I graduated from Oakland Technical High School this year. I spent 13 years as an Oakland public school student, attending Chabot Elementary School and Claremont Middle School, before attending Tech. In all of this time, I was completely unaware of the existence of an independent Oakland Schools Police Department (OSPD). The three schools I attended are among the whitest public schools in the entire district—and as a result of my own physical proximity to whiteness, I gained access to resources, coursework and support that I would not have otherwise had.
Oakland Tech has a minimal police presence, especially when compared to other Oakland public high schools. When students there, and at other schools with larger white populations, have behavioral issues, these issues are largely dealt with through restorative justice practices, detention and, for more severe cases, suspension and eventually expulsion. For students at schools with high police presences, the same offenses can lead to arrests—and the beginnings of a criminal record.
All freshmen took California Studies at Oakland Tech, an ethnic studies–informed California history course that particularly focused on the history of systemic racism in our own state and community. We learned about Japanese internment and the Third World Liberation Front, and even watched Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th as a part of a lesson about the Prison-Industrial complex. We were subject to countless essays, projects, presentations and other assignments centered around identity, particularly race. Not once did we ever even discuss the existence of the Oakland School Police Department, much less its own deplorable history and racist track record.
The night of Monday, June 8, I started with a simple Google search: “Oakland school police.” An hour later, I was 27 tabs deep into a rabbit hole of old news stories, articles, OUSD job listings, budget proposals and nonprofit reports. Four hours later, I was finishing the last touches of a nine-slide Instagram infographic that summarized what I’d learned. When I posted it the next day, the message I received from my peers was almost universally the same: “I had no idea about any of this.”
My research started on the website of the Black Organizing Project (BOP), a “Black member-led community organization working for racial, social, and economic justice through grassroots organizing and community building in Oakland, California.” They began their Bettering Our School System campaign in 2011, after the killing of 20-year-old Raheim Brown by an OSPD officer. I am not affiliated with BOP; I am simply a recent follower of their work.
In January of 2011, Brown was shot by Oakland School Police Sgt. Barhin Bhatt after Bhatt and his partner Officer Bellusa approached the car that Brown was parked in outside of a Skyline High School dance, because it was parked in what they called an “unusual spot.” Bhatt was never fired or charged, and even later became interim OSPD chief. Later that year, the OSPD chief at the time of the shooting, Peter Sarna, resigned after becoming extremely intoxicated at a charity golfing event and allegedly telling a black sergeant, “the only good n—– is a dead n—– and they should hang you in the town square to prevent any other n—– from coming in the area.”
Bellusa later left the department and tried to help Brown’s mother find justice. He says that Sarna dissuaded the Oakland Police Department from conducting further interviews of the involved officers or a reenactment of the crime. And the legacy of racism, excessive force and a lack of accountability goes far beyond this incident: black students make up 26 percent of those enrolled in OUSD but make up 73 percent of student arrests. In 2014, two OSPD officers choked and dragged a fifteen-year-old special-needs student named Jonathan Rodriguez in the view of security cameras and failed to release the footage for a year—which Rodriguez named in his subsequent lawsuit as tantamount to a coverup.
Oakland is the only school district out of the 18 in Alameda County that has its own internal police department, costing the district $2.5 million in addition to over $4 million in security personnel. Completely independent from the Oakland Police Department, OSPD consists of 20 sworn officers and 220 school security officers, and according to the OUSD website, “patrols and provides services to approximately 100 OUSD owned properties.” While the district spends millions on this department, it consistently makes cuts to student support programs across the district that are particularly essential to the very students who experience the highest police presence in recent years.
The Oakland Unified School District Board plans to vote on the Black Organizing Project’s George Floyd Resolution to remove Oakland school police and reinvest the police budget into student support programs on June 24, 2020. Merely weeks before this vote, I and many others in my former school community are being introduced to the existence of this department for the first time—many of us did not even know that there we could be arrested at school. There are thousands of students who did not have this privilege of ignorance. The ideology behind directing funds towards policing students with behavioral problems while directing funds away from the support programs that address the issues underlying those behavioral problems is nonsensical. It ignores the roots of the problem and relies on the belief that black students and students of color overall are inherently violent and inclined towards crime—a white-supremacist belief.
Bellusa later said in an interview for the East Bay Express that “[OUSD] wanted to avoid another Oscar Grant-type situation,” and “that’s why they didn’t do a proper investigation,” into Raheim Brown’s killing, referring to the fatal shooting of a young unarmed Black man by a white BART cop in 2009. And this prioritization of self-absolution over an actual vested interest in justice is all too familiar, and mimics many of the patterns I’ve witnessed since childhood.
I grew up around a lot of white Rockridge families, and began regularly performing spoken word poetry in high school, which launched me into even more event spaces where I would talk about race to often very white audiences in Oakland and beyond. I cannot do anything more than speculate as to why we never discussed OSPD during our many conversations about systemic racism in the classroom; all I can say is that it did not surprise me. It simply reinforced what I already knew.
In my experience, Bay Area liberalism, particularly North Oakland liberalism, is largely composed of self-congratulatory performative platitudes. It is easier to condemn racism in other counties, in other states, in other regions of the nation, than it is to confront the racism in our backyard, and so most white Oakland liberals simply choose to ignore it, opting instead for slogans on yard signs. They cling desperately to the isolated resources that can be hoarded through localized Parent, Teacher and Student Associations (PTSA) fundraising because this allows them to ignore the glaring absence of these resources at other schools, or decline to participate in the public school system altogether if they can afford it. They ignore the blatant and severe segregation within their school district and within their classrooms. But to say one condemns racism and simultaneously declare oneself exempt from accountability is obsolete performance art at best and the perpetuation of violence at worst. There are already individuals and organizations like the Black Organizing Project who have been working to eliminate these inequalities for years, regardless of media spotlight or local attention. In a haste to place as much distance between themselves and the label of “racist” as possible, many members of Oakland’s own community have neglected to listen; in the process, they have been complicit and sometimes active in the preservation of Oakland’s own racist systems. A supposed commitment to justice that ends at one’s doorstep is just a self-serving act.
I cannot say how many of these families were aware of the existence or the history of the Oakland Schools Police Department, but from my own research process, I can say for certain that any ignorance of it did not stem from the inaccessibility of information. OSPD is one of many components of the deep inequality that runs through Oakland’s public school system, from access to high-quality education in the classroom to student support programs to counselor-student ratios and more. It is a deeply uncomfortable process to interrogate the ways one personally may have perpetuated and/or ignored systemic racism in one’s community. That is the point. The goal should never be self-absolution. We must be willing to get uncomfortable, to read, to learn, to listen, to follow the lead of others, and to sacrifice ego in the interest of dismantling white supremacy—and most importantly, we have to be willing to confront ourselves.
Samuel Getachew is a 17-year-old spoken word poet and writer.