Media

Discovery Channel's 'Gang Wars: Oakland' Series Spreads All the Wrong Messages About Poverty and Minorities

The Discovery Channel's series spreads dangerous myths, focusing on the worst racial stereotypes and uses sensational police footage to depict crimes of poverty.

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived and dishonest -- but the myth -- persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. -- John F. Kennedy

There's a rising tide of Americans that is challenging the myths that media perpetuate about people of color, violence and our nation's cities.

While Colorofchange.org challenges Glen Beck's racially tinged character attacks and bastadobbs.com calls for the ouster of Lou Dobbs from CNN for profiling Latinos, these efforts are the tip of the iceberg in addressing racism in the media.

Take the controversial documentary that aired this week -- Discovery Channel's two-parter, Gang Wars: Oakland, which aired its final episode Monday night.

Yes, Oakland has a shameful homicide rate, like many other American cities. But by multiplying the number of gang members in the city and connecting the homicide rate with a cardboard stereotype, the myths themselves become dangerous and counterproductive.

The show offers unrealistic and simplistic explanations about why killings happen, who the people in the community are and what would make things better. It's time for Oakland, and the rest of America, to dump the myths that have lead to ineffective approaches to safety -- and that means calling out this show that feeds on our worst fears of the poor and of people of color.

Maybe the show's producers formed their opinions about Oakland by playing the video game of the same name -- but our tragedies are not entertainment. And, we all admit, there's plenty of blame to go around for crime in our cities. We are all paying the price for letting go of the hand of young people.

But all the scorn in the world will not make Oakland, or even suburban areas, safer.

Discovery portrays Oakland from the narrow perspective of a gang task force making busts in the city's economically disadvantaged east and west flatlands.

The grainy night shots, closeups of semiautomatic weapons, wailing sirens and shot after shot of black and brown tattooed bravado is horror-flick fun to some -- but this is a harrowing reality for those of us in Oakland grappling with the persistent problem of violence.

And to make matters worse, the show claims there are 10,000 gang members in the city -- a number refuted by acting Oakland Police Chief Harold Jordan. Since the show producers haven't come up with where they got the inflated number, one can only guess that they lumped in people based on neighborhood or skin color.

Therein lies the essence of the problem.

If the show was your sole point of reference, you would get the impression that Oakland's response to crime involves mostly white police kicking down doors, conducting dangerous high-speed chases and stopping AC Transit buses in mostly black Oakland.

Gang Wars: Oakland would have us believe the myth -- as the voiceover in the show says -- that law-abiding citizens have only one hope, which is more and tougher policing. The reality is far more complex -- with the community itself taking a central role in creating peace.

"Young people are afraid, people want to protect themselves," offers Olis Simmons, executive director of Oakland's Youth Uprising. She adds, "the police can't make the city safe without partnership with the community, and that cannot happen as long as the community feels it's being infiltrated."

Fear grows in darkness; if you think there's a bogeyman around, turn on the light. --Dorothy Thompson

Here's the biggest myth: That we can arrest our way out of our homicide rate. We can't, and the Oakland Police Department agrees. Racial profiling and harassment won't get us there -- although the Oakland Police Department has cost the city millions in settlements for just those behaviors.

But here's what we can do: We can hire our way out. We can school our way out. As a city, we believe that so deeply that we voted to pass Measure Y -- to tax ourselves to the tune of $10 million a year to make policing more effective and to expand youth programs and community outreach. The community-outreach workers that make a small cameo in the Gang Wars: Oakland are the cornerstone of Oakland's approach to making the streets safer.

And if you want reality -- how about the fact that many Oakland guns have been traced k to a gun dealer in nearby San Leandro who couldn't account for more than 2,000 guns in 2006, according to federal authorities. Let's revive the national gun-control conversation, because stricter federal laws is the only way to impact easy availability of guns in Oakland.

Locally, the myths depicted in Gang Wars: Oakland carry real consequences. Forget about the visceral reactions from suburban coworkers or the couple you met on vacation when you tell them you live in Oakland.

The city's own efforts to transform its neighborhoods are thwarted in the frenzy heightened by fearmongering shows. Racial profiling proliferates -- when cooler heads and a balanced view on safety don't prevail. Money is funneled away from youth and community programs. Businesses avoid opening in the city, and we lose valuable economic opportunities.

In Oakland, we are asking: Does this show reflect the true story of what's happening in my city? If it does, what is my responsibility to make things better?

Here's our reality from the streets of Oakland. Despite what you see on the Discovery Channel, Oakland's young people, coming from under-resourced communities, have shown a remarkable capacity for success and leadership to transform their peers.

Nick James of Youth Together, an organization with programs in five Oakland public schools, discusses its successful work: "We teach young people how to mediate conflicts and help their peers heal from being exposed to violence and loss. Our youth are becoming change agents and are breaking the cycle."

False history gets made all day, any day, the truth of the new is never on the news. --Adrienne Rich

"The stereotypes won't make us safer, but a focus on hopeful efforts to support young people does," says Xiomara Castro, co-founder of the Urban Peace Movement, an Oakland youth violence-prevention program.

She suggests an alternate ending to the tale told in Gang Wars: "Young people who have experienced violence can turn their lives around. But thankfully Gang Wars isn't the end of the story. Let's try a real reality show, where we invite cameras to follow the young people who have transformed themselves."

Watch Gang Wars: Oakland and make up your own mind:
 

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Part 2:

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