OAKLAND, Calif. - Like Philadelphia, Oakland is suffering through a plague of killings: Homicides spiked 57 percent last year. But it took an audacious daytime hit on a downtown street this month to drive home the severity of the problem.
At 7:30 a.m. Aug. 2, an assassin with a shotgun cut down journalist Chauncey Bailey as he walked to work at the Oakland Post. Bailey, editor of the weekly, was the city's 72d homicide victim this year.
Amid calls that he had failed to rise to the challenge, Ronald V. Dellums, the former congressman who became mayor of this East Bay city of 400,000 people in January, declared an emergency. He called in the California Highway Patrol to assist the understaffed Oakland Police Department.
"Crime and violence is at an epidemic level in this country," Dellums, 71, said at a news conference. "It has reached a crisis level here in Oakland."
Oakland's problem indeed is severe. The ethnically diverse city recorded 148 killings last year, up from 94 the year before. Its rate of 37 homicides for every 100,000 residents was about one-third higher than the rate in Philadelphia, where 406 people were killed last year.
Dellums, moving to reorganize the police department and beef up prevention programs, has tried to cast Oakland's local carnage in a national context.
"If Philadelphia is facing the same problems that Oakland is facing - that New York, and Chicago and Los Angeles are facing - what does that say?" Dellums asked in an interview in his City Hall office, five blocks from the intersection where Bailey was gunned down. "This is a national epidemic."
The mayor lamented that few presidential candidates had addressed the issue in the campaign. "The tragedy is that we live in a society that has spent more time looking at Paris Hilton's days in jail than really looking at the issue of crime and violence in a really substantive aspect," he said.
Dellums' assessment that Oakland is not alone is supported by the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization of big-city police chiefs that warned last year of a "gathering storm" of violent crime in America after a decade of declining murder rates. The organization said the growing wave of killing was characterized by an "alarming element of viciousness."
But even if violent crime is rooted in national cultural forces beyond his control, Dellums is confronting what local officials across the country know all too well: When it comes to crime, the buck stops at City Hall.
"Ultimately, the mayor is responsible for addressing this," said Chip Johnson, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist who has not hidden his disdain for the elder statesman who rose from radical 1960s Berkeley politics to the highest levels of Congress before retiring in 1998. Dellums' name is now etched into Oakland's new federal building, a few blocks from City Hall.
"This guy is just too royal to be mayor," Johnson said.
Oakland's big homicide surge actually occurred last year when Jerry Brown, another iconic California politician, who is now the state's attorney general, was completing his second term as Oakland's mayor. Homicides are down so far this year, causing Dellums' supporters to question whether critics are holding a black mayor to a higher standard than his white predecessor.
Appearances count for much - Dellums has long had frosty relations with the media, unlike the gregarious Brown. "Jerry Brown did things," said Johnson, who is African American. "They didn't necessarily work, but he tried."
It is odd that the frustrations over Oakland's homicides would come to a head after the killing of Bailey, because his assassination, though shockingly callous, had few of the hallmarks of most urban homicides.
Police said Bailey, 57, was killed by a 19-year-old loyalist of a militant black Muslim splinter group the journalist was investigating. The assailant, wearing a mask, ambushed Bailey in a downtown commercial district and then stood over his victim and delivered a second shot. Police swooped in on the group immediately and they said the young man confessed.
But most slayings in Oakland - as well as in Philadelphia - are much more spontaneous affairs. They are concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods and often involve people who know one another.
Nearly half of Oakland's homicide victims last year were under 25. Police said drugs were suspected of being the main motive in about 30 percent of the killings, but intoxicants played a role in as many as 80 percent of homicides.
More than 90 percent of Oakland's killings involved firearms. There is no shortage of weaponry, despite gun laws in California that are more strict than Pennsylvania's.
Dellums said about half of Oakland's crimes were committed by people returning from prison. He called for more efforts to prepare ex-offenders for reentry as a generation of people who were locked up during the early 1990s nears release.
"We went through this tough period: 'Jail them. Put them away for 10 years, 15 years.' Well, eventually people come out," Dellums said. "What happens to them? They start to contribute to crime and violence."
Oakland has a more overt gang culture than Philadelphia, particularly in the expanding Latino population, which makes up about 25 percent of the city's population. Howard Jordan, Oakland's assistant police chief, said 38 percent of the homicides and 48 percent of the shootings last year were gang related.
Oakland is also undergoing a curious local phenomenon known as "hyphy," a hip-hop genre that features late-night "sideshows" in which scores of motorists, alerted by cell phone, descend upon an intersection and engage recklessly.
Sometimes the spectacles escalate into gunplay, and police have noted the frequent involvement of the drug ecstasy, a euphoriant normally associated with pleasure.
"If you have people who are already prone to violence, have committed violence, and if you give them ecstasy, it makes them more violent," Jordan said.
Regardless of the current narcotics vogue, the Rev. Byron Williams, an Oakland pastor who writes a newspaper column and a blog, said he believed the core cause of violence was a hair-trigger culture in which "my manhood cannot tolerate any disrespect, and the gun is the primary means of conflict resolution."
Williams said violence would not abate until communities looked themselves in the mirror and changed.
"It's not enough to say, 'What's the mayor doing?' That's too easy of a response," he said.
Dellums readily acknowledged that the problem was far bigger than he can manage.
"I'm not Superman," he said. "And anyone who thinks that one person alone can wrestle the problem to the ground - that's an illusion."
For Dellums, who pushed an urban agenda as a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, the increase in violent crime is an opportunity to organize America's mayors to use their clout to influence the presidential campaign.
"You know, we talk about war and peace in an international context, but there's a war going on domestically in every city in America," he said.
The perfect laboratory for the federal government and nonprofit foundations to begin addressing the issue, he said, is Oakland, which he calls the "model city," with its mixture of white, black, Asian and Latino populations.
"If you saturate us with resources, let us show what can be done if you really focus on the issues of urban life in a very direct, and focused, and profound way," he said. "Not only can we solve the problems of Oakland, but we can show the way on how to deal with these issues in America."
Dellums, a former head of the House Armed Services Committee who once flirted with the idea of running for president, now faces perhaps the biggest political challenge of his career.
"Now that I'm home as mayor of Oakland, being the president of the United States is an easier job," he said. "Here, you are on the ground. There's no one blocking for you. It's intimate."