A group of people lined up to enter the doors of a church. A person holds up a sign that says "safe and livable city."
Oakland residents lining up at the Genesis Worship Center to hear Alameda County officials discuss plans for public safety on Sept. 9, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz.

Several hundred Oaklanders gathered on Saturday at two different events, held right across the street from each other, to discuss the city’s growing public safety problems. 

Neighbors Together Oakland, a nonprofit formed by former mayoral candidate Seneca Scott, held a rally on Hillside Street in East Oakland that drew a crowd of roughly 200 people, a mix of residents from different parts of the city and the East Bay. 

“This may be the most white people in East Oakland on this block in a long time,” Scott said, to laughter from the crowd. “Give yourselves a round of applause, white people.” He added that the residents who live on the street where the rally was being held are Black and Latino, and that the block had been recently affected by gun violence. 

Later that morning, across the street at Genesis Worship Center, a church led by Bishop George Matthews, dozens of Oakland residents lined up for a town hall featuring Mayor Sheng Thao, District Attorney Pamela Price, and other local officials. The event was billed as an opportunity for local leaders to describe their plans for making Oakland safer. 

At various points, guest speakers at each event shared nearly identical calls for action: the need to come together as a community, the need to stop finger-pointing. But obvious tensions between the two events underscored the challenges of building consensus on these issues. 

Scott, who recently was denounced by several prominent East Bay political organizations for making remarks widely perceived as attacks on LGBTQ people, told rally-goers he held the event next to the church so that the mayor, district attorney, and other officials wouldn’t be able to ignore it. He oscillated between lambasting leaders for, in his view, listening only to elites with “private banks, private houses, private airplanes, private tutors, private clubs, private jets, private lovers—private everything,” and calling for collective action to protect and uplift Oakland’s residents. 

Mayor Sheng Thao, speaking at Genesis Worship, promoted her belief that Oaklanders need to unify as “one Oakland” if they hope to address crime in a meaningful way. Thao emphasized the need for holistic solutions that include traditional policing and bolstering the social safety network. 

“That means we not only have to work toward solving the crimes and getting justice, but we also have to do the work upstream to prevent the harm from even happening,” Thao said. “And we have to do this all at the same time.” 

Should Oakland adopt a “state of emergency” around crime?

A man in a yellow shirt holding a microphone speaks to a crowdd of people, many of whom are wearing hats and sunglasses and carrying signs.
Seneca Scott, founder of Neighbors Together Oakland, addresses a group of roughly 150-200 attendees during a rally on Sept. 9, 2023 in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz.

Several political leaders who Neighbors Together organizers had said would be attending Saturday’s rally did not appear to show up, including Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, State Assemblymember Mia Bonta, and City Councilmember Kevin Jenkins. 

Vincent Williams, an activist who works with Oakland’s homeless communities, also did not make an appearance. Derreck Johnson, who ran for Oakland’s at-large City Council seat in 2020 and was advertised as a speaker at Saturday’s rally, also did not show up.

After groups like the Alameda County Democratic Party and East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club denounced Scott’s homophobic comments on Twitter, several public officials who were advertised as being part of the Neighbors Together rally were urged not to attend.

District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo wasn’t listed as a speaker or attendee by organizers, but he was there during the first half of the rally, walking through the crowd and talking with attendees.

A small group of people holding signs stand in front of a gate and house.
Dozens of people attend “Rally for Solidarity & Solutions”, a public safety rally organized by Neighbors Together Oakland (NTO) in Deep East Oakland on Sep 9, 2023 in Oakland, Calif. Credit: Amir Aziz.

Jennifer Tran, a prominent member of Oakland’s LGBTQ+ community who also leads the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, was a last-minute addition to the speakers list. Tran, who is also an assistant professor of Ethnic Studies at California State University East Bay and a candidate for California’s 12th Congressional District seat, said that those attending the Neighbors Together rally were “fighting against the narrative of division” to try to create a safer city.

“When the media and certain leaders try to draw ideas about how we are fighting against each other, we look around here and see we are coming together to make sure our children are able to walk to schools safely, to make sure our parents are able to earn enough to provide shelter for our communities,” Tran said. 

Former District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor was the most prominent speaker at Scott’s event. Taylor presented several concrete proposals that he wants the City Council to adopt. 

Taylor urged the city administrator to declare a “level two” state of emergency. Under the city’s Emergency Operations Plan, there are three levels of emergency. A level two is defined as a “moderate to severe emergency where local resources are not adequate and mutual aid or operational area resource coordination may be required on a regional or even statewide basis.” He said this heightened level should remain in place until Oakland has made substantial progress. 

A man with glasses wearing a blazer holds a clipboard and speaks into a microphone outside a church.
Former Oakland City Councilmember Loren Taylor addresses a rally organized by Neighbors Together Oakland on Sept. 9, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz.

Taylor also wants the city administrator to publish weekly updates on the city’s progress in lowering rates of crime. He said the city should publish memorandums of understanding that outline how Oakland works with other law enforcement agencies. 

The city currently makes these documents available through the Oakland Privacy Commission, which reviews OPD’s agreements with federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshals, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

Taylor also proposed that the city publish a detailed plan on how it will act on public safety-related recommendations crowd-sourced from business owners and residents. 

“If we don’t sweat the details, we’re not going to get the results,” Taylor said.

Taylor claimed that the city is facing “unprecedented” levels of crime. It’s true that Oakland is seeing an alarming spike in some violent crimes. During the pandemic, Oakland saw more homicides than it has in over a decade, and with 87 and counting, 2023 doesn’t look like it’s departing from that trend. This year, burglaries are up 31%, and property crimes, especially car break-ins, have gone way up. However, the violent crime rate was higher in 2012, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Violent crime was also higher in the mid-2000s and in the early to mid-1990s. 

Taylor also pushed back against the “many detractors” who he claimed had tried to paint the Saturday rally as “anti-LGBTQ.” “Let me tell you, that is the furthest thing from the truth,” Taylor said. He wished attendees a happy Pride weekend, acknowledging the parades and other events.

On Aug. 27, Scott tweeted that Thao’s staffer Brandon Harami, an out gay man, “is a proud supporter of the MAP (minor attracted person) movement,” accusing Harami of being a pedophile without presenting any evidence. Accusing gay men of being pedophiles is widely understood to be a smear that’s been used for decades to attack the LGBTQ+ community. Scott has accused several other people online of pedophilia without presenting evidence. He also drew criticism last year for appearing alongside a well-known anti-trans activist

Dashawna Warrick, a student at McClymonds High School, took the stage to describe how Scott recently visited one of her classes to discuss a recent brawl that erupted in Emeryville at the end of August involving hundreds of young people. Warrick said parents and guardians aren’t aware of what’s happening in their children’s lives and that Oakland needs more community-oriented spaces. 

“We need urgent reconstruction for parks in the Bay Area,” Warrick said. 

Tanya Boyce, executive director of the Environmental Democracy Project, drew a correlation between Oakland’s perceived “lawlessness” and the city’s lax code enforcement. She said the Planning and Building Department and Public Works need to increase their responsiveness and perform proactive enforcement of the city’s existing codes and environmental laws. 

“If you think 911 has long waits, honey, I have 311 reports for toxic dumping that have been unresolved for three years,” Boyce said. 

Mary Theroux, managing director of an investment firm and chair of the board of directors of the Independent Institute, an East Bay libertarian think tank, blamed Oakland’s homelessness crisis on the encampment management policy that city officials approved in 2020.

“The city doesn’t measure outcomes and allocate money according to what works,” Theroux said. “Instead, they blindly hold onto doing the same thing, regardless of the fact that it isn’t working, and then plead for more money.” 

Theroux, who previously chaired the advisory board of the Alameda County Salvation Army, touted the successful approach of San Antonio, Texas, which created a multi-purpose campus for addressing the myriad needs of homeless residents.

Oakland also needs to “make being a landlord attractive again,” said Theroux. “We need to have laws that are fair to tenants and landlords.” 

Jazmin Villalta, co-founder of Cocina Del Corazon, which cooks meals for underserved communities and runs cooking classes, said Oakland leaders need to expand access to healthy food and food education to all residents, especially in historically under-served neighborhoods in East and West Oakland. 

“If I as an Oakland resident can take an overwhelming issue like food insecurity and tackle the problem at the root level, on a micro level, then I’m confident that the leaders of Oakland can do even more,” Villalta said. 

After the rally, several attendees told Oaklandside reporters that Scott’s recent tweets using a homophobic trope to attack Thao staffer Harami were inappropriate and that people around him have begun a process of trying to hold him accountable.

David Peters, a West Oakland resident who is involved in several civic groups and projects, said some of the advertised attendees had to drop out of the rally because of Scott’s combative tone on Twitter.

“I told him Saturday night, you have to apologize for that thing you said about Brandon [Harami]. That’s out of pocket. And you need to get off Twitter,” said Peters. “He said he will issue an apology to Brandon.” 

As of Monday, Scott hadn’t taken down the homophobic attack against Harami.

Oakland leaders look for outside help

Dozens of Oaklanders lined up outside the Genesis Worship Center for a public safety town hall on Sept. 9, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz.

As the Neighbors Together Oakland came to a close, dozens of people lined up across the street outside the Genesis Worship Center for a town hall meeting moderated by Bishop George Matthews, who established the church in 2003 and oversaw chaplaincy services for the sheriff’s office from 2011 to 2018.

The church was filled to its 125-person capacity. Some who weren’t able to get in or were made to leave for disrupting the event unleashed their frustration outside the church. 

Inside the church, Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley said Oakland is the “poster child” for public safety problems impacting cities across America that have been decades in the making. Miley outlined a holistic, regional approach to crime that emphasizes preventative measures. He noted that a group of philanthropists recently launched Rise East, a $100 million privately funded initiative that will focus on systemic inequities in a 40-square-block portion of East Oakland. 

Miley said the county also has hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for early childhood development and childcare. But he added that they can’t use any of these funds until the county resolves a lawsuit brought by the Alameda County Taxpayers Association. 

Miley stressed the need for traditional law enforcement, saying there are “evil people in the world,” citing as examples Hitler, Donald Trump, and the Proud Boys. 

“We need law enforcement to do their jobs constitutionally to help deal with these evil people,” he said. 

Mayor Sheng Thao told the audience that she’s been approaching outside agencies for help. She said Gov. Gavin Newsom recently gave the city six California Highway Patrol officers to help with traffic enforcement and a $1.2 million loan to install more automated license plate readers. Thao also defended her record of investing in traditional law enforcement, noting that she brought back police foot patrols around some commercial corridors. She also teased a plan for improving the city’s 911 system, which recently experienced an outage. Thao noted that despite a historic $360 million deficit in the city’s general fund, she did not lay off any OPD officers. 

Two women and a man seated at a black table with name placards in front of them. Behind them is a screen projected with several people's faces.
Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao, and Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley discussed pressing public safety issues during a public town hall on Sept. 9, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz.

Thao also addressed the demand by Taylor and others that Oakland declare a local state of emergency. 

“Just because you call a state of emergency, does that give you more police officers tomorrow? It does not,” Thao said, pointing out that the Alameda County Sheriff and CHP are also struggling to recruit new officers. “The bodies just aren’t there.” 

She said Oakland is already receiving additional funding and assistance from the state and that declaring an emergency won’t help solve problems like police understaffing. 

Taylor and groups like Neighbors Together and the Oakland NAACP have also criticized Thao for firing Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong in February for his role in a mishandled police discipline case. Thao has stood by her decision to fire Armstrong, and she said she’s waiting to interview candidates for Oakland Police Chief selected by the Police Commission. 

“I am equally frustrated because this process should have already started, but at the same time, Oakland deserves the best,” Thao said. 

District Attorney Pamela Price, who has been a lightning rod for public anger over crime in recent months, repeatedly said that she is not the mayor of Oakland and has no control over some of the decisions she gets blamed for. Price also clarified that she doesn’t control the Oakland Police Department but said she has raised issues with OPD about the department’s response times. 

“I have said to them, you don’t get to not do your job because you don’t like how I’m doing my job,” Price said. 

Price also decried criticism she’s received in some local media outlets, describing some of it as racist. 

“If you believe the media hype, I went from a well-respected lawyer and businesswoman with 40 years of experience in this community to a bumbling, incompetent idiot who knows nothing about the law or the criminal justice system,” Price said. 

Pressed by Matthews to address claims that she is more concerned with people accused of crimes than victims, Price said her office has increased the number of victim witness advocates, among other improvements to the office, and she defended her record of prosecutions. 

“We charged 7,610 cases, including murder and serious violent felonies,” Price said. “So those folks who said we are not charging, you know the devil is a liar.” 

Representatives for OPD and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department also spoke at the event. OPD Captain Kevin Kaney reported that so far this year, the department’s clearance rate for homicides is 60%, which is “way higher than any other city.” 

Assistant Alameda County Sheriff Emmanuel Christy said his office supports Oakland with personnel stationed at AC Transit and the airport. But he noted that the county department can’t put all its resources in the city of Oakland. 

“We’re down 250 officers,” Christy said. “We’re working hard to recruit, but it’s a process.” 

Councilmembers Kevin Jenkins and Treva Reid also spoke at the event. Jenkins, who represents District 6, said he’s working to install automated license plate readers and improve the 911 system. 

A group of people seated in rows face a panel of people who are seated before a large projector screen. Curtains cover the windows.
Alameda County elected officials are hosted by Genesis Worship Center for a community town hall on public safety on Sep 9, 2023 in Oakland, Calif. Credit: Amir Aziz.

Jenkins said he’s “embarrassed” by the city’s broken 911 system.

Reid, who represents District 7, said that unlike other parts of the city, East Oakland doesn’t have business improvement districts—associations of local business owners who organize fundraising activities and act as unofficial lobbyists to the city—which means its business corridors have lost out on much-needed funding. Reid stressed the need for a regional task force to crack down on crime. She added that the state needs to offer more support to Oakland, noting that San Francisco and Los Angeles received dozens of CHP officers, while Oakland only got six. 

“The governor needs to deliver more to Oakland,” Reid said. 

Johnny Williams, a resident who lives a few blocks from Genesis Worship Center, was able to gain entry and stood up while Price was speaking and began shouting about how unsafe it feels when the police don’t show up when they’re called to East Oakland. Williams was escorted out of the church. Outside, he vented about how his community feels ignored by the police. 

Johnny Williams disrupted the meeting with an outburst directed at Oakland Police while DA Price was speaking during the public safety meeting on Sep 9, 2023 at the Genesis Worship Center. Credit: Amir Aziz.

“We’ve got homeless people living next to me where their encampment caught fire and threatened my house,” Williams told the church staff. “No police, only the fire department [showed up],” he said.

A woman who didn’t identify herself but said she lives across the street from the church complained that East Oakland’s homeless people have unmet mental health needs that aren’t being addressed by anyone and that much of the crime in her neighborhood is rooted in poverty. The city’s police aren’t as present in her area as they are in other parts of the city, she said.

Bishop Matthews, who spoke throughout the event, got a frosty reception when he suggested many of Oakland’s chronic problems, such as car break-ins, are the result of Proposition 47. Approved by voters in 2014, this ballot measure made some non-violent property crimes misdemeanors, rather than felonies, in cases where the damage does not exceed $950. 

Matthews also caused a brief stir when he said Southwest Airlines is considering leaving Oakland International Airport, adding that he heard this from a city councilmember. Thao denied that Southwest is leaving Oakland. A spokesperson for Southwest told The Oaklandside that the airline remains committed to Oakland.

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.

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.