The city of Oakland, California has been struggling with a crime problem recently, and some wealthier and gentrifying neighborhoods think they have the solution: private security. They’re bringing in security firms or at least toying with the idea to increase safety and prevent thefts on the street, but is their approach really the right one? Or will it only increase the tensions developing in Oakland, which is very much a city in transition?
Oakland has historically been viewed by many as San Francisco’s poor cousin. The city is located across the Bay, and while it has a highly active port, it doesn’t have the name recognition that San Francisco does, or the distinctive skyline. While Oakland is actually filled with beautiful historic neighborhoods, parks, gardens, arts, culture and lively communities, the common perception of the city is that of a low-income wasteland primarily occupied by people of color and heavily plagued by crime.
When Oakland does hit the news, it’s often because something terrible is happening, as was the case when the city rioted to protest the shooting of Oscar Grant. Oakland’s strong, diverse and colorful communities often don’t occupy much ink in the newspaper, but that’s starting to change as a result of a gentrification movement creeping across the city. As rents in San Francisco and neighboring Berkeley climb, more and more young professionals are turning to Oakland for housing, driving costs up, flipping houses and pushing for change in neighborhoods that have historically been occupied by lower-income, more diverse communities.
As often occurs during gentrification, landscapes are changing rapidly in response to pressures from new residents. They’re demanding different kinds of services and businesses, increasing the cost of living, and forcing shifts in the culture of the communities they move in to. As a stark testimony to the demographic shifts happening in Oakland, the Black population of the city went from 50% to 28% in just a decade.
Locales such as Temescal and Fruitvale are rapidly changing, squeezing out more established businesses and tenants, and it’s creating tension as residents of the city struggle to find safe places to live, work and go to school. Meanwhile, a challenging overall economy has increased desperation for some, and the result has been an explosive uptick in crime in some neighborhoods. One reason may be the proliferation of smartphones, which make easy and appealing targets for thieves, but there’s much more going on than a craving for the latest iPhone.
While the number of officers patrolling in Oakland has declined and some have suggested that this explains the spike in crime, the truth is likely more complex, and it may not be patchable with the use of private security firms. Instead, neighborhoods agitating for private security could be putting themselves on a collision course with tragedy and further community tensions, as the consequences of bringing in an outside private security force may be more far-reaching than residents concerned about their iPads realize.
With police shootings an already documented issue in Oakland, how do neighborhoods plan to deal with the potential for the use of force by private security forces, up to and including drawing weapons? In such cases, the community response wouldn’t just include rage against the police force and administrators, but also the gentrified neighborhoods that had brought private security in to begin with. Private security forces can also be highly intimidating, which while obviously the goal also creates concerns about creating effectively walled neighborhoods within the city of Oakland where discrimination may keep some people from moving freely around the city.
Racial profiling is a significant concern with regular police forces and the issue is even more fraught when it comes to private security. The use of such forces in gentrified neighborhoods could send a strong “whites only” message — despite the fact that people of color are also victims of crimes, and have an interest in keeping their communities safe too.
Moreover, the ability to raise the substantial sums needed to pay private security companies highlights a significant class gap in Oakland that chafes many residents. In wealthy communities, people are pooling funds to contribute to payrolls of $20,000 or more, while in low-income neighborhoods, residents can barely afford resources like community centers, youth outreach programs, libraries and schools.
The solution to the crime problem in Oakland is a complex one that requires engaging with the widening class divides that may be driving crime, as well as examining the roles that racial profiling, gentrification and discrimination may be playing in Oakland’s communities. In cities with high crime rates that have successfully reduced crime, the most effective tool has been community engagement, not heavier policing.
Photo credit: Robert Thivierge.