Fifty years ago, tired of white people throwing bricks through the front windows of Dorsey’s Locker, a soul food restaurant on Shattuck in north Oakland, the Dorsey family decided to replace the glass with solid concrete.
The façade protected Dorsey’s Locker from harm, but it also turned the intimate restaurant, replete with chandeliers and red tablecloths, into a fortress.
Today, the thick beige wall is not only a monument to the restaurant’s history but a sign of the times. More than a dozen notices plastered on the wall warn against loitering, drug activity and smoking. The greatest threats to Dorsey’s Locker these days are not brick-wielding racists, but some of the young men who are the target of a controversial “gang injunction” that aims to curb crime in north Oakland.
After months of debate, a judge will hold hearings Thursday afternoon on whether to impose the injunction – essentially a restraining order against the cluster of gangs that, according to police, have carved up north Oakland into violent territories. The strategy draws a crooked line around a 100-block “safety zone” to protect 31,000 residents from 15 men identified by police as belonging to “North Side Oakland,” a gang composed of smaller crews, including the Bushrod Cold Gunnaz 59, the Gaskill Maniacs and The 6.
Dorsey’s Locker sits at the epicenter of this novel strategy.
A map released by police and the city attorney shows a series of red dots – crime clusters that take place a block from Dorsey’s front door. Beyond the beige walls, dilapidated signs and cracked asphalt compete with the sight of a neighborhood in the midst of transition. Across the street, a young white dreadlocked couple plant a vegetable garden. A block away at Bushrod Park, middle school girls play soccer; a group of college students and their Swedish visitors enjoy a picnic; and a small group of young black professionals who grew up here play basketball.
To the southwest, the neighborhood fades into a tableau of decay. Behind a torn fence in the parking lot of a gas station on San Pablo Avenue, a group of young boys roll and smoke a blunt. Inside a convenience store, nobody but the clerk is allowed to fetch items from the shelves. Rows of refrigerators and shelves of sticky buns, laundry detergent, soda and cigarettes are locked, untouched, behind scratched panes of thick Plexiglass. Customers place orders through a slot in the window.
One night last January, Don Dorsey, who co-owns Dorsey’s Locker with his cousin, was closing up for the night when a fight broke out in the parking lot. When the restaurant’s security guard intervened, a young man pulled out a pistol and fired it into the ground. Bullets and fragments of the pavement lodged in the guard’s legs. Fearing for his life, the guard refused to cooperate with police.
The area would seem to be ripe for a new crime strategy, and yet the same fierce debate that is taking place among city leaders, civil rights groups and community activists is taking place behind the restaurant’s solid walls. All in one, the injunction has become a catch-all for the issues underlying Oakland’s nationally recognized crime problem, encompassing questions of race, violence and the relationship between police and the community.
Like so many others in this changing neighborhood, the Dorseys agree that something needs to be done. They just can’t agree on what.
Bryan Cossey, Dorsey’s brother-in-law, who manages the restaurant’s finances and serves up drinks at the bar, vehemently opposes the injunction.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “They’re criminals, but they’re not organizing, not having meetings, not plotting crimes.”
Dorsey has reluctantly decided to support it.
“It’s hard because I want to build trust,” he says of the kids who hang out on the streets near the restaurant. “They’re not all bad.”
As a former professor and administrator at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Dorsey tried to reach out to youth he saw veering down the wrong path.
But he says he has grown sick of the violence.
`A collection of crews’
Oakland City Attorney John Russo says demand from the community and a spike in gang-related violence in North Oakland motivated him to petition for the injunction in February.
The policy works like a restraining order to separate an abuser from a victim.
The abusers in this case, according to authorities, are the gangs. The victims are the public.
Inside the 100-block “safety zone,” the 15 men on the city attorney’s list would live under a 10 p.m. – 5 a.m. curfew and risk jail time and fines if they violated any one of a series of restrictions. They include:
- Do not associate with other gang members in public.
- Do not confront, intimidate or assault witnesses.
- Do not possess firearms or dangerous weapons.
- Stay away from drugs.
- No trespassing.
- No gang recruitment.
Those who work in the community, including police, say North Side Oakland does not have a traditional gang hierarchy, and many do not consider the group a gang. But a series of gang-related killings last year brought north Oakland to the forefront of the debate.
A 17-year-old senior at Oakland Technical High School, Desiree Davis, was killed in September. Three others were killed in May after police say four gang members drove into Berkeley to retaliate for the murder of another member of the gang.
“These aren't the Sharks and the Jets,” Russo said. “They are a collection of crews, like an alliance, and they have divided up the territories in North Oakland for drug sales and robberies.”
An astounding sense of ownership
At 10 a.m., 65-year-old Don Dorsey, graying with reading glasses, arrives at Dorsey’s Locker and walks through the dimly lit bar, past the sports talks shows on seven television sets, to his office. He takes a seat behind a desk surrounded by feeds from five surveillance cameras. He monitors the kitchen, dining room, bar, parking lot and street. From 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., he greets customers and waits on tables.
Originally from Waco, Texas, Dorsey moved to Oakland after leaving the Navy. While at Foothill, he cultivated relationships with young men he met on the street and urged them to pursue an education.
He eventually became co-owner of Dorsey’s Locker with his cousin Joe and began to reach out to local youth. Instead he saw many disappear into the streets, eventually claiming them as their own.
“The sense of ownership is astounding,” he said.
By mid-afternoon, Bryan Cossey has arrived to work behind the bar and Dorsey leaves for the day.
Cossey, 48, never meant to stick around Oakland.
An accounting major in college, he arrived a few years ago to help his brother-in-law manage the restaurant’s budget. Then he fell in love with Dorsey’s Locker. He moved permanently to Oakland and got involved in the local crime watch.
Cossey says he has a good relationship with the police. But he knows others do not.
“Police historically have done bad things to black people, so they don’t participate,” he said.
Police say they continue to deal with shootings and murders inside north Oakland. But, with more violence in areas west and east in the city, locals express concerns that the injunction will give police the pretext to target individuals based on little evidence.
Next door to Dorsey, Daniel Johnson owns a barbershop called Oakland Klippers. “Why is it centered around North Oakland? There's a problem with that stuff everywhere,” he said. The front window of the barbershop displays an anti-injunction poster -- a large print of a young woman with a bullhorn and several slogans, including, “Don’t legalize racial profiling.”
The message resonates with Johnson and several other young men who lounged on a recent weekday in the shop’s shiny red chairs, swapping stories about encounters with police against the steady drone of Johnson’s clippers.
“I’m young and black,” Johnson said to nods. “Most police officers see you and don’t even know who you are and prejudge you.”
Dorsey says he now finds himself between extremes – those expressed by neighbors like Johnson and those expressed by the city attorney and the police.
Emboldened in part by the promises of the injunction, he recently decided to begin cracking down on loiterers outside the restaurant. A recent call to expel a young man who refused to leave the property brought four officers to his door in less than 10 minutes.
While his customers remained undisturbed behind the concrete wall, Dorsey watched as the officers issued the young man a trespass notice. At first the man refused to sign the citation and argued with the officers, Dorsey recalled.
But after some time, he accepted the paper, walked to his shiny new BMW and left.