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A Comprehensive Guide to Oakland's Complex Gang History

Posted by Jordan Tennenbaum on

Known for being a dangerous and violent city, Oakland, California has crawled its way to the top as one of the most notorious places in the United States. Philadelphia has the cheese steak, New York has Yankee fans, and Oakland has a gang problem. According to Kathleen Les (1998) “Oakland's economic foundations have been eroding, locking it into images of urban grit and crime” which have “come to symbolize a city without a center -- without essence -- and is both the bane of Oakland's problem and the gateway to misperceptions about the city” (Pg 1). Many of the misconceptions regarding Oakland are due to the high levels of poverty and crime often associated with the citizens of Oakland, which has lead to a very negative public image for the city.


When a city struggles economically, the working class does too, forcing youth to adapt to their seemingly hopeless surroundings in whatever way they can, even if that means joining a gang. In this paper, I plan to conduct an ethnographic investigation into the effects of gangs in Oakland, California in the context of the city’s history. Using scholarly sources, I will detail how the deteriorating economic situation has influenced gangs in Oakland, and therefore has changed the lives of everyone living in the city in different ways. This paper will describe not a specific gang or issue, but rather the history and trends associated with Oakland’s gangs, and their role in shaping city politics, public image, police force, and the lives of it’s citizens.

In the words of Armaline, W., Vera Sanchez, C., & Correia, “Oakland is a racially and culturally diverse port city with a rich history of community organizing and organized resistance in the name of social justice. With nearly 400,000 residents, it is the eighth largest city in California, and three-quarters of the population are people of color.” (pg 379). During the mid-1900s, Oakland experienced a rapid industrial boom, leading to a massive influx of workers of color, and unfair changes in the distribution of housing. “Oakland’s settlement was shaped by deep divisions in the value of residential ownership in its neighborhoods in ways that are revealed in the fractures lines that still divide its population” (Wordpress, 2009). Despite a physically divided workforce, Oakland began to grow and thrive as a bustling city with a strong industrial economy and plenty of jobs, especially with the help of the Port of Oakland, one of the biggest ports in the entire world. With people employed, wages at a fair level, and a great location on the Bay, Oakland was a fantastic city to live in as a person of color; it was known as the Detroit of the West Coast, and was considered a thriving black Mecca.

Although Oakland was prosperous the business community faced some major problems in the 1980s and 1990s. From a vicious crack and AIDS epidemic to deindustrialization, and from the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 to the rampant increase in gang activity, the industrial sector not only experienced physical infrastructure damage, but the economic situation caused many companies to relocate. This lead to the industrial plant closures of longterm Oakland companies including Gerber, General Electric, National Lead, American Can, and Transamerica Delaval (Oakland Economy, pg 159). It is in this time period, between 1980 and the early 2000s, that gang Oakland’s gang activity and image began to change, grow, and adapt to their jobless environment.

After two rough decades, Oakland received the designation of an Urban Enterprise Zone and began a relatively quick economic turnaround that culminated with the ranking for the eighth best city in the country for businesses by Forbes Magazine in 2002. With such a designation, Oakland was inundated with new businesses and industries helping to boost the economy, followed by a surge in over sixty city development projects and a five hundred million dollar Port of Oakland revitalization project. With the success of the economic revitalization in Oakland, crime and specifically gang-related activity went down in the early 2000s, creating a city that shined with diversity, livelihood, delicious food, and interactive people. Although this positive turn has uplifted the citizens of Oakland in recent years, Oakland is was plagued by resurging gang activity, and a reputation of gang-related violence and crime from the 1980s and 1990s that seem to overshadow an otherwise vibrant city.

Due to the poor economic conditions of the 1980s and 1990s, gangs in Oakland began to thrive. Drawing inspiration from the legacy of the infamous Black Panther Party, gangs began to spring up in Oakland neighborhoods and projects as a response to the poor conditions of life. These conditions included poverty, and residential segregation, both of which are intertwined in the case of Oakland’s gang problem. Due to the crumbling economy of the 1980s, and a massive fire in the early 1990s clearing out most of the hills, many of Oakland’s white upper class moved to the expensive, elevated areas and the middle class moved to surrounding suburban cities for cheaper housing, leaving the poor to fill in the worst remaining spaces in the flatlands of East and West Oakland. With such high level of economic, and therefore racial segregation, rising levels of concentrated poverty, and a very few public resources, the conditions were suitable for youth to rebel and form gangs as an adaptation to their environment.

Because this paper does not focus on one specific gang’s role in shaping Oakland, I will first try to show how gangs, in general, have helped shape Oakland’s politics and police, followed by its reputation and the lives of its citizens. The early 1980s led to the construction of many housing projects in East and West Oakland in an effort to help shelter those in desperate need, and get active gang members off the streets. The creation of these projects in areas such as Acorn, Dogtown, Ghostown, and Seminary provided people in poverty with despicable living conditions and good reason to feel angry towards their government, encouraging youth to create gangs as a form of protection, family, and rebellion against their situation.

As gangs began to grow, one of the most apparent challenges for Oakland’s politicians was to deal with the constantly shrinking police force. With the recommended number of officers around nine hundred and fifty for the city of Oakland, currently the force is understaffed due to massive budget cuts, leaving citizens with around six hundred and fifty available officers to patrol their streets. Losing officers at a rate of three and a half per month, “the department is plagued by antiquated technology and inadequate facilities" that hamper "efficient and accountable service delivery" (Gangs Boost Murder Rate, Juvenile Justice Digest).

The lack of available police force and infrastructure affects Oakland politics in three direct ways. First, the citizens of Oakland are unable to receive help when they need it most, and therefore begin to dislike and distrust those sworn to protect them. Second, crime rates are able to soar due to the lack of protection, publicly indicating a rise in criminal activity and the start of a bad public image. Third, the lack of available officers puts pressure on the available officers, causing them to work long, stressful hours in dangerous conditions, and therefore react unfavorably, defensively, or violently when dealing with criminals who are frequently stereotyped. The massive understaffing caused due to injuries, retirements, and budget cuts has exacerbated the problem further because the residents of Oakland now have a distrust for their police force, yet need them more than ever. This catch twenty-two has led to quite a bit of tension between gangs, citizens, and the government of Oakland.

According to of Armaline, W., Vera Sanchez, C., & Correia, “the OPD (Oakland Police Department) is not new to patterns of violence against people of color due to high-stress situations, some of which have even reached Supreme Court rulings” (pg 381). From the Reese OPD unit case of 1993 to the killing of Oscar Grant and Alan Blueford, and the excessive force used in both Occupy Oakland and during the Ferguson protests, it is clear the Oakland Police Department reacts to situations incorrectly because it is so understaffed, underprepared, and underfunded. Because of this, police develop negative attitudes towards the minorities they deal with, which can lead to more unfair persecution and corruption as shown by the Riders Case. “The OPD has been under federal scrutiny and court monitoring since 2003 for what is known as the ‘Riders Case’… [in which] several OPD officers were accused of routinely framing and beating drug suspects while patrolling West Oakland in 2000, then falsifying reports to hide their crimes” (Armaline, W., Vera Sanchez, C., & Correia, pg 382).

This trend of poor police practices, in combination with Order Policing, the practice of maintaining order through policing small infractions, has not worked effectively for the Oakland Police Department. “Stop-and-frisk procedures, loitering policies, and other types of order maintenance strategies open the floodgates to countless stops under limitless circumstances, often affecting the most marginal and/or targeted groups, such as young African American males,” furthering the cycle of citizen’s mistrust and police violence (Armaline, W., Vera Sanchez, C., & Correia, pg 383).

The mistrust that the citizens of Oakland feel for their police department stretches all the way back to 1975, when “a moving cavalcade of testimony charging harassment, brutality and unconcern for Blacks and other minorities in the East Bay [was heard] at the first of a series of public hearings on accusations made against the Oakland Police Department” (Ernstein, pg 1). These public hearings, sponsored by the NAACP, have carried into the modern town hall meetings Oakland holds today, and the citizens seem to echo the same dislike and mistrust for their struggling police department.

Three ways the OPD has chosen to combat the huge crime problem is through gang raids, ceasefires, and injunctions, all of which have had both positive and negative implications for Oakland. According to (2012), “Oakland crime statistics report an overall upward trend in crime based on data from fourteen years with violent crime increasing and property crime decreasing,” and because of this, these methods with which to combat gangs are a necessary evil. For example, in 2013, state and federal police arrested eighteen members of the Case Boys in a raid after giving them fair warning and presenting them with a warrant. “Those arrested Friday were booked on suspicion of a variety of crimes, including conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder, assault on a police officer, conspiracy to commit robbery and pimping and pandering,” common crimes committed by gang members in the Oakland streets (Harris, pg 1). While it is important to remove active gang members from the streets, these actions can have direct negative consequences.

By arresting active gang members in a raid, the “ceasefire works on a carrot-and-stick principle. There is the warning and promise of punishment for committing future violence. But there is also an offer of help in the form of employment, drug rehabilitation, housing and other services for those who want to try to make a new start” (Drummond, pg 1).

In addition to raids and enforcing ceasefires, the government of Oakland also supports injunctions that restrict the freedom of those associated with gangs. According to Wagstaff (2011), “the injunctions effectively serve as restraining orders, within designated "safety zones," against specific individuals named as gang members. Those people are prohibited from recruiting and associating with one another in public, and are subject both to a 10 p.m. curfew and to extra penalties for illegal activities like carrying guns and harassing witnesses” (pg 10).

Combining ceasefires, injunctions, and gang raids can be helpful, yet they can also have negative effects. According to Rayburn (2010), “For some of those served with this injunction, the area affected by the proposed injunction will include… nearly every place they conduct their daily lives, the brief says. The proposed injunction will profoundly affect their basic liberty, limiting their association with family and friends, their freedom of movement, and their political and cultural activities" (pg 1). Because of this, “the ACLU-Lawyers' Committee brief [states that injunctions] provide too much leeway for police to add people to the injunction without due process, unnecessarily restricts constitutionally protected activities, and hasn't shown that the benefits of the injunction will outweigh the possible harm” (Rayburn, pg 1).

In addition to gang members and police, the injunctions can be seen as a method of gentrification, which fuels the tension between residents and gang members of Oakland. According to Eric Arnold (2011), the intersection of the criminal justice system and general economic interests often times affect people of color, of which most of Oakland’s residents are (pg 1). In this situation, Arnold is referring to the fact that the injunctions did not really target crime “hot spots” but rather focused on small zones near wealthy neighborhoods, which gives the illusion that the injunctions were put in place in order to protect and gentrify the ‘nice’ areas of Oakland. In the words of George Galvis (2011), “gang injunctions are very effective tools for areas ripe for gentrification” (pg 72), and Oakland has been experiencing rapid levels of gentrification in the past five to ten years. Through policies that encourage gentrification and unequal treatment of human rights, the value of homes in the majority of Oakland’s zip codes have rapidly diminished, Oakland’s black population has declined by twenty-five percent, and tensions between the fortunate and the needy continues to grow (Arnold, pg 74.) This has led to extreme poverty and a lack of jobs, which has helped gangs continue to thrive in Oakland.

In addition to the internal politics surrounding the Oakland gang scene, gangs have a very direct and powerful impact on both the image and people of a city. First, I want to explore the way in which Oakland’s tough economic history and gang politics have influenced the image of the city. About two years ago, a YouTube video was released called “Shit Nobody Says,” including lines nobody would never say such as “I miss faxing,” “I got a great deal on printer ink,” and “we should move to Oakland.” While hitting the humor nail on the head, the video falls short in regards to properly representing Oakland; it helps to enforce the stereotype that Oakland is a dangerous, bad place worth avoiding. When I travel and tell people that I am from Oakland, I always get the same response: “Is it scary?” In the words of Anna Bloom (2010), “I was raised in a neighborhood with a mix of growth, grit and crime. To me, it seems that being from Oakland is like being from the South Side of Chicago: People tend to think you’re tougher than you are, and your neighborhood is tougher still. Many are afraid to visit” (pg 1).

Oakland, like some other cities, is plagued by gangs, but because it has been so mediatized due to violent crime over the years, the reputation of the city has followed suit. Oakland is known for the rowdy Raider fans, hip hop involving vehicle sideshows and ecstasy called hyphy, constant pop culture references on shows such as SNL, and a mediatized reputation as a violent city. Because of this, Oakland has created and maintained a very bad image for itself, which has two negative effects on the citizens who live there.

First, the portrayed image of Oakland out to be undesirable, which can directly affect tourism, business, sales, property value, and just about everything else related to the economic value of the city. While this is true, Bloom (2010) points out that the bad reputation has helped to keep housing costs down until recently, which some residents are thankful for. Second, despite the small positive note, carrying the negative image helps to reinforce to the impressionable youth that violence, poverty, and gang activity are normal, which can perpetuate a downward cycle for both the city and its inhabitants as well.

According to Martin Reynolds (2011), “through a lack of more nuanced coverage, the media have also played a role in distorting the perception of this city by not doing enough to report on the totality of what the community represents” (pg 1). What he means is two-fold. First, the local media outlets do not properly cover Oakland as most news media seems to do in general. They paint a picture of Oakland as dangerous, dirty, and an overall negative experience due to gang-related crime without any attention to the positivity that seems to constantly arise from Oakland’s deepest and darkest locations. Second, the negative stigma they attach to Oakland seems to extend to the city’s Black, Asian, and Latino population, who are unfairly overrepresented in the news, leading to further negative stereotypes and image problems regarding the incredibly diverse residents. Therefore due to crime maps and sensationalized news stories, Oakland seems to have areas of the city that are more dangerous that Baghdad.

While maintaining a city’s image can be very challenging, it is important, and it must be done so in a way that is fair to both the city and its inhabitants. Oakland must approach its image in a way that not only informs the public about the danger and crime in the city but also reminds the citizens, and the rest of the United States, that Oakland is a city like any other, with successes failures, and plenty of positivity that is frequently ignored by the mainstream media. As the times change, hopefully Oakland becomes more serious in its approach to managing its public image, in order stop reinforcing a life of crime and negative behavior and make a positive change.

While maintaining a city image is very important, one must also keep in mind the ways in which gang life has begun to affect the people and politics of Oakland. In a recent article in the East Bay Express by Rebecca Ruiz (2013), the author traces the story of Javier Arango, an ex-Oakland gang member suffering from severe PTSD, or Complex Trauma. “In Oakland, youth like Arango haven't been told that the experiences they've come to consider normal — deaths of friends and family, abuse and neglect at the hands of caretakers, cupboards that are always bare, random acts of violence — are so traumatizing that they could lead to depression, anxiety, or even PTSD. These conditions can shackle a child, dragging him down as he tries to forge bonds with others, stay engaged in school, and dream of the future” (Ruiz).

Although the definition of PTSD is a bit limited in the sense of Oakland as a post-war zone, according to a survey of thousands of Oakland youth, nearly sixty percent had seen a violent act in the past year, and in some Oakland schools, nearly fifty percent had lost a loved one due to violence. With that in mind, it is important to note that “those exposed to violence are more likely to fail or struggle in school, exhibit criminal behavior, and develop depression, anxiety, and PTSD” (Ruiz). With a very high rate of violence, one would expect high rates of PTSD among children, but due to its difficulty to diagnose and the lack of available information from psychologists regarding people under age, the actual rate of PTSD in Oakland is hard to pin down. According to the Center for Disease control, about thirty-three percent of all inner city kids suffer from some form of PTSD, and Oakland can be viewed as an extreme case. That being said, many parents in Oakland cannot afford the proper medicine and therapist treatment, or have been victims of violence as well, and therefore are not able to support their children. Because of this, the rate of PTSD among Oakland’s inner city youth is thought to be between thirty and fifty percent.

While some citizens react to traumatic moments by developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, others seem to use them as fuel with which to embed themselves deeper into the gang life. In the Discovery Documentary “Gang Wars Oakland” (2009), the viewer is presented with the story of Philthy Rich, an Oakland rapper who seeks revenge on those who murdered his cousin DeAndre. Considered as an OG in Seminary, Philthy Rich has sold and made drugs, committed violent acts, and been to jail seven times. According to the Oakland Tribune (2012), he was recently booked into jail on suspicion of a stolen vehicle and receiving stolen property. After living a life full of traumatic moments, one would expect that he would be susceptible to PTSD symptoms, yet the documentary states “the streets call for justice: that means Philthy much avenge his cousin at any cost” (Gang Wars Oakland, 2009). While a bit theatrical, this call for justice seemingly outweighs the potential power of PTSD, as it does for so many other gangsters in Oakland, which can have cascading negative effects.

By ignoring the effects of PTSD, which includes mentally replaying and reflecting on violent experiences, Oakland’s gangsters are able to repress their emotions, which enhances their ability to continue to commit crimes as a dominant male. Instead of reacting to trauma with stress, gang members force themselves deeper into a life of crime, because being emotional and caring would acknowledge personal weakness, and could negatively affect what their gang had worked to achieve. This means that gang members will continue to commit crimes as long as they remain in a toxic environment that values toughness over reconciliation, Sadly, the only two options for gang members are succumbing to mental illness, or committing more serious crimes, both of which are harmful to the individual and the city as a whole.

In the case of Philthy Rich, he considers himself lucky. Legendary Oakland rappers such as Mac Dre and community leader The Jacka have already been killed due to possible gang violence, and others such as Husalah and Too $hort have been sent to jail frequently due to gang and criminal activity. Sadly, this is the case with many young black men, who see music or sports as their only way to a better life. Unfortunately, sometimes the gangs of Oakland can even overpower community heroes trying to make a living, which is symbolic of the lack of opportunities and jobs for those in the poorest parts of Oakland.

In order for the likelihood of a gang member to choose one of these two paths to be greatly reduced, there must be a third option. For gang activity to subside in Oakland, jobs must be immediately created, and thankfully, this is happening. In the past five years, Oakland has experienced a huge boom in tourism, public parks, hospitality, medical facilities, shopping centers, and many other areas of importance. As the economy begins to pick up in Oakland, there will be less poverty and more jobs, which can give gang members something not only to live for, but also to do, keep them off the streets, and engaged in something positive and productive.

Hopefully the economic sector of Oakland continues to grow at a rapid rate and has the ability to provide the poor with jobs to keep them off of the streets, and focused on working to positively change their lives. Fortunately, Oakland was ranked by the New York Times as the fourth best city in the world to visit, sitting nicely between London and Tokyo. This is something that makes me proud and hopeful for the future, because the only way Oakland can go is up. As Oakland progresses into the twenty-first century, I hope that we try to learn from the lessons of past interactions with gangs, and rely upon accurate, recent data that can help inform us as to the trends that associate themselves with gang life and gang members. In doing so, Oakland can continue to shine as the diverse gem of the Bay Area, empower the lives of marginalized individuals, allow its citizens to live without fear of crime or violence.


  1. Armaline, W., Vera Sanchez, C., & Correia, M. (2014). The biggest gang in Oakland’: re-thinking police legitimacy. Contemporary Justice Review17(3), 375-399.
  2. Arnold, E. (2011). Oakland Gang Injunctions: Gentrification or Public Safety?. Race, Poverty & The Environment18(2), 70-74.
  3. Bloom, A. (2010). Residents Grapple With Oakland's Violent Reputation. Bay Area Blog. Retrieved 26 April 2015, from
  4. com,. (2015). Oakland Crime Statistics: California (CA) - Retrieved 24 March 2015, from
  5.,. (2013). Gang Territory Maps | Musings on Maps. Retrieved 24 March 2015, from
  6. Drummond, T. (2013). Ceasefire turns up heat on Oakland gangs. Oakland Tribune.
  7. Ernstein, P. (1975). Blacks Blast Oakland Police. The Sun Reporter.
  8. Gang Wars Oakland. (2009). Oakland.
  9. Gang Wars Oakland 2. (2009). Oakland.
  10. GANGS BOOST MURDER RATE 90% IN OAKLAND. (2006). Juvenille Justice Digest.
  11. Harris, H. (2013). Oakland gang suspects caught in massive sweep: More than 200 officers raid two dozen sites. Contra Costa Times.
  12. Les, K. (1998). Oakland. California Journal.
  13. Rayburn, K. Oakland Tribune,. (2010). Civil liberties groups opposing Oakland gang tactic.
  14. Reynolds, M. (2015). Perceptions of Oakland | The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. org. Retrieved 26 April 2015, from
  15. Oakland Tribune,. (2012). Oakland rapper, two others arrested near nightclub in San Francisco's Richmond District.
  16. Oakland: Economy. (2015). Cities Of The United States2, 159-161.
  17. Ruiz, R. (2013). Life, Death, and PTSD in Oakland. East Bay Express.
  18. Wagstaff, E. (2011). Oakland Mayor And Gang Policy Mix Uneasily. New York Times.


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  • My name is Dr. Talia Moore, and I teach at Holy Names University in the Criminology Department. I’m reaching out because I am teaching a Juvenile Delinquency class this fall, and I would like a guest speaker in my class to discuss youth gangs in Oakland, characteristics of gangs, their impact and implications to all youth and the Oakland community, and approaches utilized to reduce their presence and impact.
    Please contact me :

    Talia Moore on
  • Would you do an interview for a school project on the history of gangs in Oakland?

    Natalie Lizardo-Sarellano on

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