Seneca Scott (center) watches Loren Taylor speak at a rally in Oakland City Hall on March 21, 2023 in support of rental property owners. Credit: Amir Aziz

A bystander shot near Lake Merritt. A series of violent robberies across Oakland. Smash-and-grab burglaries at businesses. Thousands of car thefts. Bomb threats and shootings at schools. A child in a stroller injured by bullet fragments.

Oakland is experiencing a disturbing increase in violent crime right now. It’s mainly because of a spike in robberies, up 31% this year. Homicides also increased during the pandemic to levels that hadn’t been seen in over a decade. With 79 killings so far in 2023, it appears this disturbing trend isn’t ending anytime soon. Property crimes, especially car break-ins, are also way up right now, according to police data.

Many Oaklanders are looking to city and county leaders to offer solutions for a safer city.

Over the past few months, residents have been able to hear from elected officials and offer feedback at meetings organized by neighborhood groups, small business owners, and city council members.

Perhaps the biggest community meeting yet about public safety this year is happening on Saturday at an East Oakland church. In attendance will be the city and county’s top law enforcement officials, including District Attorney Pamela Price, as well as Mayor Sheng Thao and District 6 Councilmember Kevin Jenkins. They’ll discuss crime, illegal dumping, abandoned vehicles, and more.

If you’ve heard about Saturday’s town hall with the mayor and DA, you may have also heard that there’s another event—a sort of counter protest—scheduled to happen outside the church and just before the town hall. This rally is being organized by a group called Neighbors Together Oakland and will feature former city councilmember Loren Taylor, among other speakers. 

The founder of Neighbors Together and the main organizer behind this rally, Seneca Scott, has a history of making inflammatory and false statements in public. Most recently, Scott took to Twitter to accuse Brandon Harami, a member of Mayor Thao’s staff and an out gay man, of being a pedophile without offering any evidence as to his claim. 

“I’m extremely hurt and disappointed to see the comments he made,” Harami told The Oaklandside today.

Multiple East Bay political organizations, including the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club, a 40-year-old group that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, have strongly condemned Scott’s statement. 

“We urge community leaders (especially those who claim to support the LGBTQ+ community) to stand against hate and avoid giving a platform to those who repeatedly spread anti-LGBTQ messages like Seneca Scott,” the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club said in a statement on August 31. 

“The Alameda County Democratic Party condemns the comments made by Seneca Scott to the fullest extent and ask that all Democrats in Alameda County refuse to organize with him or participate in his events,” the county party said in a statement on September 7. 

The statement also noted that accusing gay men of being pedophiles is an old trope that’s been used to attack the LGBTQ community many times in the past, and that this kind of hate speech is again on the rise.

Cat Brooks, a prominent Oakland-based activist on issues of social justice and police brutality who Scott frequently criticizes on Twitter, said in an interview that she thinks Neighbors Together Oakland’s messaging about public safety in Oakland probably appeals to many Oaklanders who have never heard of its founder or have never encountered his online rhetoric. 

“I think a lot of the people putting up Neighbors Together lawn signs in their neighborhoods aren’t on Twitter,” she said.

Not everyone agrees about how to make Oakland safer. Disagreement is inevitable and healthy. But local debate about how to make Oakland safer is no longer just passionate and contentious—it’s becoming increasingly hostile, featuring ad hominem attacks, name-calling, and even homophobic slurs and baseless accusations lobbed at city officials. Scott is at the center of this shift in tone in Oakland’s politics.

Given the importance of a robust debate around public safety, The Oaklandside took a close look at the two upcoming events, asking some of the organizers and attendees about their views regarding safety, and about recent controversial statements by the main organizer of Saturday’s competing event.

The mayor and the DA will speak on their recent actions—and the criticism they’ve gotten—on public safety

Mayor Sheng Thao Fires OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong 03
Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao at a recent press conference discussing public safety problems. Credit: Amir Aziz

The town hall on Saturday will be hosted by Bishop George Matthews at Genesis Worship at noon. Guest speakers scheduled to appear include District Attorney Pamela Price, Acting Oakland Police Chief Darren Allison, Mayor Sheng Thao, Councilmember Kevin Jenkins, Sheriff Yesenia Sanchez, Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, and Alameda County Probation Chief Marcus Dawal.

This is the third year Matthews has organized a community event to address public safety issues. 

Leigh Hanson, Mayor Thao’s chief of staff, said each speaker will describe their role in local government and their priorities. They will also answer questions that attendees can submit in advance on comment cards to Matthews, who will be moderating the event. 

According to a flier for the event, officials will discuss illegal dumping, abandoned vehicles, car window break-ins, and other public safety issues.

Thao has faced criticism from some constituents for her decision in February to fire Chief LeRonne Armstrong after outside investigators found Armstrong was derelict in his duty to properly discipline a police sergeant who committed a hit-and-run and later shot his gun inside police headquarters and tried to cover up the shooting. 

The Oakland chapter of the NAACP has said that Armstrong’s firing was unwarranted and has played a role in the increase in violence. “We mourn the injudicious removal of the person who was truly making a difference in restoring the faith of the community in the OPD,” the group wrote in a June press release. 

Earlier this week, Thao highlighted some of her administration’s public safety policies. For example, Governor Gavin Newsom recently agreed to send Oakland additional California Highway Patrol officers to assist with traffic enforcement in high-injury corridors. The city also received a $1.2 million loan to pay for more automated license plate readers. (The city currently has about 30 of these surveillance cameras, but police haven’t used them for months.) 

Thao has also initiated an audit of the Ceasefire program, the city’s main gun-violence-reduction strategy, which was disrupted by the pandemic. The mayor said she’s also more than doubled the city’s investment in the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program, which sends civilians to deal with non-violent and non-emergency calls. 

Thao and the City Council also agreed to spend $1 million per year for civilian safety ambassadors to deter crime in business corridors as part of the new biennial budget. Thao preserved most of the funding for the Department of Violence Prevention, which uses life coaches and other civilian contractors to disrupt cycles of violence. 

“I’m very interested to hear from the community around real solutions and around real ways we can work together in partnership to create a safer Oakland,” Thao told The Oaklandside. 

District Attorney Pamela Price is responsible for prosecuting crimes that occur in Alameda County. Price was elected last year on a progressive platform of reforming the criminal justice system and prosecuting police for misconduct, in addition to advocating for victims of crime. 

In recent months, Price has become the focal point for community anger over the spike in violent crime. Some in the community disagree with Price’s policies to not use enhancements in many cases—special extra charges that can add additional prison time to sentences if a person is found guilty—and not to charge juveniles as adults, among other reforms. Several community leaders recently filed paperwork to start a recall campaign against Price. Earlier this week, paperwork was filed to oppose the recall.

During a July town hall meeting in Montclair, several residents demanded that Price crack down on criminal offenders with harsher punishments. Price explained her belief that systemic change is needed to address the root causes of crime.

Price’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

What’s happening at the Neighbors Together rally?

Neighbors Together Oakland is hosting a rally on Saturday from 10 to 11:30 a.m. on Hillside Street between Ritchie Street and 80th Avenue. This is next to the Genesis Worship Center. 

According to the poster for the event and an interview with one of the organizers, the rally is scheduled to include as guest speakers:

  • Former Oakland Councilmember Loren Taylor
  • Mary Theroux, board chair and CEO of the Independent Institute, an East Bay think tank, who will talk about policies for addressing homelessness
  • Jazmin Villalta, the co-founder of Cocina Del Corazon, who will be speaking about Oakland food deserts
  • Tanya Boyce, executive director of the Environmental Democracy Project, who will discuss urban blight and environmental destruction and inequity
  • A student at McClymonds High School who will address a large brawl that happened recently at Emeryville Station 

According to organizers with Neighbors Together, California State Assemblymember Mia Bonta, Oakland Councilmember Kevin Jenkins, and Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley have also said they will attend the rally. 

Neighbors Together Oakland (NTO) is a nonprofit organization founded in 2021 by Seneca Scott. We’ve asked an NTO representative about the size of the organization’s membership and whether anyone in the group is paid for their work, and will update the story if we receive a response. 

Scott is the former East Bay director for SEIU Local 1021 and the co-founder of the entertainment company Oakhella and the Bottoms Up Community Garden. Last September, while Scott was running for Oakland mayor, OakHella’s other co-founders distanced themselves from Scott following the circulation of a photo showing him wearing a sandwich board with an anti-trans message on it and standing next to a well-known anti-trans activist. 

Scott received 3% of the first-round vote in the mayor’s race, coming in seventh place among 10 candidates. He unsuccessfully ran for the Oakland City Council District 3 seat in 2020. 

We requested an interview with Scott for this story. Tim Gardner, a board member of Neighbors Together Oakland, told us that Scott was unavailable and offered to speak to us as a representative of NTO. Gardner said the purpose of Saturday’s event is to bring community members together to promote public safety solutions. 

“The city is in an unprecedented downward spiral,” he said, citing the number of homicides and an uptick in other violent crimes, as well as severe homelessness. Gardner said that crime has been “horrible” for each of the past 15 years he’s lived in Oakland. 

Violent crime has increased over the past three years, but it is not at unprecedented levels. The violent crime rate was higher in 2012, according to an analysis by the San Francisco Chronicle. The city’s violent crime was also higher in the mid-2000s and in the early and mid-1990s.

Gardner said local leaders, including the mayor and the City Council, are not doing enough to combat crime. He raised concerns about the size of the police department and the city’s failure to use its automated license plate reader system

Gardner said the mayor should declare a state of emergency, followed by a request for every city department to submit a list of ideas for solving the public safety crisis. He also said the mayor should hold multiple fireside chats each month to inform the public. 

Gardner crowdsourced ideas recently in a public document that he said was presented to the staff of California State Assemblymember Mia Bonta, whose district includes Oakland and Alameda. The ideas include deploying state law enforcement officers or the national guard to Oakland, fixing 911 response times, restoring police chief LeRonne Armstrong, and revoking Oakland’s ban on high-speed police chases.

“They’re not all good, but a lot of them are good,” Gardner said of the list. “When 79 people have died already this year, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be doing everything in our power to address this crisis.” 

Loren Taylor, who ran against Thao last year, said the mayor hasn’t shown sufficient urgency in her response to violent crimes in Oakland. He believes Oakland should declare a local state of emergency to obtain additional resources and strip away bureaucratic barriers that he claims prevent the city from adequately dealing with the public safety crisis. 

“I’m attending the event and accepted the invitation because the focus is on solutions that are actionable and that we can hold each other accountable to,” Taylor said, adding that specific requests will be presented to elected officials participating in the nearby town hall. According to Gardner, Taylor will be introducing a resolution on public safety for the city council to take up. 

Thao told The Oaklandside public safety is her number one priority. She also disagreed about the need for implementing a local state of emergency, noting that her administration is already able to get additional resources from outside Oakland, noting by way of example the extra CHP officers and funding for ALPR cameras that Oakland received from the state. 

“To say there’s no urgency on our part is just politicizing this issue,” Thao said. “Of course there’s urgency.” 

On Tuesday, the Oakland branch of the NAACP—of which Scott is an executive member along with Taylor—released a list of goals to achieve a safer city. The group wants to improve the 911 call system and increase OPD to a minimum of 1,000 officers. The department is currently budgeted for over 700 officers, but due to personnel on long-term leave, it is hovering under 650. The NAACP didn’t say how they would pay for an extra 300 or so officers, which would probably cost the city upwards of $80 million.

The NAACP also wants the city to install more security cameras and license plate readers, secure ongoing support from CHP to patrol Oakland’s highways, and enact programs that give youth economic alternatives to crime. 

From homophobic statements to calls for martial law, Scott’s online rhetoric has been harshly rebuked 

The Neighbors Together rally on Saturday is being billed as an event to promote “solidarity and solutions,” but over the past week, some East Bay civic groups have called out homophobic statements made by Scott over social media, calling them divisive and hateful.

On August 27, Scott tweeted that “@MayorShengThao staffer Brandon Harami is a proud supporter of the MAP (minor attracted person) movement. Now just let that sink in. Is this why he has such intense Daddies issues? Usually people who were touched are the ones that touch others. Very alarming.” 

On August 31, the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club, one of the Bay Area’s oldest and largest LGBTQ+ political organizations, issued a statement saying it “strongly condemns the hateful anti-LGBTQ statements from former Oakland candidate Seneca Scott.” The group urged community leaders to “avoid giving a platform to those who spread such messages.” 

On September 6, the Alameda County Democratic Party issued a statement saying it refuses to organize with Scott or participate in his events due to comments he’s made. The statement says that Scott “continues to spread false and dangerous narratives about LGBTQ+ individuals, even falsely accusing former CADEM Progressive Caucus Vice Chair and current Mayoral Staffer Brandon Harami of homophobic tropes.” 

Scott declined an interview request, stating that he won’t speak to our newsroom until Oaklandside news editor Darwin BondGraham is fired for allegedly “attempting to intimidate a whistleblower” and for exhibiting a “disturbing pattern of selective aggression towards people of color he doesn’t agree with politically.” [Editor’s note: The Oaklandside stands behind BondGraham and rejects Scott’s claims.]

The Oaklandside sent Scott a follow-up email asking for a response to the Alameda County Democratic Party’s statement and for evidence to back up his claim about Harami. Scott did not address these questions. He instead responded with a link to a YouTube video, posted last year by an account with two followers and no other content, that accused Harami of secretly running a Twitter account that disparaged other candidates in last year’s Oakland mayoral race.

Hours later, Scott released a statement on Twitter saying he stands in solidarity with LGBTQIA+ allies. He encouraged any individuals offended by his actions to contact him directly.

“I will be open minded in addressing their concerns about my character and what I truly believe, which is that I support LGBTQIA+ rights,” Scott said.

Scott claims that the resolutions condemning his statements are part of a “highly-coordinated smear campaign” to retaliate against him and his group. He accused Mayor Sheng Thao and Brandon Harami of placing pressure on the two political clubs to issue statements condemning him. 

After Scott released his statement, Matt Lardner from The East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club told The Oaklandside that his group was not pressured to release a statement. 

“We felt called to respond to anti-LGBTQ comments recently made by Mr. Scott,” Lardner said in an email. 

Scott has a history of accusing people on Twitter of being pedophiles. In July he accused someone of being a pedophile for supporting the flying of a Pride flag on a Southern California city’s municipal building. In response to a misleading report about medical school curriculum, he tweeted that Harvard University Medical School has “big pedo energy.” In March, Scott replied to a tweet thread that accused Joe Biden of molesting children, saying Biden had “pedo ways.”

Harami told The Oaklanside that he’s trying to stay focused on his work as the city’s director of community resilience. He said Scott’s statement isn’t just hurtful to him personally; it also has him worried for the safety of Oakland residents. 

“Right-wing people come to Oakland to try to combat ‘wokeness and progressiveness’ with violence. When Seneca goes on Fox news and speaks about this nationally it’s inviting more of that hate and bigotry into our city.”

Harami added that he doesn’t understand why some influential people and groups in Oakland appear to be unwilling to condemn Scott’s homophobic attack against him. 

On social media, especially Twitter, Scott’s messages often are widely shared. In a September 4 Twitter post, he wrote that Oakland needs “soft martial law” to address its public safety problems. He didn’t clarify what he meant, but martial law involves the suspension of democratic institutions and the replacement of civilian leaders with the military and police.

Prominent Oakland officials share why they are, or aren’t, attending Scott’s rally

When asked about attending the Neighbors Together rally after learning of Scott’s statements about Harami on Twitter, Loren Taylor told us that he’s not attending the event for Scott or any individual, but to help the community find solutions for public safety problems. 

“To me, this attempt to make an event about Seneca is an attempt to avoid responsibility for the issues that are not being addressed,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to focus on the issues.” 

Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley told The Oaklandside he will try to attend the Neighbors Together Oakland rally before the town hall at Genesis Worship. Miley said he was not aware of Seneca’s comments or the resolutions condemning them. 

“I know Seneca is very controversial and he has his opinions,” Miley said. He added that no one should be discriminated against based on race, religion, or sexuality. 

District 6 City Councilmember Kevin Jenkins’ chief of staff, Patricia Brooks, said Jenkins won’t be able to attend the Neighbors Together Oakland rally because of a scheduling mixup, although she or another staffer may be there. 

Assemblymember Mia Bonta’s office did not respond to an interview request. Tim Gardner of Neighbors Together Oakland tweeted on August 23 that Bonta would be a guest at the event. On September 6, Bonta tweeted that she is not speaking at the event, nor is anyone from her office. 

Gardner referred to the resolutions condemning Scott as “political mudslinging” and said the accusations aren’t based on evidence. 

“If they want to talk in person and discuss these issues and show the basis of these grievances, then we would be happy to do that,” Gardner said. 

Vincent Ray Williams III, another prominent local activist and founder of the Urban Compassion Project, which conducts cleanups and helps homeless residents get food and other resources, said he had to cancel his appearance at the Neighbors Together rally because he has a clean-up event to attend at the same time. Williams, who is queer, said his decision has nothing to do with negative comments made about Scott, noting that he’s witnessed Scott support members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“I got to see this man on a different plane than what most people get to see,” Williams said.

Mayor Thao told The Oaklandside that she thinks the promotion of hateful and bigoted speech or attacks against her staff or anyone else has no place in Oakland. 

“This is not just an attack against my personal staff,” Thao said. “This is an attack against the LGBTQ+ community.”

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,, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.