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SF's Short-Lived Experiment with Gang Injunctions has Permanent Consequences 

Wednesday, Dec 9 2015
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In the Section 8-subsidized housing on Oakdale Avenue in the heart of Hunters Point, a stone's throw from the Grace Tabernacle Church, there's a wall. On the wall, in green graffiti-style paint, are the words, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHEAP CHARLIE." Below, in smaller script, is a single word: "OAKDALE."

There used to be two words: "OAKDALE MOB." This wall is a landmark in what was, in 2006, some of San Francisco's most violent and crime-ridden "gang turf," as San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera declared at the time. ("Cheap Charlie" was, by most tellings, an O.G. from the area from way back, perhaps the 1990s; the word "mob" was painted over sometime after 2006.)

The drug dealing, loitering, and occasional violence that plague every low-income neighborhood in America was so bad here that Herrera chose Oakdale Avenue as the first place to try out an innovation in crime fighting: gang injunctions. The city filed civil suits against young men who police declared to be in gangs.

This was how the city declared war on the "Oakdale Mob."

In court filings, police could not say who was in charge, how the gang operated, or how an individual joined. But after arresting the same couple dozen faces again and again, police believed that the "Oakdale Mob" existed and held it responsible for the crimes in the area including assaults and the occasional shooting.

Over the next five years, almost 30 people, all black men under age 30, were named as members of the Oakdale Mob. More than 100 other young men (by all accounts, all black or Latino) from the Mission District, Visitacion Valley, Bayview, and the Western Addition were similarly named as members of other gangs. Once added to the list, an individual could be penalized for being seen in certain locations declared gang turf or with certain people declared gang members. It was a warning, and a message: We know what you're up to. Stay out, and stay away — or else be a constant target of police.

Mario Woods, the 26-year-old fatally shot by San Francisco police last week after he allegedly stabbed someone, did not grow up near the wall on Oakdale Avenue. His mother's house was on Le Conte Avenue, 20 blocks down the hill near Candlestick Park.

But he knew people from Oakdale. He hung out there — and, once, in 2007, after getting into an argument over a girl, he was shot in the leg there, according to court filings.

That was enough. In 2009, when Woods was in County Jail awaiting trial for attempting to rob a pool hall on Geneva Avenue the year before — the robbery failed; surveillance video caught his would-be victim seizing the gun and chasing Woods out of the pool hall, where a chase from police ended with a car crash, a foot chase, and his arrest — he was served with court papers from the City Attorney's office. His name was added to the injunction, without a hearing and without a chance to appeal.

That meant he was a gang member — officially, and for life. When he was sentenced to prison the following year after more than 900 days in county, his assault charge carried a "gang enhancement." That added time to his prison term, from which he emerged with possible mental health problems, his mother has said.

The city hasn't sought further injunctions, which were opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the affected communities, since 2011. But the effects are still being felt.

It's unknown if the police who cornered Woods on Keith Street last week knew who he was or that he was named in the gang injunction. But being there had material impacts on Woods' life. For the people on the list, the injunction — which pops up on any search engine — still serves as a barrier for jobs, housing, and a way out of street life. And it's a life sentence with no chance of parole. The only way off of the list, those named say, is death.

"It's something they put on you as soon as you're 18," Eric Jones says.

Now 28, a married father, and a union painter since 2012, Jones says he was fingered as an Oakdale Mob member after he caught a juvenile charge at 15. Later, in prison after pleading guilty to assault as an adult, he, too, was served with paperwork by a San Francisco police officer.

"They give you a paper to sign, and you don't even know what's on the paper," he says. "Next thing you know, you're on this gang injunction."

The city began cracking down on "criminal street gangs" in the late 1970s in response to the 1977 Golden Dragon Massacre, which left five people dead in a Chinatown restaurant, and after other mob-related crimes in that neighborhood. Responsibilities of the SFPD's new "gang task force" were expanded to include Latino-identified gangs in the 1980s, and then expanded again to include majority African-American outfits.

What defines a "gang member" is outlined in state law — broadly. A gangbanger need only meet two out of 10 criteria, which include admitting to being a gang member to any police officer, school official, or juvenile hall employee; committing activities or crimes deemed to be "gang-related"; being identified as a gang member by a "reliable informant or source"; affiliating with gang members; flashing hand signs; frequenting gang areas; wearing gang clothing; or having gang tattoos. Pick any two, and you are in a gang.

When the injunction was first imposed, police used as evidence video from a documentary called Hood 2 Hood: The Blockumentary, in which Curtis Jones, later named as a gang member, told filmmaker Aquis Bryant that, "This the mob, man. This is Oakdale."

Even so, to people from the block, this jacket is a manufactured absurdity. Even authorities question the label.

"Gangs are a result of people living in poverty," says Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the Bayview. (When she was growing up in the 1980s and '90s, she says, black "gangs" meant Bloods and Crips, which have largely stayed out of the Bay Area; today, her constituents report groups of African-American men congregating in Mendell Plaza, playing chess or talking, as "gang activity.") "They fill a void. When your family unit is not intact, this provides commerce, security, and emotional support."

In other words: being from the block — or hanging out on the block — is more than enough. Telling a sheriff's deputy that you would prefer to be housed away from people from other blocks who might want to jump you is enough, too.

There are examples of undeniable criminal gangs in Bayview that have a structure and a defined purpose. In the early 2000s, a five-year long federal investigation that involved wiretaps took down Douglas Stepney, the leader of a gang that called itself Big Block.

But in the case of members of the Oakdale Mob, all it took was a declaration from Gang Task Force Inspector Leonard Broberg — a former Bayview Station officer who is now the SFPD's go-to expert on African-American gangs — that the person in question was a member, in Broberg's "opinion."

Representatives from the police department, City Attorney, and District Attorney declined to comment on the record for this story. Defense attorneys and others had strong words — and noted that law enforcement can receive funding in the form of state or federal grants when combating "gang activity."

"It's a scam by law enforcement to keep the taps running," said one seasoned investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If you wanted to apply this criteria to me, I could be a member of about 10 gangs."

Woods's connection to the Oakdale Mob is looser than most. Unlike with Jones and many others, Broberg's testimony makes no mention of Woods claiming affiliation with Oakdale or requesting to be housed in jail away from people living on rival blocks. The city also failed to produce any photographic evidence of gang tattoos, gang signs, or Woods standing near the Cheap Charlie wall. But there was Broberg's opinion, and Broberg's opinion is enough.

As far as the city is concerned, the gang injunctions worked: Homicides attributed to gang violence decreased.

"The gang injunctions played a role in that," then-Deputy Police Chief Jeff Godown told the Chronicle in 2010. (According to court records, the most-recent murders pinned on the Oakdale Mob occurred in 2008.)

But if you ask people from the community, the results are mixed. "Things were bad then, and they're bad now," Jones says. "It's the same."

"It didn't really have an effect on the community at large," says Erris Edgerly, a Western Addition activist who fought against the injunctions in 2006. "It just pushed crime around."

But even if the alleged gang members didn't end up in prison or dead, the injunctions hit their targets in another way. "People went away," a city official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Many of them left." Today, that strikes a chord, though not in the way intended.

At Woods' vigil, on the wall of a building near where he died, there was another sign, this one painted in graffiti-style letters on a yellow sheet. "WE ARE THE LAST 3% OF BLACK SAN FRANCISCO." The decades-long outmigration of black people from San Francisco is continuing, and the gang injunctions helped it along.

"My community, it's not there anymore," Jones said. "It broke us apart."


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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