Is Jennifer S. Oakland’s “Trash Detective?” — This is Exactly What Communities of Color Fear.

Follow up to: An Open Letter to Mayor Libby Schaaf and the City of Oakland — “Illegal Dumping” by Shaniece Alexander

May 13, 2018

Oakland went viral on social media this week after a white woman referred to as, “Jennifer S.,” (as recorded in the official police report taken on the day of the incident) stalked, harassed, and wasted a ton of city resources by calling the police on a black family, peacefully barbecuing in a public park. I won’t go into the details but will point you to the video of the incident here for reference. As coincidental as it may be, I must follow up on the May 3, 2018 piece I wrote, An Open Letter to Mayor Libby Schaaf and the City of Oakland where the Mayor alongside Council member Abel Guillen, Chair of Oakland’s Finance Committee, proposed to use $500,000 to hire three “litter enforcement officers” to help track down the individuals and/or companies dumping in Oakland. To be frank, Mayor Schaaf, Jennifer S. represents your “trash detective” and this is exactly what communities of color fear.

Interactions with the police are life or death for people of color. I must illustrate a parallel in circumstance between Trayvon Martin’s murderer George Zimmerman and Oakland’s Jennifer S. Both took it upon themselves to go out of their way to “enforce the law,” or perceived breach of the law. Both repeatedly wasted municipal resources by filing unfounded complaints with the police department and both played victim, enacting fear to criminalize and punish black people who were simply existing. Jennifer’s actions represent an example of how white people use the police as weapons to uphold racism when they feel uncomfortable or inconvenienced as discussed here. In a city where the police department continues to field through multiple scandals of their own and in a social climate where racism is claiming black lives on a daily basis, how is increasing policing in communities of color (where most of Oakland’s dumping occurs) either a fiscally or socially responsible option?

According to a 2017 report published in Forbes on how much money U.S. cities spend on policing, at 41%, Oakland ranked 1st of 10 cities as having the highest percentage of its general fund budget allocated toward policing. The City of Oakland, Fiscal Year 2017–2019 Adopted Policy Budget reports that 43% of Oakland’s general fund budget is allocated for policing in the 2017–2019 fiscal year. Oakland’s budget summary asserts an increase in the number of police officers where, “the trainees will become well trained officers who help build trust and improve relations with communities of color.” While communities of color continue to exclaim that this is just not working! The City continues to allocate the highest percentage out of multiple cities to hire a police force who reside outside of the City, in the predominantly white communities such as Walnut Creek, Danville and the like; a police force that is not invested in communities of color. All the while, property crime and human trafficking remain a chronic issue in Oakland.

We see day to day video footage of police indiscriminately using excessive force on people of color (adults, minors and our elders alike), and that countless unarmed black people are being traumatized and placed in life or death situations. The LA Times reported Stanford (2017) research showing that the Oakland Police Department, “tends to treat black citizens with less respect than white citizens.” Going on to say, “we have found that police officers’ interactions with blacks tend to be more fraught … even when no arrest is made and no use of force occurs,” the study authors concluded. “The racial disparities in officer respect are clear and consistent, yet the causes of these disparities are less clear.” In Oakland, studies continue to prove that black community members are continually being terrorized by police. It is becoming difficult to argue against the notion that there are no insidious underlying motives when the City’s solution to addressing its challenges with trash disposal is to intentionally increase state sanctioned and politically encouraged policing of communities of color.

While the city of Oakland has recently attempted to increase police accountability in response to communities continuing to vocalize the harassment, racial profiling, and trauma connected to policing in general, in 2018, the East Bay Express reported on an additional Stanford study that demonstrates “Oakland police have dramatically reduced the number of stops of black people…” Understanding that no data should be without critical analysis and that statistics can be deceiving, this report goes on to assert that “the new data…doesn’t indicate any change in the disparity in terms of who’s stopped by OPD. Even after the implementation of the new precision-based tactics, black people still account for two-thirds of all police stops even though they only account for one-quarter of the city’s total population.” Simply put, yes there was a decrease in the number of overall police stops and black people were still disproportionately stopped by police. So why is Oakland caught up on using state sanctioned violence (and/or the threat of it) to address what should actually be addressed by resource allocation to service provision and systems change?

Policy Implementation Matters

Policy implementation void of context is dangerous. Oakland’s proposal to address illegal dumping, though on the surface seems like a reasonable response to the outcry of Oakland community members, does nothing more than perpetuate systemic violence against the exact communities that the plan suggests it supports.

When these “litter enforcement officers ”call to report illegal dumping, what happens next? I’m hoping these, as well as other possible outcomes are critically questioned and planned for before Oakland decides to spend half a million dollars on this initiative.

Here are a few clarifying questions for the proposal’s authors:

  1. Is the expectation that the enforcement officers will be able to manage a high stress situation, keeping conflict from escalating?
  2. If conflict does escalate, will the enforcement officers’ next step be to call the Oakland Police Department?
  3. Are there alternatives to this plan that will not increase the daily trauma at the hands of systemic and informal practices policing that people of color experience throughout Oakland?

In the wake of the overtly racist targeting of black people using Oakland’s Lake Merritt for recreation, I’d like to offer four additional community centered alternatives to Council member Guillen and Mayor Schaaf’s proposal to address dumping and efficiently get to the root problem of illegal dumping in the City without perpetuating trauma in our communities.

With the $500,000 planned for allocation, instead of hiring three (3) litter enforcement officers, Oakland can:

  1. Create jobs (see chart list for break down of possible local jobs created).There is great opportunity to create immediate jobs for those with the greatest need by funding new or existing workforce development programming for community members who are unemployed and/or underemployed.

2. Foster community relationship building by investing in your people.

3. Make an immediate impact on cleaning the city.

4. Increase eyes, ears, and feet on the ground to proactively keep Oakland clean, while increasing the probability that illegal dumpers will be identified and/or will have more pressure not to avoid dumping all together.

The impact of effective policy implementation could be life changing for families who may be on the brink of displacement and for the City of Oakland which has struggled to address these challenges for decades. With strategic and ethical planning, Oakland’s leadership can simultaneously avoid increasing harm to communities of color, while addressing multiple social challenges including issues with displacement and disparities in economic viability among communities of color. These alternatives directly reflect the an investment by the City of Oakland to create healthy communities for every Oakland community member to thrive.

About the author

Shaniece Alexander, MSW is an Oakland resident and social justice advocate, committed to centering economic and health equity through systems change.