“Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.” – Muhammad Ali.
At the start of the year, the prestigious New York Times listed Oakland, California as the fifth destination in their list of ”The 45 Places to Go in 2012.” As the first North American city on the list, new businesses and an influx of money had, according to the New York Times, converted ”once-gritty Oakland into an increasingly appealing place to be after dark.” A few days later on January 7th, the New York Times noted that 2011 produced, according to preliminary data provided by the Oakland Police department, “1,500 reported incidents of gun violence” with arrests “made in just 117 of the cases — less than 8 percent.” According to the same article, Oakland experienced 2,325 reported incidents of gun violence combined in the two years prior to 2011 and a 60 percent increase in shooting related incidents within a five year span. The reality is even starker for Oakland’s youth. On March 13, a KQED town hall at Laney College in Oakland focused on Oakland’s 40 percent high school dropout rate, a percentage that is twice the 20 percent average dropout rate of the state. While these problems are not solely exclusive to Oakland, they’re part of a larger experience that hovers over marginalized areas of inner cities across the United States of America.
“…what Edward Gibbon was to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, or Charles Dickens to the smoky mean streets of Victorian London, David Simon is to America today.” – Bill Moyers on April 17, 2009, as part of the introduction to his interview with David Simon.
Over the course of the last decade, David Simon’s The Wire has captivated the American public’s imagination by embodying the manner with which amoral, dysfunctional institutions perpetuate the devastation of individuals and their communities. In the multipart series, David Simon portrays the moral ambiguities and hopelessness associated with life within and in service of West Baltimore, a relationship that is in some form comparable to realities faced by many in East Oakland. As Linda Williams notes in World and Time: The Genesis and Genius of The Wire, David Simon’s search for ”a deeper sociocultural understanding of the lives of the people” guided his transformation from a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun to amateur ethnographer for The Wire. It is a similar desire for understanding has brought me to the corner of 98th avenue and Pearmain Street.
Located in gritty East Oakland, a building with vibrant murals and a certified organic garden is home to the East Oakland Boxing Association. Opened in 1987 by Stanley Garcia, a former Golden Gloves champion, Stanley believed that teaching at-risk youth to box would keep them away from the violent streets and as it did for him, teach them valuable lessons that were unavailable elsewhere in the community. As of 2012, “more than 30,000 youths have attended SmartMoves,” wrote Tammerlin Drummond on February 13, 2012, for the Oakland Tribune. However in recent years, the organization has been devastated by the deaths of four important figures in the formation of the program. In combination with subsequent poor leadership and a substantial lack of funding, the new executive director, Sarah Chavez, has been forced to scramble for funds to save the organization. With athletic programs, tutoring, lessons in nutrition, organic gardening and cooking courses, the safety provided by the East Oakland Boxing Association is a rarity in crime ridden East Oakland.
“All my people, man, my father, my uncles, It’s just what we do. You just live with this shit, until you can’t breathe no more. I swear to God, I was courtside for eight months, and I was freer in jail than I was at home. - D’Angelo during Season 1, Episode 13 of The Wire.
Pepe Villareal, now a 19 year old student at Laney College, has been with the program since he was 12 years old. Originally raised in Durango, Mexico, Pepe credits the East Oakland Boxing Association with giving him the confidence to seek alternatives to those provided by violent street life in East Oakland. According to Pepe, the boxing association has offered him a safe environment where he is capable of giving back to the community and as a result of this empowerment, he is now seeking to continue his education.
When roses come back to the concrete, they create rose gardens” – Jeff Duncan Andrade, from his TED talk on education in East Oakland.
In a similar form, Angel Martinez, now 20 years old, joined the organization when he was 16 years old but he laments that he was unable to enroll when he was a younger boy. Unlike Pepe, Angel was born and raised in East Oakland and he’s very familiar with ll aspects of life in these parts. Outside of the East Bay Boxing Association, Angel saw his former friends join gangs and now many of them are currently in juvenile hall or dead. The pressure to join gangs, according to Angel, is very high, and once you become an older gang member, your probability of walking away from gang life are essentially nil. The violence in his community is the result of a never ending cycle of retaliation, wherein members of gangs murder each other in response to a murder. Angel is quick to acknowledge the influence of a lone teacher that would not let him “walk away.” Inspired by the defiant teacher, he was guided towards the program and became preoccupied with “other things.” Unlike the majority of his former friends, Angel is now working towards becoming a high school teacher so that he may one day return and inspire younger members of his community, just as George Stanley did.
Unfortunately for every Pepe and Angel there are many more youth who are neglected by their families, schools, and institutions in East Oakland. In the period following the Great Recession of 2008, politicians and businesses in California have sought to curb the loss of wealth by reevaluating their priorities. At a state level, Governor Jerry Brown has threatened to offer cuts in funding for public education if tax rates aren’t passed; this immediately means cuts in extracurricular activities and after school programs provided by organizations such as the East Oakland Boxing Association. Meanwhile, as Michelle Alexander writes about in The New Jim Crow, the prisons are filled with disproportionate members of black and brown communities because of non-violent crimes. These incarcerations hinder an individual’s mobility or ability to find jobs. Writing for the Oakland Tribune, Tammerlin Drummond explained that the approximate cost to incarcerate a single juvenile offender for a year is $200,000, meanwhile the cost to maintain a program similar to the East Oakland Boxing Association is roughly $350, 000. Our society, at a political level, has currently elected to prioritize funding the former and not the latter.
In addition, Shoshana Walter noted for the New York Times on March 7, 2012, that the “…Oakland Police Department now has about 630 officers after layoffs, attrition and budget cutbacks — a loss of about 150 officers since mid-2009 — a number that police officials say has affected the response times and services for the city’s 400,000 residents.” On average, the Oakland police department responds to to the highest priority calls in 15 minutes. As George Lipsitz notes in How Racism Takes Place, this is a continuation of how the white spatial imaginary’s “racially propelled logic of hostile privatism and defensive localism has come to dominate decisions about both private investment and public policy.” The lack of funding, the lack of police and lack of programs in combination with other factors form merely the backbone of the problems that affect East Oakland. It is the interconnectedness of the failure of institutions that informs David Simon’s ethnographic realization of West Baltimore for The Wire.
“…you see how interconnected things are. How connected the performance of the school system is to the culture of a corner. Or where parenting comes in. And where the lack of meaningful work in all these things, you know, the decline of industry suddenly interacts with the paucity and sort of fraud of public education in the inner city. Because THE WIRE is not a story about the America, it’s about the America that got left behind. - David Simon discussing The Wire during Bill Moyers Journal
While it may not have started as a political show, The Wire unquestionably became a political television show as it moved through the seasons. In David Simon’s own words, “The Wire, though fiction, is, I hope, extremely political. It argues that at the millennium, the American empire is ending, and the rot is from within.” David Simon’s depiction of violent American culture in The Wire “demonstrates that individual villainy has systemic causes, that corrupt police officers and criminal sociopaths are the logical end and inevitable products of dominant approaches to drug interdiction and incarceration,” wrote George Lipsitz in How Racism Takes Place. George Lipsitz also claims that it is “relentlessly on target in exposing the bureaucratic imperatives and dysfunctional contradictions of police work, teaching and journalism.” It is in this strict regard that the The Wire functions as a fair and representative depiction of some form of American cultural violence in urban areas. This became evident during my field work at the East Oakland Boxing Association. Prior to the implementation of the new executive director Sarah Chavez, previous bureaucrats of the organization were accused of diverting funds into their personal accounts. These selfish acts not only threaten the livelihood of the East Oakland Boxing Association but by extension, they threaten the livelihood of the youth who depend upon these safety zones. However this is only a microcosm of the uphill battle that organizations like the East Bay Boxing Association must overcome. When combined with budget cuts at a local and national level, incidents of violence and the white spatial imaginary’s influence on policy, these acts coalesce to sustain a very strict interpretation of the violent American “culture” depicted in West Baltimore in areas such as East Oakland.
“The important thing is not to stop questioning” - Albert Einstein, quoted on a mural at the East Oakland Boxing Association
With that said and as someone who was raised in South Central Los Angeles for the first 17 years of his life, the context of these crimes and the “culture” that surrounds them is not homogenous throughout the United States. There may be overarching themes but the inner city problems that afflict blacks in Detroit, Michigan are not the same as those that I had to experience as the son of Latino immigrants in Los Angeles, California. The policies that have been implemented at a national or local level by the white spatial imaginary also vary among regions. For example, Mexican Repatriation during the 1930′s forced the deportation of more than 500,000 documented or undocumented people of Mexican ancestry. This deportation was coordinated by national and local policy, in fact, many of the same justifications for the negative behavior against or negative attitudes towards immigrants in the 1930′s remain embedded in American culture today. These experiences helped shape and form the barrios of Los Angeles. In another regard, The Wire fails to capture the true spatial and racial depth of the problems that afflict “the America that got left behind.”
To expand upon the previous statement, the critiques of institutions do not enable David Simon and his writers “to step back and see how these institutions are the products of racialized space and posses racial and spatial imaginaries,” wrote George Lipsitz in How Racism Takes Place. This is also captured by Linda Williams when she states that part of the problem with David Simon’s realization of West Baltimore is that “no single ethnographer has enough knowledge of enough worlds or enough time to show the evolving and related world system.” Nowhere is this truer in The Wire then in the complete lack of discussion about how neighboring, affluent communities exploit West Baltimore or how current housing policies create the ghetto. In addition, there is very little to hint at the viewer’s possible role in sustaining these neglected urban areas. As George Lipsitz highlights, it allows the HBO viewer to become a passive voyeur who may consider themselves noble because they feel terrible from the safety of their homes or The Wire may make some feel absolved of any responsibility in perpetuating inequality because of their inability to add context to intra-colored violence.
In comparison, journalism has transformed over the last century. Once a reporter, David Simon left the Baltimore Sun to pursue the kind of ethnography that he lays out in The Wire. During class, San Francisco Chronicle journalist Henry Lee delved into the complexity of being a journalist. He laments that small, positive stories about local news do not move papers. Henry claims that they may make great blog posts but they will not revive the print industry. The transformation of the content of newspapers is also viewed as a product of systemic residential segregation. As whites moved out of urban areas, the content of newspapers began to focus less on local news and instead placed a greater emphasis on pieces about suburbanite consumption. Mainstream journalism, as evident throughout this blog post, is finding creative ways to convey information in a digestible format that can complement longer pieces but it’s not quite consumed at levels that it once enjoyed. In my opinion, The Wire is able to address many of these issues in a visual form that may seem truer than mainstream journalism. This is because The Wire is drama and journalism, it allows you to immerse yourself into West Baltimore but in a way that is not constricted by the rules of journalism. The Wire can therefore inform by misdirection but maintain a reasonable facade of truth. In addition, characters such as D’Angelo are no longer simply print statistics, they’re humanized in a way that mainstream journalism has long struggled to convey. For example, how do you humanize a chart or an individual in a 15 second sound byte? The Wire let’s you experience the trials and tribulations of the fictitious people that inhabit the screen. However it’s important to realize that while The Wire may be the best visual depiction of the problems that plague urban areas, it is certainly not complete in capturing that depth or racial complexity that an in-depth analysis by a competent mainstream journalist can provide. However for the majority of the American audience, the visual experience alloted by The Wire may be as close as they come to joining the other America.
For members of the East Oakland Boxing Association there’s very little satisfaction in knowing that the New York Times wants their readers to visit Oakland in 2012. The Oakland of the New York Times and the Oakland of the East Oakland Boxing Association are interconnected in ways that are too numerous and unacknowledged. It may be that despite it’s flaws, David Simon’s The Wire has given this other America a shinier and larger platform from which to speak up. Media projects akin to those of David Simon have thus far resonated among those who care about ”The 45 Places to Go in 2012,” but to no avail yet. The youth of East Oakland Boxing Association may not be fully cognizant of how the political bureaucracy, failed institutions or white spatial imaginary coalesce to keep them in a ghetto, but they’re fully aware of the undesirable alternatives. Ultimately until society deems it necessary, neglected urban areas such as East Oakland need organizations like the East Bay Boxing Association. They need safety zones because they offer a form of resistance against the amassed injustices imposed upon them by a society that has long refused to ameliorate or even address their problems. These organization offer the youth an opportunity to empower themselves and give back to the community. It was an analogous organization in Los Angeles that influenced my desire to stay away from the streets and keep my head in a book. A quick trip to the East Bay Boxing Association immediately bestows upon the visitor a glimpse of the are potential long term and immediate benefits. When I asked Krishian, a fourth grader, about his plans, he announced that he was thinking about one day attending Stanford or UC Berkeley. He hadn’t quite made up his mind yet, but I personally hope that he selects Cal.
Every day I wonder just how I’ll die/ Only thing I know is how to survive – Too $hort, from a song named “The Ghetto.” This is a rap song about the neglected communities of East Oakland where Too $hort was raised. The lyrics can be found here, the video is below.
Image Sources [unable to embed in their captions]
- Oakland homicides in 2011: A statistical breakdown [Oakland North]
- Homocides: Jan 1, 2007 to March 19, 2012 [Los Angeles Times]
- Crime Watch [City of Oakland]