J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Steven Pinker — Violence Is Down (But What About Oakland?)

Steven Pinker and David M. Kennedy

Recently I attended Steven Pinker’s lecture discussing his latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” This nytimes review provides a great summary if you’re not familiar with it. The talk was part of the Long Now seminar series, hosted by Steward Brand.

Very short summary: death from violence has been declining throughout history, and we are currently experiencing an unprecedented “long peace.”

It’s a counterintuitive proposition. The world often seems on the brink of mass destruction.

But the evidence Pinker presents is compelling. Walking down Market in San Francisco at night (which I did to get to the lecture, past dice games, thuggish types lurking in the shadows, anarchists in hoodies, etc.) is much safer than the Mongol steppes under the reign of the Khans, or Europe during World War II.

Wars between developed superpowers are not only waning — they are now difficult to imagine. Would the U.S. and China go to war, with actual weapons? You could say a cyber war has already started, but that kind of war is waged by nerds with keyboards (stealing blueprints, manipulating currency, maybe even industrial sabotage). No land will be invaded and no bombs will be dropped.

What about colonial wars? Those ended with the last colonies. What about civil wars with international intervention (like Korea and Vietnam)? Also on the decline, in terms of frequency of wars and numbers of deaths per war.

Looking at long-term global trends, even violent crime is down. There is less murder and less rape.

Pinker supports his own case well enough — I don’t expect you to be convinced by this blog post. His assertion feels wrong, but after absorbing his evidence, I found myself convinced.

What About Oakland?

I live in Oakland, California — one of the most violent cities in the nation (we’re the fourth most dangerous city, as I just learned from a robo-call, this very moment, from a city council candidate). You wouldn’t necessarily know it, walking around my middle-class neighborhood in the evening. It’s very quiet. A few people are out walking their dogs. Hipsters on bikes zip down the streets.

But the violence is here. Lately there have been some muggings, mostly purse-grabbings but a few at gunpoint. A few years ago there was a murder in a parking lot close to my house. Twenty years ago this neighborhood (Temescal) was extremely dangerous, with frequent shootings.

Even though most of the violence is in East Oakland, and mostly among young black men, it affects everyone in this city. We all want less of it. None of it. Everybody would like to feel reasonably safe, to feel like their city is at peace.

Pinker attributes some of the global decline in violence to the rise of the state, and the state’s monopoly on violence. As Hobbes writes in Leviathan, without the state there is …

“… continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Unfortunately, this is the state of life for many young poor and working-class males who live in Oakland, especially those with brown or black skin. Many poor African-Americans in Oakland reject the state (especially the police) outright — they do not accept that the state is legitimate, and refuse to help in police investigations. This is not only because individuals fear retribution if they “snitch” — it is also a matter of principle. This is understandable, members of the O.P.D. have been caught planting evidence, beating up citizens without provocation, and shooting non-threatening house-pets. Why would you help these people?

But without a legitimate state, you get blood feuds. Nobody can keep track of the count, did that most recent murder even the score, or was it a new atrocity deserving of retribution? Endless blood feuds = high murder rate.

Project Ceasefire

I’m currently reading David M. Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot. The book describes the “Ceasefire” crime reduction system he co-developed and implemented in a number of cities, including Boston, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and Stockton. Ceasefire isn’t a “magic bullet” — it’s a comprehensive program that includes reasoning with offenders, highly targeted policing, rebuilding trust with the community (less harassment, more communication), and a bunch of other stuff. It requires a long-term commitment and a high level of organization to successfully implement.

When implemented energetically and correctly, Ceasefire results in sharp reductions in murder rates (25-50%). We could use something like that in Oakland.

It turns out Ceasefire already has a history in both San Francisco and Oakland. Implementation in San Francisco was derailed by “Fajitagate” — the senior officers involved in the scandal were also the ones backing Ceasefire, and the program lost credibility. In Oakland, Ceasefire failed due to half-assed implementation (a fake-carrot-no-stick approach that promised gang members jobs, couldn’t deliver, and lacked meaningful follow-up by law enforcement when offenders failed to go straight).

Now Oakland is trying again. Operation Ceasefire (Take Two) is officially starting this week. But the city hasn’t hired a project manager, which David Kennedy insists is crucial for the success of the program.

Here’s Chip Johnson’s take on Oakland’s 2nd try at Operation Ceasefire.

I just filled out my ballot. I’m voting for Richard Raya for city council — the only candidate in my district who has explicitly stated his intention to fully implement Project Ceasefire.

Root Causes

Pinker talks about a number of factors that are behind our gradual global decline in violent death. One is empathy, with the most important factor in the development of empathy being exposure to literature (being in someone else’s head, seeing through someone else’s eyes).

Another is the development of reason. The more education people receive, the less violent they tend to be. This has nothing to do with fewer impulses towards violence (we’re all beasts inside), but rather with improved executive function, rational thought, and enhanced self-control.

One could envision that high-quality early-childhood education for 100% of Oakland’s kids might lead to significant crime reduction in 20 years. The same could be said for more economic opportunity, affordable higher education, and targeted job training. I’m all for all of those things.

But right now, I’d like to see Project Ceasefire fully implemented (in addition to all the longer-term changes above). If you’re an Oakland resident, and you’d like to help me pressure our city council to hire a full-time project manager and fully implement Project Ceasefire, here’s their contact information.

And if you think this topic is important, please share this post.


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  1. Oakland is such a beautiful city in many ways…..it’s such a shame that violence defines this place. I do agree that slow and careful positive-infiltration into the world of violent citizens is needed, but I’m not volunteering for that job! God bless the individuals who do.

    • Agreed — I love Oakland and I want to see every part of this city thrive. There are so many things Oakland has going for it — the food, the arts scene, the incredibly diverse population who not only get along well, but mix it up and create exciting cultural hybrids of every variety.

      The police department has a really difficult job. Despite the corruption of the “Riders” case and similar incidents, and unnecessarily violent behavior during Occupy Oakland, there are many fine officers on the force. Unfortunately the OPD as a whole will have a bad reputation (and risks federal takeover) until they get serious about complying with court-ordered tracking of “red flag” behavior among their own.


  2. A recent article from Pinker on the origins of political difference in the U.S. (herders vs. farmers) http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/24/why-are-states-so-red-and-blue/

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