A middle-aged man with gray hair wearing a yellow traffic vest stands in the middle of an empty plaza. Behind him are palm trees, a map on a mosaic, and buildings.
District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo in the Fruitvale Transit Center in Oakland, Calif. on June 9, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

Noel Gallo has been on the Oakland City Council since 2013 and he’s mostly concerned about the same problems today that he was a decade ago: crime, illegal dumping, and homeless encampments in District 5, which spans from Fruitvale and Jingletown near the Oakland estuary to Park Boulevard above the 580 freeway. 

Gallo was last reelected in 2020, beating two millennial challengers who hoped to bring a fresh approach to fixing the district’s systemic problems. He previously served for 20 years on the Oakland Board of Education. 

Gallo recently met with The Oaklandside at his City Hall office to discuss the budget, violence and trafficking in his district, what he views as the deterioration of family culture in Oakland, and how to make the city more attractive for families and businesses. 

This Q&A is part of a series of interviews The Oaklandside is doing with each councilmember. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Several shootings have occurred in the Fruitvale Plaza area over the last few months, and many residents and business owners there say the city isn’t doing enough to increase safety. What have you done to address gun violence in your district? 

You reference what’s happening throughout Fruitvale. It’s not only one area—it’s throughout the city. 

The reality is, when it comes to our law enforcement officers, we’re at low numbers. Based on the academy that just recently graduated, we’re up to 723 sworn officers. We need additional academies to grow it to at least 740, 750, and we had budgeted that amount. But we never seem to be at that number.

The City Council has budgeted many positions [across various city departments], but you find out at the end of the fiscal year that we had 200 vacancies all year long. Meanwhile, I can’t clean my streets, can’t pick up the trash, because Public Works had vacancies. The money is there, but we didn’t hire the people. What happened to all that money we had allocated that didn’t get spent? 

Dealing with public safety issues, homelessness, blight—those are the priorities in Oakland. And it’s the taxpayers who have to pay the consequences. People are talking about a possible recession. I was here during the last one, and it had a great impact, not just on you and I as residents, but the business community. At the end of the day, it comes down to: How am I going to take care of my children? 

What do you think is the single most important investment the city could make in this next budget cycle to reduce gun violence?

We need to strengthen our enforcement. I grew up in this setting with half of my family locked up in prison. The neighbor and teacher at school provided me with an attitude change. But the reality is, with what’s happening today, we need to provide the enforcement necessary to deal with those issues in our neighborhoods.

I have the gang situation [in District 5]. I have the Mexican cartel here—they’re dealing guns and fentanyl and other drugs. I see groups from Central America out there in San Francisco selling fentanyl. I see them here in Oakland doing the same thing.

Growing up here in Oakland, we were always killing each other. But I never saw a cigarette butt or trash on the street. The most respected, idolized individual within my family, and in the neighborhood, used to be grandma and grandpa. But now you have people who are going to beat up grandma and grandpa and steal from them because they know they can’t run fast or fight back. Within the family structure, within the neighborhood, some of the respect has been lost. 

We shouldn’t have to wait for the police officer or for someone else to come and discipline our children. If I have a brother or sister creating issues, then I need to reach out to them to help. I got a brother who has been in prison for 35 years. During the pandemic, many of the people in jails were released, and he was one of them; he got released to the Tenderloin. Man, of all places. I’m trying to help him. 

For me, the most sacred ground is our schools. If you’re homeless, no, you cannot be around my school. No, you cannot do illegal activity. What parents will tell you today is their children are not able to walk to and from school like they used to because they’re afraid their kids will disappear. 

When it comes to public safety, we need greater cooperation between the highway patrol, the sheriff, and the police department. You got BART police, and housing authority police, but we don’t seem to be cooperating with each other. That’s one of the challenges I’ve seen today as opposed to in the past.

I know many people here are anti-police. But I don’t see anyone else going out there in the neighborhood. 

The Unity Council helped your office organize a community town hall to discuss safety issues a few months ago. Some attendees wanted a stronger police presence in Fruitvale while others wanted non-police alternatives. How do you address those competing demands? Are there solutions that could satisfy both camps?

What I’ve done in other locations is create a police substation. I got one on High Street because they were having a lot of issues with that business corridor. A substation is where an officer can park his car and write his report. The minute I did that, things changed completely. I wanted to do that at the Fruitvale BART Station. I asked the Unity Council to let me have one of their offices right there, and they said no, the police presence scares people. So we weren’t able to do that. I’m looking at another spot in Fruitvale instead. 

The only one the hoodie will respond to is a police officer. You can have all the ambassadors you want. But these are the realities of growing up in Oakland and East Oakland. We can’t complain on the one hand but refuse to deal with the reality.

Are there no police alternatives worth investing more city resources in?

We need to maintain a police presence. I’m a strong supporter of the motorcycle officer, and they shut that down. Growing up, if you saw the motorcycle officer going up and down major traffic areas, everybody slowed down because you knew they could reach you in a minute. 

Sideshows are another example. The way I dealt with it years ago was to put planter boxes with trees in them in the middle of the intersection. And guess what? It stopped the sideshows. They all went to the major streets and intersections on International and Foothill. 

We used to have a sideshow police unit. But then the budget cuts reduced the police department to about 600 and basically shut that down. At that time, the highway patrol and the sheriff and OPD were working together to deal with sideshows.

Right now, I got people coming from all over into Oakland and destroying our streets. Neighbors are saying please fix my crosswalks and lights, and here’s another group that thinks it’s fun to spin your car around and burn the tires and create danger and destroy our streets. We’ve been allowing that to happen. That kind of behavior needs to change. But you and I will not be able to stop it. The only one they respect is an officer on the street, and that’s the bottom line for me.

You recently got City Council to approve an ordinance enforcing new penalties for sideshow facilitators and promoters. I’ve seen some residents complain that the ordinance won’t do enough to deter them. Are you considering any other measures?

Some people wanted me to pursue spectators, but the council felt strongly they didn’t want to cite spectators because it might just be a person living there or with a business across the street. So to get the sideshow ordinance to pass, we removed that section.

I had the sideshow people here nine years ago. I said, “Hey man, let’s work out a deal.” The goal was to create a setting where you can do all the sideshows you want, but safely. We reached out to the Coliseum, but at that time you had baseball, and it wasn’t a good idea to do it in the neighborhood because of the smoke and the noise level. Also, if we let you do sideshows on city property and something happens to you, we get sued.

I had tried to put in the ordinance that if I catch you doing the sideshow, I get to keep your car. I did that with prostitution. I said, if we catch you picking up girls, we’re going to keep your truck and you’re going to have a lot of explaining to do to your wife about what happened to your car. I went to the state legislature public safety committee, and they said, sorry, keeping a truck or car is unconstitutional. So we weren’t able to do it. I’m working with Los Angeles people on sideshow stuff too.

The mayor and City Council are setting Oakland’s spending priorities for the next two years. To address a historic deficit, Mayor Sheng Thao has proposed cuts across many departments. Are there any cuts you object to? 

I don’t believe in merging departments for the sake of saving money. What we need to do first is evaluate the departments: How can we get greater performance and hold them responsible? 

Your district includes a major commercial corridor on International Boulevard. What measures are you taking to attract new businesses?

You’ve got to have a clean, safe environment. Every weekend we’re out with volunteers cleaning. Every Saturday and Sunday, I don’t care if it’s Mothers’ Day or raining or whatever, we also have neighborhood volunteer clean-ups. We go from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. 

This year there are a lot of homeless people that are showing up, and I can’t move them because it’s illegal. I also can’t tell them they can’t dump trash because it’s illegal. It’s nonsense. You and I can’t go throw our shit all over, but they can. They’re all parked by “No Parking” signs, or on the sidewalk. I can’t do that but they can.

Right now, three of my employees, all they do every day, eight hours a day, is go pick up the trash, the illegal dumping, and deal with the homeless when they have to. 

I want to get the U.S. Army to come back and help clean. They were sending like 10 or 20 cadets at one time because they’re right here in Alameda. 

We’re also going to fill potholes. In District 5, I’ll choose the streets where I get the complaints. The city will bring their pothole-filling stuff and leave it there for us to use. We used to do graffiti too. Man, that’s out of control.

If you come out for the cleaning, you’ll see what happened the night before. You’re going to say, “What the shit is going on, man?” The abandoned cars, the wrecked cars, cars running into homes, the broken windows in businesses. 

A lot of Oakland residents are struggling with housing insecurity, and an alarming number are slipping into homelessness. When you look at the city’s available resources, what do you think is the single best use of funds that will help reduce homelessness in your district, and how are you going to make that happen?

We need to create an incentive for homeowners to provide additional housing. Oakland doesn’t have the land necessary to keep adding and building, so there’s got to be a way where if you want to convert your property into additional rooms, you can do that. 

There’s something I promoted a couple of years ago in Fruitvale, where many of us are homeowners. Some of us had created extra rooms or converted garages. So we created an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) amnesty. In other words, if you had an ADU and you had been renting it out but weren’t paying taxes for it, we forgave you. But you needed to register the unit and start paying taxes to the city.

I’m also working with Rep. Barbara Lee and other representatives on federal funds that are available. Right now what happens is the federal government gives the money to the state, the state gives it to the county, then the county gives it to the cities. Why can’t the federal government contribute money directly to the city? They’re starting to do some of that with infrastructure and housing, but I think it needs to go beyond that and deal with public safety as well.

The mayor just launched an advisory council on human trafficking, and community groups have increasingly been raising the alarm about this problem in Oakland.

You don’t need an advisory council. What you need to do is enforce the goddamn rules. You can’t do that shit here in Oakland, god damn it. 

Who’s doing the human trafficking? I’ve grown up in this shit all my life, and I know who’s doing it. I know where the pimp is. I tell my council colleagues, all you guys that say to value women and protect women, you’re just doing more talk. I see girls, 12, 13, 14 years old out on the street. That’s part of the issue of safety. You hear all day long about people feeling sorry over this and that, but we’re killing each other. 

Every year I would collect pictures of all the people killed. We used to have community events where I’d put them up so people could see. Pictures speak louder than words. 

When it comes to human trafficking, is there anything else the city should be doing?

The previous district attorney, Nancy O’Malley, was very good. She enforced human trafficking. When I got here I spent my time dealing with prostitution and human trafficking because it was in my area.

I heard from the police and the sheriff’s department that they’ve scaled down their enforcement efforts [because] District Attorney Pamela Price doesn’t want to criminalize people. When it comes to prostitution, the police will tell you that they don’t have the cooperation from the District Attorney’s office.

I’m very close with an organization called Victory Outreach. [Members of the organization] take in prostitutes and people coming out of prison off the street, and try to do the Jesus thing and save you. We do this operation every year, where members are out there 24 hours a day discouraging prostitution. And they’re not afraid of the pimps because they come out of that environment. 

What’s most troubling is when you see girls that are 12, 13 years old. How in the shit do I allow that to happen in broad daylight? State Sen. Scott Wiener out of Frisco created this policy at the state level that I’m trying to repeal, which says as long as the girl is walking the police can’t touch her. But if she’s standing still, they can approach. So the police say, “Well, we can’t do anything.” We know the girl is prostituting, but as long as she’s walking up and down, she can do that. 

Are there any job or vocational programs you’re pushing to get implemented in Fruitvale or D5?

Last year I did youth employment and training programs, and I will support them again. These are kids from the neighborhood. Not only are they getting a high school diploma, but they’re learning skills. They’re building tiny homes. 

Another program I will continue to support because I helped start it is the Peralta Service Corporation, a training program for people that are coming out of prison, or in desperate need of jobs. 

If you are a neighbor and you come and help me, I’m going to give you all the bags and tools. You’re going to take care of your property first, and if your children are going to school you’ve got to clean around your school. Once you do that, you can branch out and do whatever. That’s the incentive of what we call citizenship—it demonstrates loyalty to where you live. And that’s what’s missing now: loyalty. 

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.