve our ability to live as one harmonious community.
The aftermath of the killings brought thousands of strangers together in mourning. We watched the news, we talked for hours, we were angered, we were saddened and found comfort in our friends and family. As I was driving down Highway 80, I witnessed a long, united procession of police vehicles from neighboring cities heading into Oakland for the funeral. We paid respect to the fallen officers and on a higher level, we as a society marked this tragedy as an horrific episode for humanity. The next day, we went back to business as usual.
We understand that this sort of violence must stop but we’re so caught up in our own struggles of daily living and our own routines that thinking about how we resolve the problem is too taxing and eventually, we take the easier route, expect our public officials to take care of it and then forget - until the next tragedy occurs. Then we go through the same cycle of mourning, the same contemplation and then back to our routines.
Befriending Your Enemies
Will we ever come to the point of having a true solution? Conventional wisdom would say “impossible” but I would contend that answer is based on the mire we’ve confined ourselves in. It’s been like this for so long, we’re in a hypnotic state. Could we, though, work towards a solution that proceeds like a ladder, reaching its ultimate goal one step at a time? There are solutions across the country and across the globe where the stem of violence has been cut at its base. My friend, Paul Lamb, sent me this quote from one of the great peacemakers the world has known, Mahatma Gandhi:
“It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.”
We need a strategy based on Gandhi’s words. First of all, one of the major divides in our communities is economic. You already know that the poor are losing their survival options in these economic times. We know that unemployment is highest in the inner cities. Public services have been cut drastically. We know that common businesses such as financial institutions, retail stores and professional services do not reside in low income neighborhoods - making it even harder on those who live there.
For generations, those who lived in the poor parts of town have been crying out for equal opportunities, and when their voices weren’t being heard, they shouted in anger and sometimes, those shouts were the sounds of gunshots. The mainstream couldn’t understand and instead of looking at the root causes, we saw only the anger, the violence and the threat of escalation into the affluent neighborhoods. We gave money to social services to make the problem go away but the problem was beyond their capacity. We hired more cops, built more prisons and did everything to protect the mainstream. In the meantime, the poor still had no money, no education, no health care and no one listening. They were despised and the mainstream looked upon the poor as a group that needed to be controlled and confined.
The Inclusive Three Step
Sometimes, the best solutions have nothing to do with money. It starts with open communications without tradition. It starts as a three-step process: 1. Giving voice to the voiceless, 2. Listening and understanding, and 3.Working on an inclusive solution. It’s a dialogue that runs two ways. It is not a top down approach born from some ideology of Robert’s Rules of Order. It is giving true equality to each of our citizens with respect for their contributions to the dialogue.
Too often the mainstream has dictated how the discussion will take place. Their conventional wisdom states there is a protocol and a specific manner in which the dialogue must take place. If the discussion alters itself from the accepted form, we stop listening. It is time we accepted that no matter how many hours we spent in learning to conduct ourselves in this “accepted” form of dialogue, the people we need to include in the talks do not necessarily subscribe to the methods we’re accustomed to. What we all need to do is accept the fact that other ways of communication exist and that they are as legitimate as ours.
What’s the solution? Let me propose two at the risk of sounding like a naïve dreamer. How about an annual conference on racism and civil rights in Oakland? Yeah, I know, no one wants a conference on that anymore – too negative, irrelevant, too old school. Maybe we should call it the “Open Dialogue” or the “Conventional Defiance” Conference. It should be a venue where the voiceless and the powerless are given an opportunity to speak whether in calm or anger, whether in an “acceptable” communication style or otherwise. We pride ourselves on being such a richly diverse city, yet few of us actually mix together on a regular and personal basis. If you’re white, you stick with whites, if you’re black, ditto, Asian, same thing. If you’ve got money, you stick with the money crowd. If you’re poor, you hang with the poor. We just aren’t comfortable outside of our circle whether class-based, culturally-based, racially-based or age-based.
Building the Groundswell for Real Solutions
In the beginning, only the voiceless and progressive people will attend our conference. There would have to be dedicated advocates, some strong in organizing skills, others in technology skills and some who just plain see the need for change. They would have to create a groundswell from the bottom up to force the issue; to make the conference an annual city event when all the parties will finally show up and become a voice for the solution rather than avoiding the discomforts of confrontation. This has to be a conference where real action takes places; where communities can look forward to real results coming out of the conference; where they can say, “We’re going to have a little farm on Elm St. and we’re going to learn how to grow our own vegetables for ourselves, and it’s going to be our new business.”
A friend of mine reminded me with that in the corporate world, much of the management decision-making is filled with posturing, ego-boosting and usually takes too damn long. In fact, many solutions are created when two workers most qualified to resolve the issue, meet in the hallway for five minutes and solve the problem. That’s what this conference needs to emulate; a venue without the politicians or the bureaucrats to goo-up the process.
Unless we truly start talking with each other, especially those of us who disagree; allow for the anger to come out; allow for our fears to reveal themselves; allow for us to cry in our sadness and confess to our failures, we can’t have an honest dialogue or a true solution. Slowly, more and more will come out of their comfort zones and participate because the groundswell will progress to where the annual conference will become the norm.
Using the Silent Treatment
For my second solution, let me put a twist to this discussion with a small step that may seem out of whack to some of you. It is based on the concepts in “Sitting In the Fire,” Urban ROOTS and if you’ve had a chance to check out the “Dhamma Brothers” video documentary, you know that effective communication and social resolve doesn’t always require words:
What if a group of people volunteered to create a micro farm in a low-income Oakland neighborhood using the EarthBox self-watering containers for the intent described in Part Three? What if these people were volunteers who didn’t know each other and to promote teamwork, everyone dressed the same. We would train them to work together on creating a micro-farm with EarthBoxes but told them they couldn’t speak to each other. Everything would have to be communicated through physical action. What if at the start of each day, we would begin with a one-hour silent group meditation asking everyone to clear their minds so that they could leave the outside world behind and focus on their own inner thoughts. We would then partner the volunteers into three-person teams which would be responsible for taking care of a set of EarthBoxes. At the end of the day, we would again reserve one hour to mediate as a group. What if we did this for two straight weeks – 14 straight days for 10 hours per day?
What if one group was a dozen concerned cops and the other group was a dozen ex-cons just out of prison? What if another group was a dozen successful business people and the other was unemployed poor residents? Would they all reach levels of cooperation as they worked together as teams? Would they learn to work together without the strains of status and rank? Could they use their meditation time to reflect upon each day’s journey and feel the brotherhood and sisterhood of having worked in unison towards a common goal? Would they go away from this experience with greater compassion when they all reveal their true identities on the final day? Would there be a willingness to continue the dialogue in the future using a neutral setting and dressing the same? Could fundamental change happen?
In my head, these are legitimate solutions for social change because they are truly inclusive. And an inclusive society means people don’t feel left out, don’t feel ignored and feel they have a voice. It means that over time, we equalize our educational system so that what we provide in the Oakland Hills is no different from what’s offered in the flatlands. It means that our economic conditions improve because more skilled people work in a growing number of new companies enjoying a well educated workforce. It means entrepreneurs feel confident in calling Oakland their home. It means we learn to talk with each other and work on resolutions from the bottom up. It means the shouting lessens because people are being heard. We begin to feel like a real diverse community respectful of our different styles and cherishing what each of us brings. The New York Times does another story about Oakland without starting off with "Despite Oakland's reputation as a crime capital ...."