This article is the first in a two-part series. Part two is here.
Willie Jackson Jr. was at home the night in August when a family member called to tell him his father, Willie Sr., had been killed in a terrible accident. The 83-year-old Oakland resident was driving his 1996 Saturn in West Oakland when another driver, a woman who was reportedly speeding at 50 mph above the speed limit, crashed into him. Witnesses said she fled on foot after the crash. A week later, twisted bits of Jackson’s car were still piled by the curb. The police had a few tips but hadn’t arrested anyone.
“I was just lost,” Jackson Jr. told The Oaklandside of the moment he got that call. “My dad worked too hard in this life to go out this way,” Jackson said. “It’s just cold-blooded.”
A few days after the tragedy, Jackson was contacted by a stranger who wanted to talk about his grief. Bryan Culbertson, a 38-year-old Oakland resident and engineer with a quiet but focused demeanor, had helped start a new group in June called the Traffic Violence Rapid Response Team. Culbertson asked if Jackson wanted to help lead a protest demanding safer streets.
Jackson was skeptical at first. Most of the Traffic Violence Rapid Response Team’s members are white, and most don’t live in West Oakland. But help in any form was needed. He said yes.
Within hours, the Rapid Response team put together a flier announcing a protest, posted it on Twitter and Instagram, emailed it to local media, and let the Oakland Department of Transportation staff know it was happening.
Six days later, more than 25 residents from around the city showed up at the appointed time and place. So did Fred Kelley, the new director of Oakland’s Department of Transportation. They stood at the corners of the intersection where the crash happened holding signs that pleaded with drivers to “slow down” and gave interviews with TV news reporters.
George McGee, a friend of Willie Jackson Sr. who has lived in Oakland for 57 years, was in attendance. He told The Oaklandside he blamed his friend’s death on three problems: the other driver’s bad decision-making, poorly designed streets, and little to no enforcement of traffic laws.
“People don’t respect stop signs, and there are officers out here that don’t reflect on what they see. They see [cars speeding] and don’t stop it,” he said. McGee said that maybe shining a light on the issue would make a difference, so he came to the protest.
Later that day, after most people had left the protest, Jackson Jr. was still standing in the middle of the road, holding up a poster asking for justice and grieving for his father in silence as cars zipped by.
Oakland residents have been grieving for loved ones lost to traffic violence for decades— and they’re not alone. Since 1970, California has lost tens of thousands of people in incidents like this one. In 2020, there were 3,847 deaths resulting from traffic collisions across California, including 36 in Oakland, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System and OakDOT. A quarter of the people killed were pedestrians.
Over the last five months in Oakland, a growing protest movement has been trying to change things. The work of the Traffic Violence Rapid Response Team is part of a wider grassroots campaign that seeks to end traffic violence across the country. But doing this work in Oakland, where most collision victims are Black and brown residents, has meant building solidarity across lines of racial and socioeconomic difference. It has also required looking back at prior movements that refused to accept high numbers of road deaths, including the Black Panthers and the disability rights movement.
Will the latest mobilization to save lives on Oakland’s roadways make a difference? It’s too soon to know for sure, but we’re examining the latest iteration of this movement to see what it can learn from past activism and how it’s wielding online and offline platforms to bring more attention to a deadly reality too many Oaklanders have to navigate every single day.
Taking action during the pandemic
Bryan Culbertson moved from San Francisco to Oakland in 2015 to work for a street-mapping company. The son of a Navy pilot, Culbertson grew up all over the country and, as a kid, got in the habit of biking whenever possible. He’s never been seriously hurt by a car but has had plenty of close calls. Getting involved in bike advocacy was never on his mind.
The pandemic changed everything. For weeks in early 2020, cars largely vanished from roads and highways. During the loneliest days of the COVID-19 shutdown, Culbertson rode his bike from Oakland to San Francisco, enjoying streets that had been suddenly closed off to vehicles in and around Golden Gate Park. He rode all the way to Ocean Beach and back again.
San Francisco eventually ended or limited its car-free thoroughfare programs. Drivers reclaimed the streets. Vehicle traffic rebounded to its pre-pandemic levels.
Culbertson and his friends started protesting to keep some San Francisco streets closed to cars to enable safe biking. During one protest, they shamed drivers who were illegally parked in bike lanes by turning the tables. They maneuvered their bikes into the motor vehicle lane and blocked traffic until their fellow cyclists could get around cars that had invaded their slice of the road.
They gained a loyal following but didn’t convince San Francisco to keep all of its Safe Streets in place. Around the same time, Oakland removed its pandemic-era Slow Streets network. A spate of notable and tragic collisions followed. Between January and May 2022, 20 people were killed in traffic collisions, according to OakDOT, more than were killed during the same five-month periods of the previous 10 years.
Deaths resulting from car crashes have been an issue in Oakland for decades. But the jarring rise in collision deaths that followed a “golden era” of tranquil streets in the early pandemic, combined with the end of the Slow Streets programs, got a critical mass of residents feeling that change was not only desperately needed, but possible.
Culbertson thought he could apply the valuable protest tactics he and others had employed in San Francisco to Oakland, though he needed to find more activists. That wasn’t a problem, it turned out. Lots of his friends and neighbors in the East Bay told him they felt unsafe walking, biking, and even driving around Oakland.
“The dangers of navigating around the city cut across [spaces],” Culbertson said. “Everyone has their own ideas about how things could be made better, but the safety problem was something on everyone’s mind.”
Then, this spring, the death of a beloved member of the East Bay food and wine scene felt like a clarion call to action.
On May 27, Jonathan Waters, 60, a former wine director at Chez Panisse who was working at Oakland’s Snail Bar as a consultant, left the Shattuck Avenue eatery in the evening. As he rode his bike toward his Berkeley home, he crossed the 55th Street intersection near the I-980 freeway overpass and tried to make a left turn. According to the Oakland Police Department, Waters was hit by a car and killed almost instantly. The police would later identify the driver as an 18-year-old, but no charges were filed.
The death was a shock but not a surprise for residents of the Longfellow, Telegraph, and North Oakland neighborhoods who walk and bike the intersection where he was killed.
Kuan Butts, a software engineer who lives nearby with his wife, said the fatal crash made him imagine what his own family would do if he were killed in a similar scenario.
“It is an outrage to have this happen,” he told The Oaklandside at the time.
The intersection was on Culbertson’s radar before the crash. He had originally wanted to get in touch with the city about technical problems at the intersection, including the absence of a left-turn waiting area for bikers and faded paint that made the bike lanes hard to see. But the tragedy was too much. He and others, including Butts, who Culbertson used to work with, decided to organize.
“If it’s just the five of us sitting on the corner raising awareness, one on each corner with signs and handing out flyers, that’s fine,” said Culbertson. “That could [start] something.” To his surprise, more than 40 people showed up to the group’s first meeting, including District 1 City Councilmember Dan Kalb. Nearly everyone had a story of being nearly hit by a car somewhere in Oakland.
One person who showed up was George Spies. A marketing expert and former documentarian, Spies moved to Oakland with his family in the late-2000s, not long after braving his first taste of navigating San Francisco’s tight streets while pushing his daughter in her stroller.
“I swear to god when my daughter was born, it felt like the cars were going faster. Something about being a parent completely rewrites your perception of safety,” he said.
Spies lived briefly in the Netherlands, where he didn’t need a car. He saw how that country, one of the most bike-friendly in the world, thrives without roads dominated by automobiles. During the first couple of years of the pandemic, he gave up his car. After signing up for newsletters from local bike advocacy organizations, like Bike East Bay, and buying a large electric cargo bike, he wanted to help make Oakland’s streets safer.
At the Waters protest, he connected with Culbertson, Butts, and others he’d been talking to on Twitter, including Kevin Dalley, a 63-year-old Oakland resident and retired software engineer, Natalie Mall, a civil engineer, and Rahul Gupta, a financial services technologist.
“We were meeting each other on the street corner for the first time in real life. We were all saying we’re gonna show up at the next one,” Spies said.
The group started an online campaign to bring more attention to the issue. But as more pedestrians and bicyclists were hit and killed, the group increasingly found itself taking direct action.
How the Rapid Response team organizes
After a collision, members of Rapid Response go to the location, usually on a bike, to look for what they see as flaws in street design and report back to the group. All of the members are well-versed in infrastructure lingo and have done extensive research about what makes roads dangerous. They also talk to people who live or work nearby to find witnesses and better understand the street’s history of collisions. They look for neighborhood leaders who can help them bring attention to the tragedy and introduce themselves.
“Bryan has a little bit of a gift of talking to people, so he’ll go out and hang around,” Spies said about Culbertson.
The most useful intel tends to come from business owners, homeowners, daily pedestrians, and bike commuters.
Crucially, team members also reach out to the families of people killed on the streets. Some are eager to participate, while others prefer privacy. But organizers said the family members they talk with usually welcome the message that someone cares and that fellow community members want to prevent another tragedy.
The team then creates a poster and shares it on social media, detailing collision specifics, the victim’s name, and any obvious road design flaws. Culbertson and company write a press release that includes information from authorities, including the police. Then they create protest signs referring to the collision and imploring neighbors to help them slow cars down. Those who want to make their own signs bring along markers and poster boards to the rallies.
After a rally, they leave behind a reminder of what occurred at the location in the form of big white cardboard signs tied to posts at the four corners of the intersection, with white and red lettering starkly describing the senselessness of the crime and the date it occurred: “A Driver Killed Our Neighbor Here.”
“It’s very easy for traffic violence deaths to just get erased,” Culbertson said.
Recently, the team has started printing dozens of flyers to be stuffed into homeowners’ mailboxes ahead of the protest, to drum up more participants.
Prior to each rally, the group reaches out to other community organizations likely to support the cause: other groups calling for more traffic law enforcement, senior and disability groups, racial equity groups, and so on. According to Oakland data, Black and brown people are disproportionately affected by traffic violence. Black residents die in traffic accidents at three times the rate of others in the city.
At each vigil, the group meets more eyewitnesses to the original crash.
The largest rally occurred this past summer, an emotionally-wrenching vigil for Lolo Soakai, a 28-year-old airline worker, in which the grieving family participated. Soakai was hit and killed on June 26 by Arnold Linaldi, a teenager who lost control of his car during an allegedly illegal police chase.
The collision happened on International Boulevard and 55th Avenue, the former being one of Oakland’s busiest and most dangerous streets. Some believe that recent design changes on International have made it even less safe. The Bus Rapid Transit line, with its dedicated bus lane and passenger-boarding island, presents a hazard for pedestrians looking to cross between the sidewalk and the boarding area, as cars routinely speed through the dedicated bus lane.
While the collision that claimed Soakai’s life happened on the sidewalk and for different reasons, Rapid Response members say the street desperately needs car-slowing design changes, such as crosswalk lights and raised intersections.
The team joined up with Soakai’s family and quickly organized an action. Held only a few days after the collision, more than 100 people showed up to honor Soakai’s life and call on the city to address the street’s flaws and investigate the police officers who gave chase. Pacific Islander community members, some coming from as far away as Fairfield, showed up to support Soakai’s family.
Culbertson and the Rapid Response team were there, passing out fliers and waving signs. Mostly, they stepped aside to let the grieving Soakai family lead. Samoan church songs and calls to serve “Justice for Lolo” rang in the air. After the protest, Rapid Response members taped durable signs onto light poles and metal fences to remind people that a life was lost to traffic violence there.
Henry Soakai, the brother of Lolo, said the rally and vigil gave his family a space to grieve and connect with each other. “[The [protest organizers] did it the right way,” he said.
The focus shifts to pedestrians
Over the summer, the Rapid Response group’s goals shifted from advocating for better bicycling infrastructure to prioritizing pedestrian safety. For a group whose leaders came together initially around a shared desire to promote safer biking, it was a big change, but one rooted in research.
According to UC Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System, pedestrians are injured and killed more often than bicyclists. In Oakland, 2,807 pedestrians were struck by cars between 2011 and 2021. And that number only includes reported injuries. In many parts of East and West Oakland, people do not report collisions due to fear of the police and other authorities.
There is little to no car-slowing infrastructure in many parts of the city, and much of what is there is old and ineffective. Oakland’s former transportation director Ryan Russo told The Oaklandside the city has too many old signal lights placed at the corner of intersections, which are harder for drivers to see. This causes more red-light running compared to modern intersection signals, which are easier to see because they are hung over the center of an intersection.
Modernizing signals and making other design changes would encourage safer driving, said Spies. And most of the changes could benefit cyclists as well as pedestrians.
“If we get the city to put in bulb-outs, better sidewalk lighting, and speed bumps to protect pedestrians, cyclists will also be protected,” Spies said. “People in mobility devices or wheelchairs will also be protected, and [even drivers] will be safer.”
Bigger design changes could also significantly reduce traffic fatalities.
All over the city, cars run red lights, speed through stop signs, and don’t pay attention to pedestrians or bicyclists, and this occurs most often on streets with two or more lanes, reflecting long-held research findings that drivers go faster on wider and straighter streets. On International Boulevard, for example, drivers often double and triple the posted limit of 30 mph.
“It’s just jaw-dropping,” Spies said. “If it’s three lanes in each direction, it could be two lanes in each direction. And if it’s two lanes in each direction, there could probably be one,” he said.
On some parts of Bancroft Avenue, crosswalks are up to half a mile apart, forcing pedestrians to walk long stretches or risk crossing in a much more dangerous area.
Indeed, there have been several deadly collisions on Bancroft near 62nd Avenue. On July 17, an elderly man trying to cross was struck and killed. When Rapid Response members showed up to a vigil and protest there a week later, locals told them two other neighbors were hit and killed on the same stretch of road only months earlier, something The Oaklandside was unable to confirm.
When the Rapid Response team members see a road fixed, they said it gives them hope that their protests can show the way to even bigger systems change. Oakland residents, they believe, can be part of a growing cultural reset that moves people away from the incorrect view that collisions are entirely the fault of individuals making bad choices to one where we all better understand the role that government decisions can play in making our roads safer or more dangerous.
“Putting the onus for saving people’s lives on every driver is a recipe for disaster,” said Spies. “The injury and death rates are going up. We need to re-engineer streets so that inattentive, angry, or thoughtless criminal persons simply can’t drive the way they’re driving.”