This article is the second in a two-part series. Part one is here.
In 1967, one of the first actions organized by the Black Panther Party involved guarding Black children as they walked across the intersection of Market and 55th streets in North Oakland. Several children had been hurt by speeding drivers, and the Panthers had had enough. Panther founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton captured press attention by calling for crossing lights to help kids get to and from school.
Arguably the most impactful Panther volunteer working on traffic safety was Brad Lomax, a Philadelphia native who moved to Oakland in 1973.
Lomax, who lived with multiple sclerosis, used a wheelchair to get around but could not easily get around Oakland because the sidewalks had no curb ramps at the time. He worked with disability rights advocates to pressure the city to make it more livable for people like him. At one point, according to local lore, friends of Lomax broke sidewalk corners with sledgehammers to create makeshift ramps.
Ted Jackson, director at the Center for Independent Living, believes the Panthers made an even bigger impact when they got involved in a sit-in supporting 504. Named after Section 504 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 504 activists sought to force the federal government to stop discriminating against people with disabilities by requiring that federally funded infrastructure projects be built in a way that allowed everyone equal access.
By 1977 the regulations needed to put the law into practice still hadn’t been finalized. Protests occurred all over the country at the time, but most were unsuccessful. However, one protest at the San Francisco Federal building organized by the Center for Independent Living and the Black Panthers lasted more than 25 days, shutting down the West Coast operations of several federal offices. The Panthers delivered food to protesters, brought mattresses for them to sleep on, and ultimately won commitments from federal officials to implement Section 504.
From that spark, the disability rights movement exploded.
Given this history, Jackson is not surprised that a small group of people in Oakland is again leading a movement to reduce traffic fatalities in the city.
“Reacting, that’s what protest is, a reaction to something that’s wrong and needs to change. A validation to that change is needed, and they [get it here],” Jackson said. “There’s something in the water.”
The Bay Area isn’t the only place where activists have linked traffic safety to race and class inequalities, said Jonathan Levine, an urban and regional planning professor at the University of Michigan. He pointed to Bangladesh, where protesters demanded safer roads after two students were struck and killed by a speeding bus in 2018.
“It’s the same thing as here,” Levine said. There’s an entitlement built into the roadway design. The key is the environment has to convey to drivers that they need to slow down.”
The Rapid Response team has sought to bring transit planners and engineers into the protest fold. Since poor people and people of color are more likely to live next to highways and busy thoroughfares, Levine said it’s important that transportation planners and people living in those neighborhoods interact and learn from each other, even when it’s uncomfortable.
“Change is a back-and-forth game between professional politicians, people, and designers,” he said. “Sometimes the politicians will assert their priorities over planners,” he added, and popular protest can help balance the scales.
Rapid Response organizer Tim Courtney said it’s important to remember that the countries known today to be the most pedestrian and bike-friendly only achieved that after being pressured to do so. He noted that bike utopias like the Netherlands and Denmark had streets dominated by cars only a few decades ago.
Courtney said that increased penalties against drivers and stricter licensing standards played a role in that change. He thinks they could also factor into a broader strategy to increase traffic safety in Oakland.
“When someone’s being dangerous with their car, they should get pulled over and have a penalty for that,” he said. “It shouldn’t be used as a pretext for racial discrimination, but we damn well should be enforcing it so people know it’s not acceptable.”
Following a horrific family tragedy, Latino residents in East Oakland turned to activism
On the evening of April 13, 2019, Alma Soraya Vázquez and her family were washing clothes at the Family Laundry on Foothill Boulevard and 26th Avenue. The laundromat was a gathering spot for people in the East Oakland neighborhood, a place for chisme (gossip) where kids could scurry happily around the tumbling washing machines and dryers. When they finished their laundry, Alma, her son Ángel, and her brother-in-law Jeymi Garcia walked towards Foothill.
As they crossed the street, a speeding Mercedes Benz driven by Rasenoch Allen hit all three, killing Alma and Ángel and seriously injuring Jeymi. Alma’s husband and Jeymi’s brother, Anselmo Garcia, who was a block away resting after work, was woken up by a neighbor and ran to his loved ones. His wife used her dying words to tell him to take care of their children. Jeymi has spent the last three-and-a-half years in a coma and is now at Alameda Hospital with little hope he will wake up.
International Community School, the elementary school Ángel and his older brother went to, became the support center for the community. Principal Eleanor Alderman knew how to organize a vigil based on past experience. According to Alderman, two other kids were killed in hit-and-runs in front of the school in the mid-2010s. The long-time Oakland resident created a GoFundMe page to pay for the Vazquez family’s funerals.
“To this day, it is the saddest thing I’ve ever done in my career. I mean, we had an open casket with a five-year-old in our gym,” Alderman said. She keeps a picture of Ángel at her office in San Rafael, where she is now a principal at San Pedro Elementary school.
Once the community and family got past the initial shock, Alderman said protesting for change became a way to “direct everyone’s energy towards something that could be healing.” Teachers taught lessons about protest movements, kids made posters, and an Aztec dancer performed a healing sage ceremony at a community march, which ended at the Family Laundry. Councilmember Noel Gallo and then-transportation director Ryan Russo attended, and at the laundromat, Russo announced the city would make changes on the street.
Some pointed out the lack of crosswalks and other infrastructure that might have prevented the tragedy and questioned why there were no traffic lights between 23rd Avenue and 28th Avenue, allowing cars to gain speed.
Within months, the city launched a program to intervene more quickly with safety improvements on streets where violent collisions occur. On Foothill Boulevard and 26th Avenue, where the family was run over, the city painted an area of the road around the street corners purple to create a visual buffer zone and surrounded the areas with soft bollards—plastic rods meant to deter drivers from entering the area. The same was done in the middle of Foothill Avenue between the opposing lanes of traffic to warn drivers of crossing pedestrians.
Residents were not impressed with the city’s solutions, which felt to some like half measures. Laura Guevara, who owns Family Laundry, said cars have continued speeding.
“That paint wasn’t what we were promised or what we were asking for,” Alderman said.
Alderman and other teachers walked around the neighborhood collecting signatures to implore OakDOT to make permanent design changes. In November 2019, Russo announced a construction crew would add cement islands to Foothill to help protect pedestrians while crossing. Construction didn’t start for over a year.
Today, there are still no traffic lights or blinking caution lights to help pedestrians cross this street. The transportation department has said it does not have the money to pay for lights, which run about half a million dollars each.
“You get a lot of support at the onset from folks that want to be seen supporting you—politicians, lawyers—while it’s in the public eye,” Alderman said. “But as soon as it requires money and follow-through, they disappear and make excuses as to why they haven’t done what they said they were gonna do.”
“You have a lot of undocumented folks in this community who don’t say anything and are [politically] ignored,” Guevara said.
Keeping track of the updates from OakDOT became like a second job for Guevara. “Why do we need to push so hard and follow up? Like, just do it. People are dying in Oakland. The situation is dire. The city is not pulling its weight,” she said.
Community members decided to take matters into their own hands. Several of Guevara’s staff at Family Laundry, who saw the Vazquez family get hit, started to pay more attention to city news to track whether the neighborhood was getting its fair share of transportation funding. Judit Mendez, the mother of another student at ICS, got involved in the protests after the collision and is now a schoolyard supervisor supporting Spanish-speaking parents. She has also met with Mayor Libby Schaaf about improving street safety.
Alderman applied the lessons she learned to her new job in Marin County, recommending school buses drop kids off at another part of the school instead of the front street, where most traffic and speeding occurs.
Anselmo Garcia, who still lives in East Oakland with his two surviving children, told The Oaklandside in Spanish that it’s been several years since anyone in the city checked in with him. The collision, however, remains fresh in his mind.
“Imagine having a daughter who was two years old at the time [of the collision.] Now she’s growing, she’s five. And every morning, she asks me, ‘Where’s my mom?’ or ‘What happened to my mom?’ or ‘I want to go with my mom.’ That is so difficult.”
Lessons learned: working with city officials and organizing across race and class
Members of the Rapid Response Team said that organizing against traffic violence is also teaching them to recognize their own privilege and figure out the best approaches. One interaction a few months ago provides an example.
In June, Dmitry Putilov was biking with his two children on 14th Street, just a block from City Hall, when a speeding driver clipped his bicycle as he was crossing the street, killing him, and sped off. Community outrage was swift, and Rapid Response organized a protest at the intersection, with some calling on District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife to push Mayor Schaaf and OakDOT for immediate changes.
Among those calling on Fife was a Rapid Response supporter who had been emailing her for more than a year to make progress on the 14th Street development. Fife felt the person’s numerous emails and demands were confrontational and failed to consider other pressing problems the city has to address with limited resources.
Fife showed up to the protest and expressed support for the Rapid Response Team and making streets safer for bicyclists. There, she talked to Putilov’s family and deaf community members and asked street safety advocates like Dave Campbell how the protected lane would have saved Putilov.
Still, Fife said the incident and ensuing reaction underscores how, sometimes, well-meaning activists fail to take into account the struggles of the communities they are intersecting with. “If you grow up and live your life as a white man, you are dealing with a system that has been made for you,” Fife said. “There needs to be some cultural sensitivity. I want to ensure they are talking to the whole community instead of lobbying community officials [like me].”
Butts acknowledged that taking an aggressive stance hasn’t always worked and often “comes across poorly.” The city, he said, “has many large concurrent crises, of which traffic violence is one. Perhaps [that] strategy would work in a different Oakland with far more staffing capacity.”
Members of the group said they hope their switch from a bike-centric perspective to one that prioritizes pedestrian safety will demonstrate their commitment to addressing the needs of a broader array of residents.
Emory Douglas, one of the original Black Panthers, told The Oaklandside in an interview that constructive criticism of political officials is necessary—as is coalition building with people from different communities and races.
Decades ago, he recalled, the Black Panthers “had white people to organize in the white community. [We] had groups like that, which were diverse.”
In that spirit, Rapid Response members have attended protests in West Oakland and deep East Oakland. They’ve also begun putting up posters in Spanish, encouraging people to join them.
Street protests, said Culbertson, are places where residents from different communities can talk, understand one another, and recognize a shared vision for road safety. He said that every vigil the Rapid Response team has helped organize has been important. The most impactful moment for him, though, was when he spoke to the two children of Putilov, the bicyclist killed at 14th and Jefferson streets this past summer. Putilov, who was deaf, was killed in front of his kids as they biked together. Their vivid memory of the traumatic moment stunned Culbertson.
“I knelt down and just listened to them. They told me how they saw their father get hit in the middle of the street. And that moment of watching him die and not knowing what to do… that comes back to me,” said Culbertson.
That day was also hard for George Spies.
“It started to hit home, just what devastation this all is,” he said. “Encountering people in each of these different places has deepened the experience for us.”