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Summary Article: Oakland, California from The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America

Founded in 1852 and located in California's East Bay, Oakland is one of several cities incorporated in Alameda County. From the beginning, Oakland has been the dominant city in the area, serving as the county seat since 1873. With a police department established in 1853, crime in early Oakland was not a major issue; though influenced by the leavings of California gold rush lawlessness, Oakland in its formative years was not atypically criminal. Despite a decrease in felony arrests in the latter part of the 19th century, the size of the police force grew. The primary policing concerns during the early decades of Oakland's history were maintaining order and discipline, as evidenced by a majority of arrests for public disturbances such as brawls, drunkenness, and vagrancy. The first drug arrests in Oakland arose in the 1880s with the formation of drugs laws that made the sale or use of opium a misdemeanor. Reflecting the beginnings of a history of racial tensions, many of these arrests targeted Chinese immigrants. The primary mode of punishment for crime in early Oakland was incarceration in county jails or federal prisons, with the majority of petty criminals placed in jails for short sentences. Unlike other emerging cities in California at the time, less emphasis was placed on levying fines as punishment, and incarceration functioned as the main form of punishment.

Oakland in the Twentieth Century

Oakland was designated the terminus station for the transcontinental railroad in 1869, laying the foundation for a transportation hub that would continue to grow into the 20th century. Oakland's economy and population grew rapidly in the first decades of the 20th century. By 1920, the population exceeded 200,000, more than 90 percent of whom were white. Notions of nativism were amplified by the simultaneous growth of this white middle class and the influx of southern European and Irish Catholic immigrants with socialist politics. As a result, racial and ethnic tensions permeated debates over the role of police, Prohibition enforcement, court appointments, and other crime issues. Additionally, Oakland became one of the main centers for African American settlement in California. In conjunction with the rise in nativist politics, Oakland saw the rise of an active and large branch of the Ku Klux Klan with elected members across the city government in the 1920s.

Policing concerns during the Great Depression were impacted by domestic migration and labor unrest. Like many other California cities, Oakland saw increased domestic migration during the Great Depression as white migrant workers were displaced from their farms by droughts and new farming mechanization. As was the case across California, migrants were persecuted by residents who saw them as economic competition and cultural threats. Additionally, labor unrest in the 1930s was a primary concern for police and the courts. This concern was epitomized in May 1934 when local maritime workers went on an 83-day strike at city docks, and Oakland police opened fire on striking union members.

Members of the Black Panther Party marked their 40th anniversary in Oakland, California, in 2006. The organization was founded in Oakland by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in1966, who believed that racism was rampant in the United States. The group sought to empower African Americans, fight police brutality, and organize urban activists.

The ethnic makeup of Oakland shifted significantly during World War II, as migrant workers from across the country traveled to the East Bay to find work in the city's booming defense industry. A significant number of these migrants were African American. During the World War II era, the African American population in Oakland increased more than 150 percent. This arrival of African American citizens transformed the racial makeup of Oakland as African Americans outnumbered Asians as the largest minority group. Housing became scarce and placed heavy strain on Oakland police, who struggled to maintain order and discipline in a city plagued with homeless migrants. Several landlords were prosecuted during the housing crisis for profiteering and health violations.

The arrival of African American migrants in the Bay Area for defense industry employment in the 1940s evolved over the following decades and fed into the Black Power generation. The Black Panthers transformed the city of Oakland, not just in terms of demographics, but in education, labor, politics, and policing and prisons. The Black Panthers’ sudden growth in the 1960s was based on the group's ability to address the concerns of black migrants, with police brutality topping the list. Famed for their armed patrols in which members followed police on patrol to document any violation of rights while openly carrying guns, the Panthers challenged an increasingly discriminatory and violent police force, as well as prosecutorial bias and unjust incarcerations.

Through the end of the 20th century, high homicide rates along with gang violence and activity became and remain a primary concern for law enforcement and the court system. Oakland gangs differ from those in other major California cities because they are less formal and instead function as loose-knit neighborhood associations. Latino and African American gangs have a significant presence, but given the lack of formal structure, many of these affiliations and corresponding crimes are not classified as gang-related under state law. Regardless, the African American neighborhood gang associations in Oakland are highly affiliated with the drug trade and drug violence. The majority of drug trade is neighborhood based and occurs throughout the day in the open air on street corners.

Oakland began operating drug courts in the 1990s in an attempt to reduce the strain placed on the court system by drug-related offenses. Oakland drug courts focus on reviving the generation of people of color who have been disproportionately affected by failed drug policies. During the 1990s, police emphasis included not only the drug trade but also "soft crimes" of public disturbances in order to promote a more positive image of the Oakland community, which was quickly becoming known for its drug crimes and high homicide rates.

Currently, Oakland is rated the fifth most dangerous city in America. From 2000 to 2005, Oakland's total homicides accounted for more than 70 percent of the total homicides in Alameda County. The victims of these homicides were primarily African American or Hispanic minorities between the ages of 18 and 34. Given the informal structure of Oakland gang activity, gang affiliations among victims are difficult to track. Similar statistics exist for those convicted of crimes. Educational outreach programs informing young minorities of the impacts of crime and the drug trade are being implemented across the East Bay in an attempt to mitigate these high rates of crime and victimization.

See Also: Black Panthers; California; Federal Prisons; Ku Klux Klan; Strikes.

Further Readings
  • Friedman, Lawrence M. and Percival, Robert V. The Roots of Justice: Crime and Punishment in Alameda County, California, 1870–1910. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.
  • Murch, Donna Jean. Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  • Rhomberg, Chris. No There There: Race, Class, and Political Community in Oakland. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Amy N. Cole
Washington State University
© 2012 SAGE Publications, Inc

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