Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Nearly 10,000 gang members fight for control of these streets. The result: A war zone with a murder every three days

“Oakland, California,” intoned the narrator as the images flickered across the screen. “Nearly 10,000 gang members fight for control of these streets. The result: A war zone with a murder every three days.”The program was the second installment of a two-part documentary that aired in September. The first part had focused on African-American gangs in Oakland; this one explored Latino gangs and their territories by following the Oakland Police Department’s gang unit and the 9400 Boys, a small group in East Oakland. The conclusion of the show was the revelation that one of the 9400 Boys had been murdered; their leader, Javier, made a decision to kill whoever was responsible.“The cycle of violence continues,” the narrator said. “In Oakland, revenge is a promise all the time.” The credits rolled.
Park turned off the TV and looked up at the 15 guests seated in a cozy circle of chairs and couches: There was the man who lived downstairs, the older woman who moved from Atlanta last year, the baby-faced ex-gang member who grew up in Oakland, and the middle-aged mom who had raised her family here. Earlier, during the introductions, this mom had told the group, “Sometimes I love and hate Oakland at the same time,” and in the silence that came over the room after the TV went off, this contradiction seem to hang in the air.“As I drive around, I don’t feel the sense that I get from this documentary,” said Damond Moodie, who owns the preschool Park’s daughter attends. “I just feel that it has to be said that Oakland is not the seedy underbelly with 10,000 gang members that they make it out to be.”
“That’s true, but it’s getting worse,” said a young man named Ambrose. “Kids are getting crazier.”“I think it’s the United States is going though a recession and there’s all kinds of intangibles,” Moodie replied.Gangs are a complicated reality in Oakland, a city haunted by violence and the negative reputation that comes with it. But this fall, the nationwide broadcast of “Gang Wars: Oakland” added a new layer of complexity to many viewers’ already complicated feelings about what that violence means and how outsiders perceive it.The shows have prompted discussion on message boards and analysis by Chip Johnson in the Chronicle. There is even an after-school group of East Oakland high school students called the Raza History Through Film Club who watched the programs together and are working on their own student documentary to set the record straight.Back in Andrew Park’s living room, no one debated the seriousness of gang violence in Oakland, but the tone of the programs—particularly narration that called Oakland a “war zone” and compared the city to Iraq—struck many as sensational. Some felt the program made it look like violence was everywhere and could strike any part of the city at any time. Others questioned the assertion that the city had “10,000 gang members,” a number the Oakland police department estimates at closer to a few thousand. The Discovery Channel has since changed its figures, re-broadcasting the program with an updated number of 2,000.The small group of people who were interviewed for this article all watched “Gang Wars: Oakland” with the kind of curiosity one would expect them to have about a show that purports to hold up a mirror to their city. But these viewers—all of whom had some personal or professional connection to the show—felt different layers of emotion: disappointment, cynicism, sadness or recognition. If “Gang Wars: Oakland” held up a mirror, then it was a mirror with cracks and missing pieces. But looking in to it, they could still see fragments of their own experiences reflecting back at them.


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